Contributed by: Jennifer Follett, Writing Center Director & Assistant Professor of English
As both UD students and faculty have discovered this semester, teaching and learning writing online can feel very different from the on-campus experience we’re used to. It’s not all bad—some students report that they are better able to concentrate on writing projects without the distractions of campus life; some faculty are enjoying the convenience of meeting with students to discuss writing-in-progress on Zoom rather than in their offices. Not all bad—but definitely different.
While you take a moment at mid-semester to reflect on how your assigning, supporting, and evaluating of student writing is going so far, you might consider the suggestions below from the University of Delaware Writing Center Director about resources you may be able to draw on to support your online writing instruction for the rest of the fall semester.
Canvas can help.
Using Assignments, Rubrics, and Speedgrader on Canvas takes a little front end set-up time, but pays off by streamlining and standardizing the process of assigning and receiving student writing; communicating with students about assignments and evaluation; and recording and communicating feedback and grades. Personally, I came late to the Canvas Assignments & Speedgrader party; I can tell you with the zeal of the recently converted that these tools have substantially cut down on the time I spend collecting assignments, giving feedback, and grading. Using these Canvas features as a framework, rather than writing comments directly on drafts then emailing those to students, has also helped me prioritize the kind of feedback I’m giving in writing. The time saved is time I can devote to following up with students in short Zoom conferences to make sure they understand and can apply my written feedback.
In addition to using the features above, a combination of Canvas Announcements and Zoom office hours can help keep students engaged throughout the writing process and avoid the procrastination that leads to underdeveloped writing. You might consider sending an announcement at the start of the week that specifies what you expect students to be working on out of class—brainstorming ideas? Research? Forming a thesis? Outlining? Add a link to your Zoom office hours in that announcement to encourage students to visit to check in with you on those specific activities. These timely communications encourage and support students’ self-regulation.
I learned most of what I know about Canvas here on the Faculty Commons site: https://commons.udel.edu/continuity/continuity-events/ where there are recordings of really great workshops.
Your students can help.
Students in my ENG 110 class have been Canvas and Zoom learners since March. They’ve seen faculty use online learning technology in many different ways—why not benefit from their experience? More than once this semester, I have described to my students what I want to have happen, and they have brainstormed solutions for me. Now, when I post a new assignment, link, discussion, module, or other course content, I send an announcement that alerts students to the addition and asks for a quick check to make sure it works properly. I consistently receive immediate response from at least a few students who seem eager to help make the online learning experience go smoothly for me and their classmates. I suspect that acknowledging the limits or my own knowledge about LMS technology makes it seem safer to students to acknowledge the limits of their knowledge about the course content, since it normalizes asking for help.
Students can also help each other with suggestions for studying, reading, and writing. Why not set up a Canvas Discussion for “tips for and from writers”, and assign students to post reflections on and questions about their own writing processes/habits? You might take ten minutes of class time to do this every couple weeks, then have a homework assignment asking students to respond to a few classmates’ posts with advice or ideas. This is a nice little activity to include as a measure of participation, if you include participation as part of your evaluation of student performance.
The Writing Center can help.
As you reflect on your experience of online writing instruction so far and plan the remainder of the semester, feel free to make an appointment for a consultation to talk through ideas with the Writing Center Director or Associate Director for Oral Communication. You might even consider attending the November Writing Fellows Roundtable or registering for a Winter Workshop on teaching writing: https://www.writingcenter.udel.edu/for-faculty/interactive-workshop-on-writing.
Writing Center student staff are also available to support the online teaching of writing. Many faculty this semester are benefitting from having requested a Writing Fellow or Online Classroom Assistant from the Writing Center. We will be offering both services for Spring 2021; you can learn more here: https://publish.writingcenter.udel.edu/for-faculty/classroom-visits. There are also services for faculty that you can take advantage of during the remainder of this semester. A Short-Term Writing Fellow could be dedicated to your class to meet with your students over a 2-4 week period to offer feedback on drafts of a writing assignment. The Online Peer Response Support service provides a small group of either writing tutors or oral communication consultants to virtually attend a class session with your students to help them provide strong peer response in breakout rooms. And if you haven’t already, why not integrate a video introducing students to the Writing Center into your Canvas site? You can read more about the Writing Center in your classroom here: https://www.writingcenter.udel.edu/for-faculty/classroom-visits.
While adjusting to online learning and teaching has certainly posed challenges to all of us, it has also forced us to reflect on our writing pedagogy—reflection that may help us strengthen how we assign, support, and evaluate student writing in future semesters, regardless of the mode in which we find ourselves teaching.