How often do you have to advise students to find a better source to support their argument?

I find I have relatively little sympathy for quotations from SparkNotes, quora.com or even Wikipedia.

 

But what about students who use less outrageously unreliable sources? Of course I tell them that having only one, potentially good, textbook in the bibliography and citing other authors from their textbook is not ideal practice, especially not at advanced levels of study. And no, I would not cite something from a blog unless I know for certain that there are good reasons to trust the expertise of the author of this blog.

 

I have to admit, though, that I share some of their pain. It is a lot of hard work to corroborate every single morsel of information, and it can be frustrating when you know that most likely after another long search you will find an acceptable, authoritative source that says exactly the same. My point here is not to argue that we should not do this for our peer-reviewed publications. I think we should, as this is an important part of assuring the quality of academic work.

 

But perhaps we should also be open to the possibility that sometimes things we find in sources that are not peer-reviewed, ideas whose origins and consequences we have not thoroughly investigated, or points mentioned almost in passing in a text which we have read for a completely different purpose can make us pause and think. The fruits of these ruminations might not be ready for academic publication, but they can certainly be influential for our practice. Sharing them through conversation is, at least in my experience, an important part of professional exchange.

 

The ScotELAs blog is a good place for similar professional exchange, where direct conversations from desk to desk or over the kettle are not possible. With this ScotELAs column, 'Things I Mean To Know', I would like to open it up as a space for sharing the things from our reading which we will not necessarily use for ‘proper’ research, but which could be of interest to our practice or could make us think further.

 

As a first offering, here is a section on feedback, which I found in a paper I read for a completely different purpose:

 

 

 

 

Schute 2008 cited in Kellogg, Ronald T. and Whiteford, Alison P. 2009. Training Advanced Writing Skills: the Case for Deliberate Practice. Educational Psychologist. 44(4): 250-66

 

My initial urge was to consult Schutte 2008 – his classification of helpful feedback not only made intuitive sense, it also seemed vital to improve giving feedback myself. Considering the pile of papers in my ‘research to read’ folder and those I still need to consult for the projects I am currently working on made this idea appear far less attractive.

On (a little bit more of) reflection: why would I want to read Schutte? The main reason why I found this section fascinating is not a research question – it is the fact that a significant part of my daily work with students consists of giving them formative feedback, so the prospect of giving better feedback sounds good. Reading the whole review by Schutte won’t necessarily increase the likelihood of this, though. On the contrary, it is the very neatness summary provided by Kellogg and Whiteford that makes these insights almost instantly applicable to teaching.

So here are my ideas of how it could be used:

 

  1.   Quality control

 

When working under pressure to finish reading a student’s assignment, I can sense my willingness to explain drop. Having a neat list of 3 criteria that feedback should fulfil could, perhaps, be a good way to ensure that fatigue does not lead to unhelpful, or even harmful feedback. Before saving any comment, I could ask myself whether it

  • ‘alerts the student to a gap between the current level of performance and the desired level of performance or goal’ and whether the desired level is sufficiently explained

  • ‘provid[es] a scaffold that assists with performing the task’ to reduce cognitive load when revising the text / writing the next text

  • ‘provides information that may be useful for correcting inappropriate task strategies, procedural errors, or misconceptions’

Admittedly, this might mean that I can only read a short piece of writing, but it could be a way of dealing with the temptation to sacrifice quality for quantity when working under pressure.

 

   2.  Training and Professional Development

 

Discussing practice is an important part of training and mentoring less experienced colleagues and of developing our practice. Schutte’s three criteria could provide a good framework to collect and share useful tools for feedback.

  • What do we currently use to show students what the desired level of performance is? Are there other things we could use? Could we have a resource bank of such examples that make it possible to retrieve a good point of comparison quickly?

  • Which tasks or instructions do we use to scaffold the writing process? Which tasks can ease which specific aspect of it? Do we have these ideas stored in our own head or do we share them? How could we share them? Would making them explicit allows a more structured approach when scaffolding?

  • What are common ‘inappropriate task strategies, procedural errors, or misconceptions’? How do we identify them? What information do students need to understand that they are problematic? In which form do we currently provide this information?

 

Food for thought…

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