Mind Maps

Mind Mapping is a wonderful assignment for any level and style of learner. It is particularly useful for introducing students to the difference between analysis and rhetorical analysis. Not only does it engage them, it also allows me a quick, accurate snapshot of how well they understand rhetorical content. Rather than sift through vague explanations or snippets of their rhetorical analyses, I can see with clarity how well and how deeply they understand the content of the articles they have been asked to analyze. This student, for example has an excellent understanding of the central topic, the main lines of inquiry the article has followed, and the separate examples given in individual paragraphs. I don’t even have to read the text to see (from her images) that she has a deep and comprehensive understanding of this article from The Atlantic: “Virtual Reality Gets Real.”image

Today, instead of just bringing their maps (which were supposed to visually map out the argument as they understood it from their articles), we held a Gallery Walk where students circled the room and “voted” for their favorite (based on specific criteria) using blank Post-Its. Each student was allowed 3 votes.


After the vote, map makers congregated by topicimage1(1) and discussed the most successful maps (allowing those who are not as far in their understanding to benefit from the expertise of their peers).


Finally, Map Makers used Post-Its to add the Meta-Layer of analysis required by the genre (analyzing rhetoric, not content).

Students were invited to take photos of each others work and to take their visual essay –which is what the Post-Its turned their Mind Maps into–home and transcribe it into text. In other words, students got feedback on their understanding and analysis while also producing drafts of the content of their essays in a single class period. Now they are tasked with creating Intros & Conclusions once they finish translating the visual content and connections into verbal claims, evidence, and examples from their sources.

Mind Maps

Multi-Modal Collaborative Writing: Mapping My Campus

This weekend I’m presenting this project as a poster at Kennesaw State’s  Research on Teaching and Learning Summit Poster- Campus Map(1)

Description of the Project

For their second project, teams were given the assignment of creating Google Maps for a specific audience. We discussed rhetorical appeals, looked at sample maps (namely the History Department’s incredible Civil War Digital Tour), and brainstormed audiences likely to value an informative tour of Auburn’s Campus.


This project also included the first required research component. Thanks to Wiebke Kuhn, I had had the chance last semester to collaborate with Midge Coates (Auburn’s Digital Projects Librarian) on the project. Students were required to find at least one digital source per person and a variety of at least 3 types of media per team. That restriction prompted collaboration among team members to share their sources and check each other’s work rather than simply conduct independent research and leave it at that. FullSizeRender(2)

Once the Audience, tour route, and “stops” were decided, individuals were responsible for generating an informative article about their individual stop and incorporating the digital media into the map.


Yesterday, I was invited as a guest speaker to a practicum meeting of Learning Assistants (Undergraduates who assist large lecture science courses) on the subject of collaborative learning. Although their course material (chemistry & physics) does not share much overlap with English composition, we had an interesting discussion about the value of group work and why it might be useful in any learning setting. One of the key takeaways is that group work only has value insomuch as it requires a group to complete it. If the task is too simple, the question too easy, then one person will (as the complaint often goes) do all the work for the others.

This project required a collaborative vision, strategy, and communication, but the content was generated by individuals. The groups earn a Team Score that applies to all members equally so everyone has a stake in the quality of the final product. Students also receive an Individual Score which is a more traditional assessment of their writing combined with feedback from their teammates on their contribution to the effort–whether they completed their share or made more work for others.

Also, the students from each class are now in competition with each other to see whose tour gets the most Views over the course of the semester. The competition will not affect their grade in any way, but it will give them the chance to promote and share their work. In other words to receive “real world” feedback rather than simply my own and their peers’ feedback.

And to that end, here are links to the 10 different tours created by both sections:

Auburn Outdoors: https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=zcLVIgGNcFyo.kNAU8qN0OedA (Links to an external site.)

Alumni Tour: https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=z73Z_hv9Q3oM.kL9ITwpK7F7k (Links to an external site.)

Tour of Auburn for Alabama Fans:https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=zZmQyWv6RyV4.kFCbHIrZdgFs (Links to an external site.)

