2 Ways FYC Does Not Match Student Expectations

Increasing difficulty:

In most courses the assignments are level. The information across assignments is different, but the level of difficulty stays somewhat consistent. Unless there is a clear jump (such as between a regular exam and a comprehensive mid-term), students assume that they did the last assignment well and they know everything they need for the next assignment.

This is not true in second-semester freshmen composition. The course is scaffolded, so that the easier assignments are earlier, but the assignments throughout the course get increasingly harder, even while building on previous assignments.


Students in writing (and other) classes assume that the first assignment will let them know how the teacher grades and that the next assignment, done the same way, will allow them to earn the same grade.

This is NOT true when the assignments are scaffolded. Each assignment increases the level of complexity. That means that if the student does not learn and apply the requirements in equally increasing complexity, the grades will decrease with each assignment.

Retrospective: FYC 2nd semester S17

Taken out:
In the fall I discovered that I was not supposed to be doing the digital presentations in this class. I am disappointed for several reasons. I may work on a post about that.

What that means for the schedule is that the researched essays (8-10 pages) have a final due date of two weeks before finals. When we were doing the digital presentations, the researched essay final version was due one week earlier. That means we have one additional week for work on the researched essay.

Issue of Grading:

One student went to the chair to say that I had unfair grading practices. He did not come and speak to me about it and I have no idea who the student was.

At the time, I was at a loss for what the problem might be. I discussed with the chair the only person who had spoken with me, but that was not the issue presented to her.

My best guess is based upon that extra week of class and the fact that I added a few drafts, where I checked for one or two things only. I told the students the drafts were due. Then, after they had turned them in, I told them what I would be checking for. Every student was given comments in Canvas on the drafts. Those comments were ONLY related to the points that I said I would grade for.

Despite multiple discussions in class, I know that not all students used these comments, as I often wrote on the next draft “see comments in x.”

Because drafts were daily grades and my comments were intended to explain what the students needed to fix/change/address for the final version, those drafts were typically given As–if they were turned in on time and fit the parameters of the assignment generally. I considered the grades more of a completion grade.

If, however, as I suspect, students only checked their grades and did not read the comments, they might have assumed that they had done the assignment perfectly. That seems a bit naive to me, but I can imagine it happening. Under those circumstances, I can see where the final grade for the assignments, which were graded for all aspects of the assignment as given by the rubric, could be a shock.

Resolution of Issue of Grading:
I had decided this was the problem as of the researched essay. Therefore, for the draft/partials/completion grades for the researched essay, I did two different things.

t&p researched essay highlighted rubric
First, I muted the grades, so that the students did not see them. I did not unmute them until both classes had met.

Second, I provided printed copies of the rubric, with the aspects I was grading highlighted.

The other sections were CLEARLY not highlighted and I told everyone (verbally, with a note on the board, and some other way I don’t remember) to check the comments on Canvas.

Issue of Not Reading Comments:

Students check for grades and do not read the comments on Canvas. I had realized this prior to the above situation/resolution attempt.

Attempts to Resolve Issue of Not Reading Comments:

What I did throughout class for final grades was that I muted the final grades.

Then in class I passed out the printed rubrics with grading areas highlighted. The students saw where they had done well and where they needed to improve. I also either wrote on the paper or on the board “See comments in Canvas.”

After class I unmuted the grades so that people could see what specific scores they earned.

This did NOT make them go read the comments, but it did, at least, let them clearly know (and focus on, since it was the only information they had) which areas they needed to improve and which they did well.

Later during the semester I gave them five minutes at the start of the next class to go review the comments on the last assignment. … Sometimes those comments said, “See what I wrote on the prior assignment comments.”

Is Canvas the Problem?:

If I were still grading by hand, the comments would be on individual papers/rubrics. These would be shuffled into folders or the wastebasket and would not be as readily available for later perusal.

In fact, last semester I realized that the comments on the sheets weren’t being read and started putting all comments in Canvas so that at least I didn’t have to re-write over and over the same points that were not being addressed.

When I post comments on a draft (1.0 or 2.0) and these comments are not addressed in the final version, it is clear that the student did not value the instruction. A different system won’t fix that.

So, no, Canvas is NOT the problem.

D = Deliberative Practice

“Deliberative practice is characterized by a high degree of focused effort to develop specific skills and concepts beyond one’s current abilities” (Schwartz, Tsang, and Blair 39).

Students (and perhaps faculty too) often mistake practice for deliberative practice.

Our memories have limited capacity, so we can’t learn too much at one time. Therefore we need to chunk information–for ourselves and for our students.

“Over time, engaging in deliberative practice changes people’s knowledge organization, making it more specialized for the tasks they regularly face” (43).

