Saturday, August 11, 2012

Watch one, do one, teach one

Bardiac has been to a workshop that changed her mind about the way she teaches.  Here's some of what she heard:
According to the research (and I trust that the speaker did a good job looking at all the research), it does no good (and may do harm) for an instructor to mark or correct grammar in student papers. The research looked at lots of different strategies: code and look it up, check and have the student correct it, and on and on. And none of it, NONE OF IT, actually worked to get students to write better or more grammatically. None of it.
I found this research conclusion depressing and, with all due respect to Bardiac and the researchers, counterintuitive.  How do they "get it" over time if you can't tell them about errors? Asking them to clarify is great, and I totally agree with that part--but how can they ever get better if they don't know something is wrong? 

As I said in the comments over there, this may be true for some or even the majority of students, but there's a motivated minority (or maybe majority) that wants to know and wants to get better. They're the ones who say "but how can I correct this?" or "how can I change it so it sounds better?" or even "thanks--no one has ever told me that that was a problem before." I've heard all these from students, and I'll bet you have, too. Heck, I've said them all when I was a student, and I'll bet you have, too.

I read a book about medical school by Perri Klass one time years ago, and she talked about how medical students learn to do some simple procedures, like stitching up a minor wound.  The phrase she used was that the students were supposed to "watch one, do one, teach one"--the idea being that once they'd done the first two parts, they could teach it to someone and learn by doing the teaching.    They didn't get a chance to say "nothing works" or "I can't get this" or "why do we have to learn this anyway?" or "you're ruining my creative spark with all your nattering on about complete sentences"; they just had to do it.  Of course, they were a self-selected, motivated group--they were in medical school, after all--but still, couldn't something like this be tried?

And one piece of anecdata out of several I could mention: last year, I had a student who wrote convoluted sentences to say obvious things. We spent a lot of time together going over ze's drafts before ze turned them in, discussing individual sentences, and so on.  Those meetings are like interviews: you're interviewing students about what they are saying, and the words that come out of their mouths are often an awesomely clear version of what's not written on the paper. So we work with that, and then we look at another draft, and so on.  And the writing gets better.  That's the part that everyone, even the researcher, agrees works, it seems: one-on-one time with students talking about their writing. Ze also improved in terms of the comments given in our class's draft workshops--the "teach one" part of the equation.

But if I hadn't said anything about the student's sentences, how would ze have known? And if ze had not been persistent and motivated, would hir writing have changed?  I'd say persistent, motivated student + discussions about drafts + indicating that there are fixable problems on the draft = the possibility of writing success.


Sisyphus said...

I haven't read the research originals, and like you I am dubious and want to look into it more deeply, but the way I have had the experiments summarized to me is that students who do grammar drills/sentence exercises and pass those exercises are still unable to write their own sentences or edit their own sentences without making the same mistakes.

Bardiac said...

I think they're also after the difference between circling "it's" used as a possessive and talking to students about their ideas or commenting on the ideas. It's a matter of where you put your energy and what effects your work has.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Bardiac, perhaps the difference is also that circling "it's" teaches them nothing about the reasons that "it's" is not a possessive. I once showed a class the difference between singular possessive, plural, and plural possessive. They told me, "really? We never knew that there was a difference. That's good to know." They had just randomly placed apostrophes and "s"es without rhyme or reason because they knew they should, but a teacher marking it as wrong seemed to them just as random as their use. Plus, they sure as heck weren't going to look up the grammar rule. Of course, that doesn't solve the problem in which I have to use my time to teach them history, not the elements of grammar.

undine said...

Sisyphus, I've seen that research on grammar drills, but I'm hoping that showing them examples drawn from their own papers will help them.

Bardiac, I agree about emphasizing ideas, but if I can't tell what they're saying because their sentences are so poor, that's where I have to start with them. I use the (probably unfashionable) Orwell analogy of writing as a pane of glass: if I can't see through it to your ideas, how can I know what you're trying to say? I do want to try different things, as you do, and am thinking about a post on this, but when I have actually seen student writing improve over the course of a semester with explanations, etc., it's hard to accept that nothing I'm doing makes any difference in terms of how they write.

I'm not surprised that the checkmark in the margin "minimal marking" thing didn't have any effect; that was my conclusion decades ago after hearing research that it was the One Best Way and trying it.

Clio, your example sums it up exactly. They don't know, and they're not going to look it up, so why on earth can't we teach it in an interesting way?

Bavardess said...

I've been thinking about this issue ( partly because I'm about to be inundated with 40-odd 2500- word history essays to mark) and I wonder how much difference incentives make in helping students learn skills they may perceive as unimportant or nit-picky. Does it help people get the message if the lose marks for too many spelling/grammar errors? (It is standard policy in the School I work in to include this as part of the marking rubric.) Or conversely, would it be effective if students knew they could earn some extra marks for doing well in this area? If I run across the same type of error repeatedly in student papers, I will give them a short classroom lesson on the rule and why it matters to making their ideas clear and ensuring they're not being misunderstood etc.

Z said...

I have found that drawing examples from their work does not help, but having the class study some specific papers, does. That of course means that those whose paper they are have to tolerate this, and you who run the class have to be polite about the papers. "I have chosen these five papers to focus on because each has a strength and a weakness that arise in multiple papers," etc.

undine said...

Bavardess, I'm guessing that at some level it does help. There's a principle that says "what gets measured gets attended to" or something like that, and if there's a penalty for doing something wrong (or additional points added for doing something right), students, being rational creatures, will work a little harder at it, I think.

Z--drawing from actual papers is the best. I was taught to do what you suggest--choose neither the best nor the worst and always suggest that the papers have strengths as well as weaknesses.