Tour for Auburn Athlete Recruits: https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?hl=en&authuser=0&mid=zKQoDEq_Gr48.kyOzH2Pelu9k (Links to an external site.)

Throwback Tour: https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?hl=en&authuser=0&mid=z2gg4xedAOyw.kxEUevHP9vzg (Links to an external site.)

War Eagle Walk: https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?hl=en&authuser=0&mid=z-xtXj3bVYZQ.kR8jWdUalt1I (Links to an external site.)

A History of Auburn: https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?hl=en&authuser=0&mid=z-xtXj3bVYZQ.kR8jWdUalt1I (Links to an external site.)

Study Hard; Play Hard: https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=zltInmVGr-ek.kWSdUk2q4ntc (Links to an external site.)

A Walk of Romance: https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=zfyWmpMA222Q.kfbHnND33kRA (Links to an external site.)

Auburn in the Making: Architecture Tour https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=ziGfDPXizNj4.kyitS8H27-cw

Multi-Modal Collaborative Writing: Mapping My Campus

Team Based Learning: What Students Think So Far

In addition to conducting peer reviews on Project II in class, we began with a 6 question Self-Reflection assignment. I asked them what constitutes good writing, what they have learned so far in the course, what they can do to improve in this class, what they can do to 2015-09-08 09.09.46improve as a student in all their classes, what piece of advice would they give an incoming student about how to succeed in this course, and what they thought about Team Based Learning. Their responses to this question, in particular, blew me away. Not only were there   positive responses across the board, but they were backed with more specific and insightful reflections than the other questions elicited. I’m sharing some because they make a compelling argument for the positive outcomes of Team Based Learning in the Composition classroom, and I hope it might inspire others to try this approach.


I have a pretty strong work ethic, but when my group depends on me, I put even more pressure on myself.

I have learned, to my surprise, that I thoroughly enjoy working in groups in an English class setting. I usually do not ask peers for writing help in English but it has been a welcomed change.

I never really had the opportunity to show myself that I have leadership qualities until this class.

I am learning how to work in a group.

You have to pull your weight in every project and so does everyone else or it doesn’t work.

My communication skills are excellent with people that are similar to me and share the same background as I do. I have learned at Auburn that you won’t always be around people with your same background.

Attend class everyday because your group counts on you and your presence is vital.

We always did peer review in high school but it was more or less just letting someone make a couple marks on your paper and hand it back. It was not as hands on and personal as this is and this has taught me how much I do like to work with others.

I feel very proud of myself for being able to work in a group and be able to depend on others to do their part.

I have learned that it takes a maximum amount of effort from each person individually to work well as team.

I have also learned that it is easier to comprehend an assignment when you have four other people you are constantly in touch with. They are there to reach out to if I need help, rather than going directly to the professor.

When working with a group, sometimes decisions are not easily made because everyone is trying to please each other.

For this project I have had to be a vocal leader.

When we were placed in groups I became nervous about this class for two reasons. The first being I didn’t not know the work ethic of the members in my group. The second being I didn’t know how good of writers they are. After much communication I have realized they all work hard and are good writers as well.

Teamwork and collaboration has made me come to enjoy working with others despite the fact that there may be more conflict.

I have learned that I actually enjoy working with other people. That’s honestly a big deal to me.

I have learned that even when working in a team just as much effort needs to be put forth.

I have learned that I work better with a group, when I know that I have other people’s grades in my concern. My learning style is very kinesthetic and hands on, which is why I enjoy working on projects. I have also learned that the more papers and essays that you write, your work starts to slowly get better each time.

Team Based Learning: What Students Think So Far

Group Conferences & Closing the Feedback Loop

Group Conferences vs. Individual Conferences

This week I held group conferences with the teams. Starting on Tuesday, in both sections, I met with each of the 5 groups of 5 students for 25 minutes. They had already received grades and written feedback on their essays. The point of the conferences was to speak one-on-one with each writer about their performance and give them the chance to ask me questions.

