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Tuesday, September 13, 2005
Big Talker
So the first of my applications is finished and en route to its destination. That makes me happy. When I included my writing sample, teaching evaluations, teaching and research statements, key to interpreting teaching evaluations, and cover letter, there were more than 130 pages to the application! Sheesh! I am definitely going to have to buy more printer paper.

As I was compiling my teaching evaluations, I noticed a strange (but, I think, explainable) disconnect between my evaluations and my teaching statement. In the statement, I note that I spend a lot of time on developing students' writing skills, both in the discipline and beyond. I make a big deal out of it, describing some of the strategies I use in the classroom, some of the activities I've had students do, and my work in the University Writing Center. As I look at my teaching evaluations, however, helping students with their writing is the lowest score, without exception.

My university uses a standard evaluation form for everyone, professor or TA. The students are asked to indicate the extent of their agreement or disagreement with a series of 18 statements, and a score of "6" is always the best and "1" is always the worst. One of the statements is "This course has improved my writing skills." While my scores on virtually all of the remaining 17 statements are between 5.5 and 6.0, my scores for this writing statement hover between 4.0 and 5.0. It's disappointing, since teaching writing skills is one of the things I really work hard at with my students, and it's an area where I know other TAs in my department don't work hard enough. After seeing these results all together on one spreadsheet, I feel like I'm talking the talk but not walking the walk.

I think there's an explanation, though. I think students give me a lower score on this because I do pay attention to their writing, and because I harp on it all the time. In my experience, students generally don't want to improve their writing because they don't think it matters that much. Science majors, especially, seem reluctant to work on their writing because they figure that they won't be writing much in the future. I try all semester to convince them to care about it, but they don't. Then they're angry with me when I give their papers low grades because the sentences are incomprehensible, and attempt to convince me that I should grade them only on their knowledge of the material, not on the way they present it.

But the truth is, the display of knowledge in a paper or on an exam is inextricably linked to how the knowledge is conveyed. There have been several instances in my semesters teaching where a student has written one thing but meant something entirely different. If a student chooses the wrong word because he or she is too lazy to look it up, punctuates a sentence incorrectly, has multiple spelling errors, writes in fragments, lacks subject-verb agreement, or writes in text-messaging lingo, the message is affected. (I about died when I had a student use "gr8" in a paper instead of "great." How in the world did she think that was acceptable in an academic term paper? Boggles the mind.) Obviously, I'm not getting through to my students on this as well as I thought I was.

Maybe it's an issue of making it fun. Writing isn't always fun -- it's hard work. And having to concentrate on it as well as on new material is difficult. If you are reading this blog and you are a composition teacher or someone who attempts, like I do, to incorporate mini-writing lessons in your classes in other disciplines, what works for you? How do you convince students that their writing lives will not end after they graduate? How do you make working on writing fun and interesting?
Posted with care by Prof. Me @ 9/13/2005 03:58:00 PM  
1 Words of Wisdom:
  • At 5:10 PM, Blogger BrightStar said…

    Some people have said that literally telling students that you're doing something that's on the evals, such as explicitly saying, "The purpose of this task and my feedback will be to improve your writing skills," will raise the evaluation score on this item. !!! I remember hearing this advice from the blog world at some point.

    Your rationale for the lower scores in this area sounds right to me. If you're challenging them, they might feel some discomfort about writing, but they might learn more as a result of being challenged, yet still remember the discomfort, so they might give you a low score on this area as a result.

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