Posted by: Ellie Kutz | June 1, 2011

Sharing Course Writing Assignments Online

Traditionally, completing the writing assignments that might be given in any course across the curriculum was seen as an individual task, to be completed by each student and submitted to the teacher, with no sharing of the work that was being done.  That model has generally been altered in courses that focus specifically on the teaching of writing—where students are more likely to share and critique drafts of their writing in small “peer review” writing groups.  But students in courses across the curriculum can gain from sharing their work-in-progress, and online sites like Blackboard and Wikispaces make it easy for them to do so. 

In the session Writing Online:  How Posting to Blackboard and Wikispaces Supports Student Learning, Lynnell Thomas (American Studies) and Mara Martinez-Earley (English) reflected on the ways in which their use of online writing spaces is altering students’ understanding of the work they’re undertaking and contributing to their learning.

Lynnell has been using the journal function in Blackboard as a place for students to post their weekly analyses of readings, music, films, and other course materials in several of her courses and as a research log in her  upper-level course on Black Popular culture. 

One immediate advantage she found to online posting was that she didn’t have to take students’  journals and research logs away from them to read and grade them—that students could keep updating their work, even as she was reviewing it.  But she realized that students were perceiving other advantages as well.

Each student’s posts appear in her/his journal, but all are visible to other students and available for comment as well.  Although Lynnell hadn’t originally framed the journal work as involving sharing, the Blackboard tracking function made her aware that students were perceiving it that way—that they were taking the opportunity to read a lot of what others had written and sometimes to respond, even though such reading and response wasn’t required, showing their implicit engagement with each others’ work.

Reflecting on this engagement, Lynnell suggests that, for any writing task, it can be hard for students to get started.   Having the opportunity to see what others have written opens up possibilities for students and builds a shared understanding of how others are placing themselves in the implicit course conversation that the assignments elicit.  Surprised by the level of student engagement with each others’ work, Lynnell is considering ways to make that implicit engagement a more explicit goal of her courses in the future.

While Lynnell was discovering how her students were engaging with what their classmates were posting to Blackboard, Mara was using Wikispaces in her English 101 and 102 classes not only to have students post their writing for others to read and respond to, but also to give students a way of seeing their own approaches to revising their writing—to become more conscious of their strategies and choices as writers.

In teaching about revision, Mara draws of the work of composition researchers like Nancy Sommers (1980) to consider the difference between the strategies of typical student writers vs. experienced writers’ strategies as they approach various stages of the writing process, but particularly revision.  Sommers found that while students saw revision as a process of “scratching out” and “rewording” their points, making changes only at a lexical level, experienced writers treated each draft as a way of finding and giving shape to a larger argument, making much more significant changes at the level of the larger text.  At the same time, experienced writers were conscious of taking into account the needs of a reader.

Mara has found that that the Wikispaces class site helps to build students’ awareness of the need to write for readers—to take into account how to help others understand what they’re presenting and to receive responses  from readers.

At the same time, Wikispaces gives students a tool that can make them more aware of the ways in which they are approaching the task of revision.  The history tab for each page shows exactly what changes, both additions and deletions, have been made with each draft of a particular assignment. 

Students can see the extent to which they’re focusing the changes they’re making at the level of rewording and can reflect on their own movement toward the more significant re-seeing of their argument and its structure that is characteristic of the work of more experienced writers. 

In the end, online course sites can give student writers an opportunity both to see themselves and their own work within that of a larger community of students in the course and to come to a richer, meta-level understanding of their own ways of working—one that will allow them to take greater responsibility for their own choices as writers and learners.

Sommers, N. (1980).  Revision strategies of student writers and experienced writers. College Composition and Communication 31:4, pp. 378-88.

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