In the past, I’ve held these sessions as 10 minute individual conferences which, as you might imagine, eats up an entire week: 8 1/2 hours just for the conferences (not including the grading of each paper). In order to do this, I have to cancel our regular class. I think there’s a lot of value to this practice; however, it is a TON of exhausting work. The pay-offs, beyond forming a stronger personal connection with your students, are difficult to assess.

The benefits of the group conference are several:

  1. Don’t have to cancel class. They are in the middle of Project 2, which is a Team Collaboration. They were required to show up (I keep Attendance) and then work with their groups on their project; they were free to use the classroom to work, go to the library, coffee shop, outside to enjoy the gorgeous weather, visit their map sites (part of their project requirements), etc.
    I posted guidance and tasks on the glass boards around the room before class started rather than make verbal announcements. Students were not allowed to interrupt conferences to ask me questions. They wrote questions on their own boards so other teams could help them out.

    I loved this solution because it meant that instead of 10 intense minutes of conferencing (their obligation during a week of individual conferences), they spent 25 minutes in an intense conference and an additional 2 hours working with their group.

  2. Implicit Feedback: They hear me give feedback to 5 people instead of 1 and therefore get more models of how writing is assessed. The fact that they had already read their peers’ essays means they could contextualize my comments and reflect on their own essays in more meaningful ways.
  3. Explicit Feedback: Everyone got a focused, 5 minute discussion of their writing and had the chance to ask me about the rubric, written comments, and advice on how to improve.
  4. Peer Feedback: They got to ask each other questions and, since I ended by going around the circle asking each person what they would do first to revise the essay, they got to see different approaches to writing and revision. Also, they learned a lot more about the work ethic, writing quality, and personality of each of their team members who they are having to collaborate with throughout the semester.

Closing the Feedback Loop

Instead of simply giving them my assessment of their writing, I had them take notes on the conference under the categories Explicit & Implicit feedback. To model writing as a process, I offered them an opportunity to revise for a higher grade based on the written and verbal feedback they received, with the stipulation that in addition to the revisions, they had to compose a Letter of Intent to Revise to be submitted with the new draft.

The point of this is to ensure that they are reading and thinking about the feedback in a meaningful way, that they approach revision comprehensively rather than grammatically (i.e. that it is an exercise in writing, not editing), and that they realize just changing wording or fixing typos does not produce a stronger draft.

There are added benefits for me as their instructor which is that I will be able to see (rather than simply guess) how they are interpreting my feedback and how I might better tailor it to their needs. For me, this is not only going to help me grade them more accurately but also to do so more quickly and more effectively.

Sample Assignment: Letter of Intent to Revise

If you want a shot at a higher grade (there is no chance of a lower grade if you revise), you must compose a letter to me that describes in detail and in your own words what feedback you received—explicit and implicit—and how you used it to revise your paper.

This is not “busy work” or a superfluous requirement, and attempting it does not guarantee additional points. I will be looking for evidence of real understanding and a genuine attempt to wrestle with the suggestions you received and apply them to the essay.

There’s a famous saying, “Writing is re-writing.” The point of this is to give you the chance to improve as writers and reward that additional work—if it is worthy—with additional credit.

Last, it gives you the opportunity to invest additional time in what is the most important step of all when it comes to writing: REVISION.

Deadline: You have 1 week from your conference day to submit your letter and your revisions. There will be no extended deadlines or acceptance of late work. This is purely optional but you have to do it in a timely manner. You will upload your letter and revision as a single document to the assignment that I will release on Canvas on Friday.

Group Conferences & Closing the Feedback Loop

What’s Going On Here? — Interpreting Direct and Indirect Student Feedback

One Minute Papers

On Tuesday the students submitted their Project 1 papers on Canvas and we began the class with a 10 minute self-reflection and feedback session. They composed four “One Minute Papers” which are, as the title implies, prompts or questions that require the student to respond quickly and candidly in 60 seconds. Often they are used to conclude a class period. They offer the instructor a way to gauge how well students followed the lesson or understood the material that day (and of course they bring writing into the classroom as well as the habit of self-reflection). For more on One Minute Papers there are plenty of resources like this one, “Gone in Sixty-Seconds” from Berkley.