That is an interesting aspect of the idea of deliberative practice and may help students understand why they have to have another writing class when they have been writing for the last 12 years in school.

Deliberative practice, however, doesn’t take place during the meaningful activity itself. This means if we want students to practice changing their sentences for style (a fairly basic point), they should be practicing BEFORE they write their next essay. How do we add that to the curriculum?

Obviously exercises, where we provide the sentences and they change them, would work. But then they aren’t their writings.

Maybe start there. Then have students find a paragraph they have already written and have them change it. Then perhaps incorporate the exercise into a standard class exercise, like the four-minute writing at the beginning of each class session.

The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them by Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica M. Tsang, and Kristen P. Blair.

C = Contrasting Cases

Showing things that are similar to each other help us understand what a thing is.
Showing things that are different also help us understand.

I find it odd that these were presented in the chapter in the opposite order. When I came to write down notes, that order seemed problematic, so I changed the order (book had contrasting/contrasting, then showing/showing ideas).

Contrasting things that are very different show fundamentals.

Contrasting things that are similar to each other highlight the things that are different. These can be very subtle and they are usually more important than the differences highlighted with very different examples.

When giving contrasting examples, make them specific to individual things. If you wanted to learn how to tell other flowers from daisies, you might get individual “not daisies” that have a single difference and have multiple “not daisies” which have differences in color, petals, stems, and leaves.

Compare/contrast alone does not allow the students to see what they need to be looking for.

Instead compare/contrast with a specific function or feature in mind.

I am trying to imagine what this would look like if I were having students c/c emails during the section where I teach email etiquette.

Could we have multiple examples of subject lines and have students identify whether or not those are appropriate? Or rank them according to how specific they are? (Specificity increases readability in the emails.)

I could make these up or I could go back through my emails and use actual examples (though removed from the actual emails) to give contrasting cases.

Okay. I can see that working.

How would I do this with introduction options–ways of writing introductions? Do I make up my own? Have to think on this more.

The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them by Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica M. Tsang, and Kristen P. Blair

B = Belonging

I want people to like me. I want to be seen as being worth listening to. I want people to miss me when I’m not there. That means I want to belong.

My students want to belong, too.

“Learning is social” (Schwartz, Tsang, and Blair 13) and the classroom particularly shows the social aspects of learning.

Students are placed into a class and we then say they belong there. BUT if they don’t feel they belong there, they will not work optimally.

They might feel they don’t belong because this is too easy for them. How can we get them to feel they belong? They are the leaders? They can offer others their expertise?

They might feel they don’t belong because they perceive the work as too hard for them. If that is their feeling, can we talk about placement and how we can support each other?

Changing Feelings of Belonging:
For at-risk students
There was a study (Walton and Cohen 2011) that had students read essays written by college seniors saying that as freshmen they felt like they did not belong, but that as they engaged with the learning environment they came to see that they did, in fact, belong in college. Students then wrote about their own feelings and recorded them on video.

The study found that some students who did this was were more successful than those who did not. AND that students who had been at-risk (in this study African American students who generally had a lower GPA than the European Americans, but I can see where it would matter for first gen folks too and probably other at-risk groups that I am not thinking of) closed the GPA gap between themselves and the non-at-risk by 79%–which is a significant improvement in GPA.

This particular study did NOT find an impact on the European Americans.

For all students
Facilitate discussions about classroom norms and values. What is most important? Turning in homework on time or checking understanding and asking for help? Students might think that turning in homework on time is most important because that is what I grade. BUT if they check understanding and ask for help, their homework will be easier and will be done correctly and they will see the reflection of understanding and getting help reflected in the grade.

Students can see themselves as belonging to the group through collaborative activities and discussions.

The first few days are probably particularly important for creating a feeling of belonging. Having students meet each other in groups right away might be useful. Or having everyone in the class introduce themselves, using Vicki’s toilet paper idea, might be better. After that perhaps have groups discuss ideas about some other aspect of the class or classroom. I definitely need to think about this before school starts in the fall.

Belonging increases persistence, so feelings of belonging challenged when the work gets harder needs to be countered so that students persist in the course (19). This is relevant right now as well as at the start of next semester.

Being part of a group within the class increases persistence. For FYC-semester2 the casebook essay groups would increase persistence. Perhaps also dividing the research paper groups into categories (like social science research or health research) might increase persistence. That is worth thinking about.

For middle school students
Middle school students who were asked to do a self-affirmation where they wrote about their most cherished values reduced negative issues and had improved performance in both the course they did the self-affirmation in and their other courses.

While I don’t know if this would translate to college, I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t and having students write about their most cherished values could easily be a second-day exercise. It would introduce me to their writing and it might give them a stronger sense of connection to the course.

