Contributor: Doug Enders
School Affiliation: Shenandoah University
Writing teachers often bemoan the influence of technology on their students' writing skills--their reliance on SpellCheck and GrammarCheck instead of developing editing skills, the stream-of-consciousness narratives that can result from drafting at the computer, the incomplete thoughts and abbreviated wordforms characteristic of email and text messaging conventions that drift into formal papers. Yet technology, specifically Blackboard, can aid teachers in changing student writing habits in a positive way outside of the classroom by making the steps of the writing process more transparent.
As teachers we often model strategies and processes that should increase students' academic success. This involves changing student behavior in fundamental ways both in and outside of the traditional classroom. Although Craig Nelson, former columnist of The National Teaching & Learning Forum, suggests that the teacher can play a vital role in ensuring students are prepared to learn from class (p. 8), it is particularly difficult to get students to change prevalent homework habits-such as procrastination. As teachers of writing know, students who try to write papers the night before the deadline usually don't have the time or mental space to produce their best work or learn much about their topics from the process. Breaking this habit in student writing is difficult, however, especially if students have been rewarded in the past with decent grades after procrastinating. How can teachers change this prevalent behavior?
In an attempt to make my students more process-oriented writers rather than procrastinating ones, I recently re-designed my syllabus for a freshman composition course by breaking all paper assignments into a series of smaller ones. Each step was submitted to Blackboard over the course of two weeks, culminating in a final paper. The class met three times a week, but the same process could be divided into twice a week, or, for a distance class, as the instructor designed. My procedure for homework assignments over six class periods was as follows:
- Step One: The next period after receiving their paper topic, students turned in an introduction.
- Step Two: Students resubmitted the introduction and provided one supporting argument that developed the claims or questions of the introduction.
- Step Three: Usually after a weekend, students submitted additional supporting arguments in addition to what they had already written.
- Step Four: Students then submitted a completed draft, including a conclusion, for discussion of global issues like purpose, idea development, or organization.
- Step Five: Students submitted a revised draft to edit.
- Step Six: Finally, two weeks after first receiving the paper assignment, students turned in their final drafts.
To ensure students performed each of these steps, I assigned a completion grade - nothing based on the form or content of the submission - but a separate grade based only on whether an assignment was turned in on time. Students submitted their papers to Blackboard’s “My Assignments.” Then I collected them using the “Gradebook” feature, which allows instructors to monitor when papers are submitted and offers the option of locking out late ones. Acting as a virtual drop-box, this feature also relieves instructors of collecting, handling, and tracking students' loose papers while preserving both student writing and my responses electronically.
Another advantage of using Blackboard and requiring students to submit stages of their papers is that I can quickly glance through students' work and identify models - good and bad - to share with students each step of the way. While I usually don't have time to comment on every student paper for each step of the process, I can address issues of common interest by selecting a few papers to discuss in class or on either of Blackboard’s Discussion Board or Chat forums. Giving students timely feedback throughout the process of writing helps them rethink and re-envision their writing. It also makes revision an ongoing process rather than a last-minute, monumental task. Once final drafts were turned in, I posted several anonymously on Blackboard's Discussion Board for the class to evaluate - a process designed to help students develop meta-cognitive skills and compare their own writing with others’.
The results of redesigning my syllabus and using Blackboard have surpassed expectation. Twenty-eight of my thirty first-year students, most of whom are self-proclaimed procrastinators, reported that they love this process. They agreed that it demystified the job of writing by breaking the process into a series of manageable steps rather than what otherwise might be an overwhelming, late-night assault. Second, it gave them time (and deadlines) to work through the entire writing process—brainstorming, drafting, revising, editing—steps which all serious writers take. Third, since this process required students to build on previous assignments, it made them more involved in reconsidering and revising their writing than when composing an entire paper the night before it was due. Even the two students who had reported not liking this process of writing, conceded they saw the logic in it. To aid them, I suggested that they could still write the entire essay in a sitting if they wished, but mandated that they turn in each section as required. This encouraged them to revise like the others and to avoid completing the final draft at the last minute.
Using Blackboard was helpful in some other ways, too. Because my students no longer procrastinate in writing their assignments, their papers have generally been better overall. Moreover, more students have turned in their papers on time, causing the number of late papers I received to drop dramatically. Out of 192 final drafts owed to me, only 7 were late, three or four times fewer than usual. The result: more of my students have remained engaged in their work throughout the semester.
Using Blackboard to promote a step-by-step writing process offers wonderful possibilities both for teachers and students in face-to-face and online classes. It has allowed me to replace student procrastination with other positive behaviors that will serve my students well in their other courses. It ensures, as Craig Nelson advises, that students are prepared to make the most of their education.
Nelson, Craig. "What Is the First Step We Should Take to Become Great Teachers?" The National Teaching & Learning Forum 10.1 (2000): 7-8.