I used them as a low stakes moment of decompression to prime the pump for the real reflections they will be composing next week (after they receive their grades on Paper 1 and have their conference with me) and to formally end the first unit before we start the next.

I posed the following questions as a series moving from broad self-reflection to project-specific reflections:

  1. How are you doing? (Reflect on your first 3 weeks of college)
  2. How are you managing your course loads? And what are you going to do if you fall behind in one or more of your courses? What’s your Plan B? (Most are taking 18 hours of core classes–meaning a heavy load and almost no overlap between subjects. For example, one of my students is taking: Composition, Algebra, Physics, Intro to Computer Science, Intro to Engineering, and World History.)
  3. What did you find most challenging about Project 1 and how did you overcome that challenge?
  4. What knowledge or skills did you acquire that you can apply to future assignments in this class or others?

Stop, Start, Continue

This is a feedback tool I learned from Diane Boyd this summer. As the title implies, you will get feedback on what students want you to stop doing, what they like and want to see you continue doing, and an idea for what, in their minds, might make the class better. The beauty is in the brevity and specificity of the prompt.2015-09-13 09.11.25

I asked them to compose two SSCs, one on their in-class experience so far and one on their Canvas, or out of class, experience. I also prompted them to be rhetorical and consider their audience, the greater good of the group, etc. Overall the feedback has been useful and encouraging. They seem to have really enjoyed the intense structuring I used to stage Project 1 and they have a lot of clear specific suggestions for how I might improve our Canvas page.

How Do You Know When It’s Working?

Beyond formal solicitations of feedback, there are informal ways to assess how your class is going. Facial expressions, hidden cell phones, eye contact, body language, etc., are nonverbal cues that can help you gauge how invested the students are during class.

launchings_jan2015But there are other ways, I’m learning, to determine how successful your class is at engaging your students. At a Biggio workshop, someone mentioned that they know things are going well when the students don’t want to leave at the end–either they stay to talk with each other or just linger around the door to chat with you. Another instructor shared one of his marks of success is when students start helping each other figure things out rather than, or at least before, asking him. The quality and tenor of conversation that takes place before class begins can be another positive indicator as the semester progresses. Assuming the conversation advances past, “Did you do the reading?”, you can get a feel for the kind of community that your class is developing into. I would be very interested to know of other tacit indicators that instructors rely on to get feedback on their class. If you can think of any please share in the Comments below!

Is Ignorance Bliss when it comes to Student Feedback?

I have several colleagues who admit they never look at their student evaluations because they find them, at best, vague and unhelpful and at worst, well, it can get pretty bad depending on a variety of factors–many having little to do with what the evals purport to be assessing. Large classes and core classes score lower than small and upper division courses, divergent subjects higher than convergent, male instructors higher than females, majority ethnicities higher than minority faculty, etc.

In the past two years I have experimented with soliciting student feedback throughout the semester in different ways in an attempt to gather more meaningful data on what students actually experience in the classes I teach. Although it’s been one step forward, two steps back and I am still trying to figure out best practices, here are 3 things I’ve learned:

  1. When asking for feedback, explain to the students why you want it and how you will use it.
  2. Ask specific questions about what they did, why they did, how they did, etc. and not how they felt about a particular assignment, etc. You cannot control or adjust for their personal tastes and often this is the kind of question that leads to the most depressing responses. Focus on actions and behaviors, not opinions and feelings, in other words.
  3. Let go of your ego. Cultivate humility and the belief that collaborating with your students can help you become a better teacher. Not asking for feedback is easier and more pleasant, but you lose the chance to grow.

My question for you: How do you assess your class throughout the semester?

This is a topic that is, admittedly, hard to broach because it demands an acknowledgement of our vulnerabilities, but what could be more useful than knowing our struggle is a shared one and getting some tips on how to make it easier?

So, let’s hear it: What works and what doesn’t?

What’s Going On Here? — Interpreting Direct and Indirect Student Feedback

Peer Reviewing with Canvas: Excellent, but Plan Ahead

This was my first crack at conducting Peer Reviews using the Canvas “Require Peer Review” option in Assignment. It was very successful in both classes. I would advise others who are trying this out for the first time to plan carefully how many drafts per group and what kind of feedback you want students to give each other.

