Friday, December 11, 2009

Improving Your Teaching Style Through Student Feedback

At the Texas A&M University Writing Center, some of the consultants are “loaned out” to other departments as writing assistants. We, as undergraduates, work one on one with a professor in many different scenarios, reading drafts, looking at grammar, style, and structure in a student’s paper for the professor, and making presentations tailored to these particular students about grammar. Starting my second semester as an Undergraduate Writing Assistant, I discovered that this class, of future Special Education teachers, was very different from my previous class, a group of senior Agronomy majors focused on soil and crop sciences. Part of my job as an assistant is to give feedback on personal reflections that each member of the class writes, and they turn in five of these reflections throughout the semester. After receiving the second group of reflections it became abundantly clear to me the students were not growing as writers. Each student seemed to be making mistakes repeatedly on every paper turned in.

Desperately in search of the reason that a group of future teachers could not seem to learn from their mistakes, I conducted an anonymous survey online to discover their thoughts. Initially, only three students filled out the survey, but after several pleas from the professor I obtained a reliable amount of data to reach reasonable conclusions, 50% of the class filled out the survey.

The first question on the survey was "Do you find the notes the UWA writes on your paper helpful?" with varying answers according to the student’s varying range of emotions on the subject. Overall, I realized about half the students read the notes that I write on their reflections and half do not. Next, I asked if any of these things may be more helpful: 1) A presentation on common writing errors, 2) Regular Office Hours that you can attend for writing, 3) Clearer comments on papers, 4) More comments on papers, 5) Nothing. An overwhelming majority of the students asked for clearer comments on their papers, more comments on their papers, and regular office hours. Some of the students even offered additional explanations for how they felt I could help them improve their writing. Therefore, as a writing consultant, what can I do to give them more and clearer comments on their papers? I feel that I try to explain myself in simple terms and include helpful links in their papers, but obviously if the students are having a problem understanding me, something must change.

I began to realize that my comments must change their tone. Often, when writing comments on papers, instead of explaining in person, it can be easy to alienate the students by using direct language or academic jargon. Therefore, I have decided to eliminate all grammar "terms" from my notes. Instead of explaining that something is an appositive, and then explaining what an appositive is, I will simply explain to them that they are offering an explanation of a noun, that they are clarifying. Additionally, I will try to give more examples on their papers, rather than lengthy explanations about style or grammar.
After receiving the third and fourth rounds of papers from these students, I found that removing the technical jargon from my comments did seem to help them. I saw multiple examples of writing that was beginning to improve. Most of the writers had trouble using commas. They would either overuse them or never use them at all, so to explain when to use a comma I asked the writers to take apart one sentence from their paper and look for the subject and the action in the sentence. Using “subject” and “action” seemed to be a lot less intimidating to the class than “verb” and “noun.” They began to relate to my comments.

As an experienced UWA, it is easy to find yourself falling into a routine, but it is imperative that Writing Assistants remember every classroom is different and every group of students learns differently. Usually, if you are assisting in a class of seniors, they have been writing in their field for four years now and feel like they know what they are doing, so it may not be as easy to change their ideas as one may hope. Some classes will want to know the technical meanings behind grammar mistakes, but others will simply just want to know what “sounds right.” Some classrooms may benefit from presentations by the UWA or from independent office hours during which any student in the class may come in. So, it is the UWA's responsibility to explore every avenue to help these students better their writing. I would encourage UWA’s to implement a survey like the one I sent out because it allows you, as a UWA, to learn what the students expect from you and what they believe you can do to help them. Additionally, this survey may be best administered early on in a semester so that improvements can be made throughout the rest of the semester.


  1. What an interesting idea to have a survey to find out why students are not learning from your comments that you have left on their papers. The results can help the rest of us as well, especially when we are struggling to help a student who is not understanding the scribbling from the teacher that litter their paper to the point they have written more than the student did.
    But the one thing that strikes me is that verbal communication would eliminate this confusion. If you have a verbal learner that is struggling with their writing, written notes, no matter how plainly written, will still not help as much as speaking to the teacher or UWA in person. In most cases, the written and verbal instruction would be the most beneficial. I know this is time consuming, but if the rate of improvement is not evident, then more strategies must be applied.

  2. I think that the only solution to the writing problem is to teach grammar and punctuation in the elementary grades, where it belongs.
    Moreover, there is no such thing as writing; it is rewriting and rewriting and rewriting until the piece is the best it can be.
    Douglas Perret Starr, professor

  3. I agree that it is very important for a writing assistant to constantly reflect on her practice and determine what is working and what is not. Often times it is far too easy to fall into the rut you mention and assume that everyone is going to understand you the same way that another writer may have understood you.

    You did a fine job tuning your work to your audience. In general I think that explaining complex grammatical concepts in plain language and avoiding grammatical jargon is an important method to help novice writers inculcate those concepts in their writing. As d-starr stated, more or less, writing is rewriting. The writers need to learn to revise their work and use language in a way that they are not used to. I would disagree, however, that grammar and punctuation are solely learned in childhood. That is a prime time to pick up on language use, but learning to write and use the language is a life-long pursuit. Sure we become more adept over time, but I know I, for one, an experienced writer and teacher of writing, am still learning about language and writing.

  4. Darcy, Your post is fascinating and informative from multiple perspectives.I'm an English Major, History Minor who will be teaching secondary school,as well as a tutor in our writing center at Boise State. To me it seems critical, in any of those roles, to constantly reflect on my work, seeking ways to improve outcomes; you've obviously done that in creative ways. Thank you for the ideas! Removing "technical jargon" seems highly important when working with students who do not have that language. I can't tell you how many times I've worked with students who come into the center seeking help with "flow" when they are really asking if the content and organization support their thesis, and if various points are grammatically correct. Never mind the issues of comma splices etc.
    The survey is a great tool to use in identifying the needs of your audience.
    thank you again for such thoughtful suggestions and observations

  5. Excellent post and writing style. Bookmarked.