How to Use WriteLab for Revision

How to Use WriteLab for Revision

I’ve had the pleasure of teaching English in the American junior college system. I’ve also been involved in the ever growing—and often overwhelming—education technology cosmos by working for a formative assessment product before I entered the classroom.

Overall, assessment leaves a bad taste in students’ (and teachers’) mouths. Similarly, when students think about their writing being evaluated it evokes a unique sense of unease. These feelings are often driven by a worry of showing others their formalized thoughts and ideas. And, overall, many students struggle to be receptive of difficult and complex feedback—effectively stunting their growth as they fail to dedicate enough time to one of the most important elements of the writing process: revision.

Revision Challenges

Getting students to participate in authentic revision is by far one of the biggest challenges for writing instructors. You can orchestrate thoughtfully guided peer review workshops. You can also put a lot of care into providing feedback on their drafts. But, unfortunately, this doesn’t always yield the positive results you’re looking for when you review their final drafts.

The issue is that students simply don’t spend enough time with their writing. While I make sure to remind students that I’d like to see dramatic changes after their draft—students rarely take an extra moment to review their writing. 

This is where I believe education technology can help. If students work with a tool like WriteLab they have the opportunity to do a few important things: turn the volume down a bit regarding the jitters they experience when others review their work; get both academic and structured revision tips; and simply spend more time with their writing.

I think it’s important to just get them started when it comes to forming strong revision habits. The goal here is to get them to slow things down and review their work in an academic context. This extra time and focus will go a long way in helping them improve as writers and thinkers.

One way to keep their approach to digital writing tools structured is placing an emphasis on your rubric.

The Value of Rubrics Alongside Education Technology

New college students rarely understand the true value of an essay grading rubric. They’re usually focused on the grade instead of using it to improve their essays.

Here’s an example of a B paper in a standard rhetoric and composition course:

Thesis: Promising, but may be slightly unclear. Lacking, at points, larger insights or originality. 
Structure: Generally clear and appropriate, but wanders from time to time. May have a few unclear transitions, or a few paragraphs lacking strong topic sentences. 
Use of evidence: Examples used to support most points. Some evidence does not support a given point or may seem out of context or ambiguous. Quotations smoothly integrated into arguments.

Analysis: Evidence often relates to thesis components, though links not always clear. 
Logic and argumentation: Argument of paper is clear, mostly flows logically and makes sense. Some use of counter-argumentation (though not necessarily addressed). 

Style: College-level appropriate tone. Rhetorical devices used to enhance content. Sentence variety used effectively. Strong use of economical language and natural sentence flow.
Mechanics: Sentence structure, grammar, and diction strong despite occasional lapses; punctuation and citation style often used correctly. Some (minor) spelling errors; may have a couple of run-on sentences, sentence fragments, or other awkward constructions. Passive voice occasionally present.

Rubrics outline the clear academic expectations you have for burgeoning college writers. Yet providing them with these standards isn’t enough. I find that it’s important to discuss how the rubric can help guide their writing (and curb their anxiety resulting from academic standards). But I like to take it one step further by having them practice using the rubric.

My favorite exercise is to ask them to grade either a mock essay or an anonymous student’s essay from a previous semester. This gives students the opportunity to behave like the instructor and look critically at an essay with the rubric as a guide. At the end, each student shares what grade they awarded the essay and then we have a class discussion about the essay and the standards.

Moving forward from this exercise, it’s important to tell students to refer to the rubric during revision. This is also a good idea when students work with writing software. WriteLab’s analysis and feedback is displayed across four anatomical writing areas: Concision, Clarity, Logic, and Grammar.

But how does this analysis work, and can it be related back to the rubric?

Looking Closely at WriteLab’s Feedback

Below is an introduction paragraph from a draft essay about Mike Rose’s book Lives on the Boundary. I think it’s fair to say that this particular essay is a healthy B/C+. So let’s see what would happen if the student uses WriteLab. Will it help them move certain qualities of their essay from a B range to an A range?  

Part I: How Concision relates to Style.

In this example WriteLab has identified a way to craft a more concise sentence. While replacing the way with how might not seem like much, English instructors know that many students struggle with wordiness as they attempt to navigate complex topics and ideas. Making these small improvements can help them visualize the importance of being pithy and maintaining a natural voice.  

Overall, WriteLab flagged seven different opportunities for this student to improve the language flow of their sentences.

Part II: How Clarity relates to Mechanics.

Here the student is confronted with the issue of passive voice. I’ve noticed that passive voice is hard for students to recognize. (It’s also hard to teach.) What I like about this particular feedback is that it gives the student a tip for taking action. And even if they don’t remove the passive voice, there’s value in making them consciously aware of it on a regular basis.

Part III: How Clarity relates to Use of Evidence.

In this last example, I really appreciate how the student is asked to give more details here. This feedback is useful because it asks the student to provide additional context. If the student can provide more context by offering more evidence they’ll strengthen their introduction and have a larger platform for their arguments.

Quick Recap

From my experience, many first-year college students come to English courses ill-prepared to enter meaningful conversations, navigate the complex waters of rhetoric, and support strong claims with college-level control of mechanics, organization, development, and coherence.

While a tool like WriteLab isn’t going to replace my instruction and feedback, it’s a great way to help students spend more time with their work as they continue to grow as effective writers. The key is to have them take the software analysis and compare it closely to standards and expectations set by the assignment and rubric.

If you can achieve this as a college English instructor, you can productively bring an edtech solution like WriteLab into your classroom. 

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