Caution: I am doing Team Based Learning (TBL) so students work in the same group throughout the semester. This means I wanted each group to review the drafts of all their teammates. In Canvas, there is no option in the Manually Assign Peer Review Groups tool to assign by Group. You have to manually add every student to every other student. This took about ten minutes per class and was annoying. However, if you are not doing TBL you can simply have Canvas assign students randomly to groups based on the number of members you want in each. This works really well and saves time.

Warm Up Self-Reflection

I gave students a copy of the rubric they created on Tuesday and asked them to spend a few minutes re-reading and reflecting on their Drafts in order to decide which of the 5 categories of evaluation they felt was their strongest and which was their weakest.

In the Active Learning classroom, I had each team draw a chart on the board closest to their table and write their name, strong cat., and weak cat. In the regular class room I gave them each a notecard and had them write strong cat. on one side and weak cat. on the other. They were able to pass them around the group to share with their peers.

We reviewed the rubric and the 3 Rules of Feedback (Specific, Actionable, Kind)–maybe I should call this Feedback SAK?…maybe not–and I showed them how to access their Peers Drafts on Canvas and the Rubric. Canvas lets you build customized rubrics into the assignments. Students had to score each essay based on the 5 categories (5 points each for a total of 25 possible points) and write one specific, actionable comment for each of the 5 categories. Every team has 5 members which meant every student had to read and score four drafts.

I instructed them to look at the board (or notecards) while they worked and spend more time giving feedback on their peer’s self-identified weakest category and less time on the strongest.

Main Event: In Class Peer Review

Students got to work pretty quickly and were able to sustain their concentration much IMG_2239longer than in a typical, paper draft peer review. One of the additional benefits to Canvas & rubric based peer review is that they couldn’t mark each others’ grammar mistakes. I left that category off of the rubric entirely for rough drafts. They had to look for, and engage with, higher order issues like the Intro/Thesis, Organization, use of Evidence to Support claims, Significance, and how the argument Concluded.

Additionally, by having them read several drafts (because they don’t have to print copies it was much easier to share drafts and let people fishjournalread them at their own pace), they were exposed to more models and interpretations of the assignment. This is by far the most valuable outcome of Peer Reviews early in the semester as their feedback skills vary widely. As I stressed to them all week, Peer Review is for the benefit of the Reviewer, not the person being reviewed. As they say, you can fix a fish’s essay and he’ll have a better essay, but if you teach a fish to read critically and give meaningful feedback, he’ll become a better writer.

Wrap Up

Some finished within the hour, most had one or two drafts to complete as homework. I gave groups the option of conferencing with each other or continuing the review on their own. Some chose the former, others kept working silently.

To conclude, I had each team select the “Most Polished” draft from their team and write the author’s name on a list on the board. IMG_2238

Post Class

I created a document with the 5 Model Essays from each class, as voted by the teams, and posted it in an Announcement to Canvas.

In the past I have been very hesitant to single students out for good or ill. I worried that calling them out might embarrass them (which could lead to disengagement, etc.) On the other hand, I’m trying to stress that the class is a community of writers and our teams are smaller communities within it. We can do more together (and faster) with a group than we can by ourselves–particularly when it comes to writing and editing.

The Ancient Greeks believed that it was only through competition that humans were able to reach their full potential, hence the Olympic games. I see the same thing in my creative writing classes. Students compete with each other to write better poems and they all improve.


In calling attention to the best quality drafts (stressing it is not a measure of essential or innate merit but rather a measure of investment and effort, hence “Most Polished” on a time spectrum, instead of “Best” on a quality spectrum), I am trying to stir self-reflection and competitiveness as well as provide quality examples for the benefit of all the students.

Peer Reviewing with Canvas: Excellent, but Plan Ahead

Collaborating Across Two Sections: Prepping for Peer Review & Building a Rubric

The students are submitting rough drafts of their first papers on Thursday which means we will be conducting Peer Review during class that day using laptops and the Canvas Peer Review tool.

