Monday, January 16, 2012

Give Us This Day Our Daily Write

In a nutshell: A daily low-stakes writing exercise is a good way to monitor attendance, incentivize students to keep up with the reading, and develop critical thinking skills all at the same time.

From 2007-2009, I was a CUNY Writing Fellow at York College in Jamaica, NY. Writing Fellows support the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program at 19 CUNY campuses including undergraduate campuses (4-year senior colleges and 2-year community colleges), the CUNY OnLine Baccalaureate program, and the CUNY Law School (you can learn more about the WAC program at CUNY here). As a Writing Fellow, I learned about the WAC pedagogy that has evolved since the 1980s to promote writing as a mode of learning and an activity central to the development of critical thinking skills (the Bridgewater State University website has a nice definition of WAC).

In my experience (others may disagree, and WAC proponents are a vocal lot), WAC pedagogy addresses three major issues, often posed as binary contrasts:
  • "writing to learn" and "learning to write"
  • low-stakes writing and high-stakes writing
  • informal writing and formal writing
I would argue that the most important innovations of WAC have to do with the left-hand side of each of the oppositions listed above: writing-to-learn, low-stakes writing, and informal writing. WAC has much to say about learning to write, high-stakes writing, and formal writing, too, but the Composition and Rhetoric (comp/rhet) folks should be able to handle those issues at least as well as the WAC folks (although, to be sure, at many institutions, these two groups are the same people). Incidentally, the Bedford/St. Martin's website as a lovely page on the history of rhetoric and composition studies, going back to classical antiquity and leading to the rise of comp/rhet in the 1990s.

I can spend a few posts discussing WAC pedagogy if you like, but for now, I would simply like to describe one low-stakes, informal, writing-to-learn tactic that I have been using in my classrooms for going on two years now. I call it the Daily Write. For the first five to ten minutes of class, my students answer in writing a provocative question about the day's class content. In previous semesters, this was always a question about the day's assigned reading. This semester, I have started using questions that are more diagnostic or reflective, like "What do you already know about [insert topic of day's class meeting] and what would you like to learn in the next 75 minutes?"

The Daily Write has actually evolved into a low-stakes, informal, writing-to-learn exercise from something quite different, a very simple objective quiz using a matching format (names of characters 1-5 on the left, one- or two-line identifications A-E on the right, place the letter of the correct identification in the space provided next to each item). My Daily Quizzes were instituted, quite simply, as a way to make sure that students came to class every day and on time, especially in a core-curriculum general-education course on classical civilization at 8:00 am at Brooklyn College. No one quiz counted for very much, but cumulatively they would account for something like 20% of the course grade, and could not be taken late or made up, making it quite incumbent upon my students to be in class every day and on time as much as humanly possible.

The Daily Quiz worked, but after a year or two of using it, I got bored. More importantly, I believe my students were getting bored. To be sure, I knew very well that the quizzes were incredibly easy for anyone who had done the reading. In fact, in addition to encouraging timely and regular attendance, another objective of the quizzes was to encourage students to complete the assigned reading on time, and to reward those students who did so. These simple matching quizzes also rewarded students whose forte was objective details like "Telemachus is the son of Odysseus and Penelope." Finally, it provided an opportunity to succeed for my many English language learners who were compulsive about their reading, fierce in their attention to detail, but had difficulty expressing themselves in English, orally or in writing, particularly in conceptual terms.

Nevertheless, despite the many advantageous features and benefits of daily quizzes (can you tell I used to be in pharmaceutical marketing?), I decided to make the switch from Daily Quizzes to Daily Writes. For one thing, Daily Write sounded cool. For another thing, I found that the very idea of a daily quiz caused undue stress to my students; or, rather, it caused due stress, which I wanted to minimize or eliminate if possible. In fact, the Daily Write is a quiz, in the sense that it is a brief, targeted assessment tool that counts toward the student's final grade. I hope, however, that by avoiding the word "quiz," I am minimizing the test-related stress. To date, I have no objective evidence that I have succeeded, but I also have not had any expressed complaints.

Now, those of you familiar with WAC pedagogy may be raising your eyebrows at the idea that I call the Daily Write a low-stakes writing activity while counting it towards the course grade. I know, I know. Nevertheless, I do not believe that "low stakes" has to be "no stakes." In a class that meets 28 times per 14-week semester, students have 28 Daily Writes, give or take. Cumulatively, they account for perhaps 20% of the course grade. However you do the arithmetic, no one Daily Write is worth very much; that is, each Daily Write in isolation is a fairly low-stakes activity. In addition, in calculating course grades, I drop the three lowest or missing Daily Write grades from the Daily Write average. Despite the (can I get away with saying "airy-fairy"?) WAC dogma about low stakes and writing to learn, I find that students prefer to do things they get credit for, things that count towards their final grade; if it doesn't "count," then why should I waste my time doing it? This may be an attitude more characteristic of the business-and-technology oriented 2000s than it was in the early decades of WAC, but these are the times we live in, and the times we live in are the times we teach in (no, I will not change that to "in which we live," but don't you just love the way Paul McCartney has his prepositional cake and eats it, too, in the lyrics to "Live and Let Die"?).

This post is getting t-o-o  l-o-n-g, so let me just say a final word about feedback. Feedback is key. I have to read these things, for real, not just put a check on top of the page and mark the assignment as completed in my grade book (which in fact used to be an Excel spreadsheet and is, as of this semester, the Grade Center on Blackboard--yay for me and digital technology!!!). In past semesters, I graded on a 5-point scale and students could receive full or partial credit, depending on how completely they addressed the question. Starting this semester, for various reasons including my insane workload, I am switching to a completion grade: 1 or 0, you hand in the piece of paper with some words on it, you get the credit. Nevertheless, every student writes something, and I do my best to give some kind of concrete and specific feedback. Yes, sometimes I just write "good" (or "good!") at the bottom of the page. Other times I underline some key words in the student's response, like "enjoyed" or "confused," mostly to indicate that a real live human being did in fact read what you wrote. At my best, I will write a brief comment, like, "Good use of a specific example to support your claim," or, alternatively, "Good point, but could you give a specific example to support your claim?"

One of the main objections raised by teachers who are new to WAC pedagogy is that low-stakes writing takes a lot of time: time to develop the assignment (even the simplest assignment takes time to develop), time to administer, and, perhaps most annoyingly, time to GRADE, especially if the teacher gives FEEDBACK, which every WAC expert or would-be expert will say is MISSION CRITICAL. To all of this I say: Yes, it takes time. You, the teacher, have to decide if you have the time; if the benefits in learning outweigh the risks to your own sanity; if you are really committed to a student-centered, critical-thinking centered, writing-centered pedagogy--not just in principal, but in practice.

OK, enough. Back to reading, commenting on, and grading my Daily Writes.


  1. I am a high school Latin teacher who fully embraces WAC pedagogy. It is hard to incorporate daily writing into a high school model, but I would like to assign them these little assignments to learn what aspects of the grammar/homework they find difficult. In addition, I want to incorporate writing to learn into my elective class, Introduction to Classics. However, this would only be on days that I assign reading. In short, thanks for a great post!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Rebecca. I do not think you need to restrict low-stakes writing to days when your students have a reading assignment. You can always ask a question like "What is the main point you remember" or "What is the thing you would like to learn most" regardless of when the reading assignment was/will be. Feel free to contact me directly if you want to brainstorm.