April 16th 2008

4Cs NOLA Friday — I Session

“What Students Really Do With Feedback” was one of the better sessions I attended. These researchers, like the ones Thursday morning, designed their study based on Nancy Sommers’ work at Harvard assessing what students really do with instructor comments. They had two assumptions as they started out:

  • That students have poor (or lax) attitudes toward writing, which contributed to a lack of attention to revision, and
  • That past experiences (i.e., poor experiences) with writing functioned to discourage them from taking revision seriously

Dodie Forrest and Carolyn Calhoun-Dillahunt teach at Yakima Valley Community College in Washington State, a Hispanic-Serving Institution very similar to COS in both ethnic make-up and local economic situation. Three years ago, they began asking research questions to see what they could ascertain about student decision-making in response to instructor comments. They were initially interested primarily in students’ attitudes toward teacher comments. Their findings indicated:

  • students appreciated praise, but praise comments didn’t help them improve–they didn’t know what to do with it
  • compared to questionnaire responses at the beginning of the course, fewer students at course end wanted directive (edit-centered) comments and more students preferred end-comments
  • jargon comments were unhelpful (words such as “tweak” and “analyze”)
  • symbols and abbreviations were unhelpful
  • students had difficulty understanding teachers’ questions (when open-ended or rhetorical questions were part of the comments)

In the next year’s study, the research question was why students made the revision changes they made. They compared the actual changes students made to the comments teachers left. They found:

  • most students really do attend to instructor comments, though the moves they made did not necessarily improve the work
  • students were often confused by comments
  • some (at least) personal decisions go into the changes students make

The research they reported on this year was based on in-depth case studies of students in the same English classes–our English 1 level courses. I won’t go into their methodology, though it was in-depth, but they came up with a number of important implications that, combined with their previous results, say interesting things about students and about educators’ assumptions of students. They found:

  • Students, in spite of what we might think, generally have a positive attitude about writing and about their abilities.
  • Students do attend to teacher comments and/or genuinely believe they did address teacher comments in their revisions.
  • Even when an instructor comment led to subsequent text revision, students tended to see the revision as coming from the student rather than the teacher–in other words, no matter what sparked the revision, students felt they owned the revision decisions they made.
  • Students intend to make content changes, not just editing changes, in revision.
  • Students generally attend to marginal comments and prefer comments that allow they to make choices about their writing (as opposed to directive comments).
  • Students do not rely solely on their instructor for revision decisions.
  • Students feel that their ideas are important–sometimes this leads them to make revision decisions that instructors feel are not productive. The point is that some student revision decisions should be viewed through a lens of resisting instructor authority, rather than laziness or inattention.
  • Students are not sure how to use praise, although they like it. In interviews, students demurred from responding to praise comments.
  • Students ignore comments they don’t understand or don’t want to address.

Many of these findings were quite interesting and suggested that we don’t know enough about what students think about when we say “revise.” The researchers’ initial assumptions of students were all debunked–and who among us doesn’t share some of these assumptions? It is likely that we are approaching our students as if we understand them, when we don’t.

For future reference, I will be emailing Dodie and Carolyn to get copies of some of the research tools they used, which were well-developed and could help us a lot in our own work at COS. Their presentation was exceptional and I just wondered how they managed to have lives, too, while they did this work!

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