I think Peer Review is an essential activity for a number reasons; however, it is extremely challenging to get students to give each other meaningful feedback. What typically happens is that they read each others’ drafts (assuming they have turned them in on time, etc. etc.) and then they make a few general comments and then they shut down. They don’t want (peer) feedback and they don’t want to give feedback. They just want me to “fix” their drafts.

Activity 1

Today we prepped for Peer Review with two activities. First, I created a document with a single paragraph from every student (I pulled this content from the 7 – 10 paragraph writing assignment they submitted last week: 5 paragraphs to a page. I put their names with their paragraph, although I also considered doing it anonymously…). Each team was given 5 paragraphs and asked to provide feedback in the margins. I had them do this before discussing anything, just to see what they would do/say without any additional direction.

To finish, I asked them to select the “Most Polished” of the 5 and justify their choice. While they read & commented I wrote on the board:

3 Rules of Feedback

  1. Specific
  2. Actionable
  3. Kind

As a class, we discussed the “most polished” paragraph from each of the five groupings and I challenged them to unpack words like “flow” or “personal” or “good”, etc. We concluded by discussing what the 3 Rules meant within the context of the papers they will hand in on Thursday. (Specific = no comments about the overall quality of the draft, only about specific items; Actionable = what can/should they do?; Kind = honest and text-focused, not author focused. I pointed out that having them rank the “Most Polished” was a form of giving kind feedback. No one was singled out, yet everyone who did not get picked now knows more about how readers judge their writing by comparison. Hopefully this sparked some self-reflection!)

Activity 2: Building A Rubric Across 2 Sections

To begin, I pulled up our Project 1 Assignment sheet and asked them how, if they were grading everyone’s essays, they would assess them? (Actually, I started by asking them if they knew what a rubric was–some did not.) We discussed the subjective nature of writing and the need for objective assessment. We discussed criteria and what would be most appropriate to assess based on what they had been asked to do in the assignment sheet. Then, they began to propose categories.

Both classes started with “Grammar” as the Number one Category, but I wrote it at the bottom of the board. It was challenging to get them to think more broadly than issues of grammar and style at first. They said things like, “Word Choice” and “Flow” and “How well it reads”, etc. I had to keep pushing and leading them into bigger picture categories. Eventually they got to: Introduction, Conclusion, Organization, Evidence/Content (or “the stuff in the middle of stuff” as one student humorously put it), and Significance.

Each group was then assigned the task of creating a 5 point scale to evaluate a category. 5 = superior, 1 = not yet (ala Carol Dweck). I explained that the rubric they created together would be used on Thursday to assess each other’s work.

While they worked, I created a table on a new Word document (on the projector) and filled in squares as they completed them so they could see what/how the other groups were completing the task.

That was in my 8:00 am class. In my later class, we did the same activities only instead of starting from scratch, I pulled up the rubric my first class had created and told them their job was to revise and refine the early class’s draft of the rubric.

For example, the first class had described superior “Organization” as “Thorough use of organization to create “flow” / connection.” The second class revised and refined it to: “Great transitions, supports thesis, strong topics.

For “Evidence“, Class 1’s “Thorough word usage. Leaving the reader with no questions. Firm grasp on what happened in the experience” became after Class 2’s revision:  “Concise and descriptive word usage. Keeps only relevant details, leaving the reader with no confusion.”


This was a really successful class plan because it helped me to better understand how they assess writing and how they approach revision. In rewording the language of the first class’s rubrics, instead of actually re-imagining the ideas or scope, I can already see that in the Peer Review (if left to their own devices), they will be hesitant to dig into the content (meaning anything but grammar and style) of their peer’s drafts.

Now I just have to figure out a way to push them to do that, to engage more meaningfully & creatively with the drafts they read. In other words, to begin the process of getting them to consider the foundation of the house before, or rather than, simply suggesting a new paint color!

I’m open to ideas…

Collaborating Across Two Sections: Prepping for Peer Review & Building a Rubric