Would it be worthwhile to discuss these in small groups? Would it be counter-productive to ask how the values apply to the class?

Reframing Beliefs:
A student may seem feedback as the teacher saying “where they aren’t any good” OR as “a place they can improve.” How do we get students to see feedback as something they can improve?

RIGHT NOW: I have no idea if it will, in fact, make a difference, but if I go change the titles on the rubric from Excellent, Good, Needs Work to Done Exceptionally Well, Done Well, Can be Improved maybe that would make a difference. Need to do this.

The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them by Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica M. Tsang, and Kristen P. Blair

A = Analogies

Analogies are useful for learning because, once we disregard the surface similarities, the shared structures can be illuminating.

Providing two analogies rather than one improves learning (Schwartz, Tsang, and Blair 3). Basically it creates a Venn diagram of the shared ideas that can elucidate the idea/theory/practice we are attempting to focus on.

When I first heard of this, I thought it was a simple and fascinating concept. Just give students random things and they could try and figure out how those things “were like” the topic.

I have done that for a single random item (a bunch of small toys) in an FYC course during the introduction of students, asking them to explain how the toy was like their chosen major. It worked really well and was interesting.

However, for focused learning, I probably can’t throw random physical objects around the room for them to work with/on.

Random Practice Example:
Looking at the table in front of me, how is a bowl like writing? You fill it up with something significant. It is not particularly useful empty. It is designed to hold and transport things (or ideas).

Looking at the table in front of me, how is a cheese stick like writing? It needs to be wrapped up. It needs a particular level of wrapping to be useful. The cheese/writing can go bad if the wrapping/words are less than optimal. You consume it in small bites. You can put it up and eat/read it later.

Looking at those two objects, the ideas/food are what are wrapped/carried in the package or bowl and if the bowl or package is inappropriate (by type or size or whatever), the food/ideas go bad or do not get properly delivered.

That means that how we present our ideas really matters. Certain key concepts (like a thesis, topic sentence, and transitions) help create the correct carrying case for our ideas.

Can the students make that big of a connection? Or could they make better connections?

What if we had two or three students working together? Synergy and collaboration could lead to the sum being greater than its parts.

The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them by Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica M. Tsang, and Kristen P. Blair

Introducing Technology

For FYC semester 2, everyone in class writes on the same topic. I was hoping to induce the students to write on technology, which I have seen many good papers on and which is more familiar to the students. Recently I was involved in a discussion on physical manipulation of objects to improve learning so, I thought I would try to make a connection for the students through touch.

As part of the introduction, I brought in everyday objects (including telephones, car keys, and umbrellas) at various tech levels. For example, I brought in a metal car key, a car key with a chip, and a key that doesn’t get pushed into a slot but is only electrical.

I didn’t put the connected ones on the same tables, so folks had to get up and move around. No one could just stay at the table, because they couldn’t collect the various examples of a single type of object. Most of the objects students could figure out the relation. There was an antique lamp lighter and an ultramodern car key that were confusing, so I had to explain what those were.

Then students were invited to talk about the differences in the objects that were related to one another.

It was a fun and interesting day.

The students did not choose to write on technology, though.

This might be a useful exercise to do for some other class. Or I might be able to adapt it to a different lesson.

Maybe if students choose to write on technology I can do this again. Students did enjoy it.

Avoid Passive Voice

“[A]n official from the General Services Administration presented Franklin Roosevelt with a copy of a notice that would be placed in every room of every government office across the land. The bureaucrat read this aloud to the president: IT IS OBLIGATORY THAT ALL ILLUMINATION BE EXTINGUISHED BEFORE THE PREMISES ARE VACATED” (Humes 155).

“Roosevelt, known for his clear communication, wryly replied, Why the hell can’t you say “Put out the lights when you leave”? [sic]” (Humes 157).


“The acronym ‘WHAB’ can help you find words that sound a warning bell for potential overuse of the passive” (Humes 158).

Humes, James C. Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln. Three Rivers Press.

Group Work

The research conducted by [behavioral scientist Patrick] Laughlin and his colleagues tells us why the best leader operating individually will be beaten to a correct solution by an all-inclusive cooperating unit. First, lone decision-makers can’t match the diversity of knowledge and perspectives of a multi-person unit that includes them. The input from others can stimulate thinking processes that wouldn’t have been developed when working alone. … Second, the solution seeker who goes it alone loses another significant advantage–the power of parallel processing. Whereas a cooperating unit can distribute many subtasks of a problem to its members, a lone operator must perform each task sequentially. (Goldstein, Martin, and Cialdini 100).

Goldstein, Noah J., Steve J. Martin, and Robert B. Cialdini. Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive. Simon & Schuster, 2008.