Babi Kruchin, Lecturer in the American Language Program, was recently awarded a Provost Grant for Innovative Course Module Design, which supports experimentation using a new pedagogical strategy or tool. The funding will be used to implement new pedagogy in the ALP course Academic Writing for International Students, more specifically, to assess the extent to which peer feedback helps students improve their writing. Kruchin is working in collaboration with Liz Walters, Lecturer in the Undergraduate Writing Center. Kruchin shares thoughts about experimenting with two new classroom practices while teaching Academic Writing.
Growing up in Brazil, English was not my first language. But when I decided to become an ESL instructor, mastering the English language was a priority. After graduating high school, I went to study English in the UK, where I prepared to take the rigorous Cambridge exams, which included essay writing. Despite attending good schools at home, I had never been taught how to create a convincing argument on the page. The students at the exam prep class in London consisted of five tall Swiss bankers (I am 5 feet tall), a French girl, and two other people I became friends with: Anette, a German girl, and Stevan, an Ukranian man. They all wrote better than I did. The teacher, Joan, a short older lady who walked with difficulty and wore shoes that had probably been recommended by a podiatrist, noticed I could not write. To help me, she gave me the essays written by the five tall Swiss bankers and by the French girl. She was right in believing that in order to write better, reading is fundamental. But I needed more. I needed to read critically.
These days, I have a passion for writing, and especially for teaching writing to those whose first language is not English. In the course “Academic Writing for International Students” that I teach at the American Language Program at SPS, I do a bit more than tell my students to read essays written by the best writers in the room; I use pedagogy that I believe will help my students become the best writers they can be.
A fundamental way to improve writing is through a process approach to writing in which students receive feedback between drafts. For the Academic Writing course I teach, students write about seven essays during the semester, and at least three drafts for each one. Typically, in a writing course, between drafts, the instructor writes margin comments, students receive the feedback and write a new, improved draft. But I noticed this was not working so well. More specifically, the comments I wrote were not always clear for the students, but they did not seek clarification during office hours; some students did not address the feedback I had provided and showed little improvement in subsequent drafts; and finally, I did not have the opportunity to talk to the students and find out about their thinking process. Research has shown that since writing is a complex activity, students have a hard time putting the feedback received from instructors into action. To address this, I started experimenting with two new (to me) classroom practices between first and second drafts, namely structured peer feedback, and teacher-student conference feedback between first and second drafts.
The peer feedback benefits students in many ways. According to Mittan (1989), peer review provides students with an authentic audience; increases students' motivation for writing; enables students to receive different views on their writing; helps students learn to read critically their own writing; and assists students in gaining confidence in their writing. In addition, it provides opportunities for collaboration, communication, and it develops learner autonomy (Mangelsdorf, 1994).
When listening to Catherine Ross interview Dr. Diane Pike on the CTL podcast Dead Ideas in Teaching and Learning, Pike mentions that she was marking students’ papers and having these conversations in her own head. So she decided to have a face-to-face conversation with the students instead of simply handing back comments on their papers. I have found that sitting down with students and telling them what works, and what needs to be improved in their essays has been more effective in making the students address these issues and/or feel good about the good work they have done. It also creates an opportunity for dialogue, and for us to ask each other questions. I have just sat down with a student who had included Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” in his essay about diversity, but had not made any reference to the poem in the essay. When I mentioned that, I saw the light bulb in his head go off. In his second draft, he analyzed the poem in light of the claims he was making in his text.
Anecdotally, I can assert the students have positively reacted to these practices, and their writing has improved. One of my students in Spring 2021 even got an opinion comment published in the Wall Street Journal on the topic of vaccination passports. However, I have not formally assessed the effect of these practices. This academic year, I was awarded an Innovative Course Module Design Grant by the Provost office to develop this research. I am going to assess the effectiveness of these practices. More specifically, these are the questions I would like to answer: a) To what extent do students find receiving peer feedback helpful in improving essay development, organization, grammar and vocabulary between first and second drafts? b) How does the experience of reading their peers’ essays and providing feedback help them improve their own writing? c) To what extent do students find the student-teacher conferences helpful in improving development, organization, grammar and vocabulary between first and second drafts?
Writing, a fundamental academic skill, is hard to master; it is even harder as an international student, writing in a language other than your first. The peer-feedback and student-teacher conferences aim at strengthening the interpersonal relationships not only between teacher and students, but also among students themselves, which should ultimately improve the quality of the writing the students produce by allowing them to have the confidence to express themselves on the page.
I hope these findings will not only benefit my students, but potentially the other sections of Academic Writing at the ALP. In addition, there may be a pedagogical shift in the teaching of the writing skill for international students at large.