07 March 2014

STEM Teaching Tricks: Ways to Avoid the Shit Sandwich?

image from http://www.hilaryhodge.com/category/uprising/
Over at Teaching Nonmajors Biology, there's a excellent post on post-exam assessments, with lots of examples, links, and explanation of the various bells and whistles such assessments can entail.  The basic idea is to walk students through an analysis of what they got wrong on any given exam and why. A worksheet in the form of an "exam wrapper" gets students to face the gaps in their study strategies and identify ways to fill them.  (H/t Small Pond Science for clueing me in to this blog!)

I've been doing something similar with the writing students do for my classes.  Before they hand in an assignment, I give them a worksheet that asks them to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their response to the assignment, as well as any additional information I should know about their writing process.  These worksheets often end up being the prompts for my own final comments on their papers. It turns out (to my surprise) that students can be very self-aware writers--they often recognize the problems in their papers before they hand them in, but don't know how to solve them.  When their assessments of their work deviate from my own, they often reveal students' confusion about the relationship between college paper criteria and effective writing (no, big words and complicated sentence structures don't necessarily make a good paper).

It is, I've discovered, expedient to write my final paper comments on these self-assessments, in direct response to the student.  It is, among other things, a way to avoid what Dale Bauer calls the "shit sandwich": "the teacher offers a thin slice of vague praise, adds lots of ugly corrective comments, and tops it off with some mayonnaise and another half-heartedly pleasant slice of a conclusion" (see also "Another F-Word: Failure in the Classroom").  Halfway through a large stack of papers, when the grading doldrums set in, it feels far less onerous that producing a set-piece of carefully calibrated praise and criticism.   It also--I hope--reinforces the idea that writing is, after all, about communicating ideas, not jumping through collegiate hoops.

The biologists have me wondering, though, how I might build in an additional step, one that encourages students to reflect on strategies for overcoming the weaknesses in their papers.  Not just "yup--you need to work on X and Y" but "how are you going to improve X and Y?"  In the context of interpretive writing (rather than acquiring and demonstrating knowledge of course content), asking students to articulate these things can turn into an exercise in required b.s. production.  So clearly such a step would need to take some other form.  Perhaps, instead of handing back papers at the end of class and letting students go off on their own to read the comments, it would be more effective to build in an immediate exercise in paper revision?  But the form that would take will have to await a future blog post, once I figure out how it might work.


  1. Really intrigued by the "wrappers" idea. I have tried things like the self-assessment you describe--in its tiniest version, I have them, at the start of the class where a paper is due, underline their favorite and least favorite sentences in their essays, then explain *why* they have that feeling about each sentence. It gives me a chance to reinforce their good feelings about what's working as well as see how well they understand what isn't as effective. I also let them rewrite the least favorite sentence if they want, with the idea that this might help them see revision as a detail-level enterprise (and sometimes even make a notable difference in the essay). Even on this mini-level, self-assessment can be revealing to me and to the students.

  2. What a great idea! I'll be trying that.