(Not So) Rough Drafts

Finding a technology tool to remedy a writing iteration problem.

GUEST COLUMN | by Susan Van Doren

CREDIT Turnitin Revision AssistantI like to imagine an ideal world in which I would be able to sit side-by-side with each student in my class at the same time and make thoughtful, helpful comments to move their writing forward. I could compliment them on what works well in their essays and ask guiding questions whenever I see a lack of clarity. But even on those rare occasions when I can workshop a paper one-on-one in the real world, the scenario is never ideal. Distractions, time limits, and even the nuances of personal relationships can get in the way of effective feedback.

I sat next to him and watched as he submitted a single paper over 25 times in order to meet his goal level of proficiency. 

Teachers know that feedback needs to be timely and specific; that saying a student did “a good job” or that a paper “needs work” is useless. And all too often, suggestions for improvement reach student writers too late, when the teachable moment has passed and they have already moved on to something new. But even when I sit at the kitchen table with my own eighth grade son, I question whether the feedback I am giving him is meaningful or within his zone of proximal development. As a veteran middle and high school English teacher for almost 20 years, I know what I need to do to move his writing forward, but I still struggle with the how. Multiply that struggle by another 80 to 100 students, and the problem becomes even more pronounced.

For a few years now, I have been experimenting with technology tools to try to remedy this problem. Google docs can enable collaboration between peers, and some programs can help students proofread, but truly giving feedback during the revision process demands much more than just fixing errors. So when I heard about a pilot test of a new writing technology that provides automated feedback to student writers, I jumped at the chance to try it.

Turnitin’s Revision Assistant gives immediate feedback on student essays at the exact moment they are engaged in the writing process. It provides the same kind of comments that I might make, such as, “This is a great example of descriptive language. Where else could you add more?” The game-changer is that this technology can provide individualized feedback to all my students simultaneously as they draft a paper. Until I learn to I clone myself, I will never be able to do that.

With the click of a button, students get feedback about what they are doing well, and how they can improve. Studies show that the number of revisions increases when students write with it. I can attest that once we started using the this tool, the number of revisions my students submitted skyrocketed. My students revised their papers an average of 5-7 times, and I often saw over 10 revisions.

The first time my son used this tool on his homework, I sat next to him and watched as he submitted a single paper over 25 times in order to meet his goal level of proficiency. He took suggestions from the computer that would have led to sullen looks and resistance if I had made them. The second time he used it, it took half as many revisions to meet the same goal. It wasn’t just helping him learn to revise one paper: it was teaching him the habits and strategies of good writing. Within a few weeks, he had set a new, higher goal.

The tool meets the need for timely, specific, and effective feedback while also empowering students to take control of their own learning. My students can move forward with their writing at their own pace, calling for a Signal Check whenever they want feedback. As the teacher, I can engage them in conversations about the comments. A student might get a comment like “Work on balancing your opinion with strong reasons. Evidence and reasoning is what elevates opinion to argument.” Imagine how this statement opens the door to a conversation about crafting an effective argument. Instead of lecturing, I become the “coach” or “guide” who supports the students’ own personal quests to hone their craft.

These conversations about writing had an additional side effect that I never imagined. From them, I am learning what kind of feedback works, and also—embarrassingly—where I have fallen short in the past. One 9th grader I had last year always struggled with writing, usually producing just a few sentences. He had his first breakthrough with the tool: “Look at this, Mrs. Van Doren!” he exclaimed, “The computer is actually telling me things I do well.” I cringed: Had I really forgotten to do that? With the help of the technology and my renewed efforts to encourage him with positive feedback, that student has grown into a solid writer this year.

Technology can’t replace good teaching, but it can help me reach more students than I could have dreamed of previously, and it can empower students to take ownership of their learning. Once students see the results they get from true revision, they don’t go back to submitting rough drafts.

Susan Van Doren graduated from Colby College and earned her MFA in Poetry at the University of Virginia. She currently teaches English 9-10, AP Language, and AP Computer Science at George Whittell High School in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. She is also the computer club advisor, a district STEM leader, and a SpringBoard national trainer and writer. In 2012, the Nevada Association of School Boards named her “Innovative Educator of the Year.”

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