There is no question that writing, and in particular academic writing to a deadline, is a major source of anxiety for students (at any level!).The reasons as to why so much anxiety focuses around a task that lies at the core of the university experience – at least for arts students- are certainly complex, and worth unpacking. One of the reasons though can often be poor planning of essays, which results in a very complex and time- consuming writing process where the writer simultaneously tries to write well while at the same time still working through the linearity of the argument. So, at one and the same time, a writer may be polishing off a particular section while trying to fit it into the flow of the discussion. It makes the writing process unpredictable, and in the case of students trying to finish several assignments to the same deadline, this often leads to both panic about deadlines slipping and diminishing returns on coursework as the first essay has taken so long, it has eaten into the planning time for the next one, and then by the time essay 2 is done, there is no time left to satisfactorily tackle the last one, so it gets rushed.
Now, you could argue that this is a problem that needs not exist, and one could solve this by staggering deadlines and impose assignments where deadlines are sequential, and students are clearly guided as to the order in which to tackle them. Actually, I firmly believe that there is value in providing a single deadline that has to be met through multiple submissions; surely, the ability to plan and execute several tasks simultaneously and to a consistently high standard is one of the very most valuable skills students learn at university. The students who thrive in this context are adaptable, flexible problem solvers who can manage pressure, and they do so by developing strategies that help them to take control of their workload.
And this is one area where I can guide and mentor my students by sharing best practice about writing, and work with them on developing good strategies as a writer. Because of the constant pressure on writing as an instrumental process to gain the highest possible mark in an assessment, the process of writing, for many writers, at all levels, has become associated with the production of ‘stuff’, an essay or an article, and as a result, the process of writing has become entangled with the actual process of thinking, planning and structuring.
Now, I am quite fortunate to be working with a colleague, a philosopher in fact, who has written and self-published on academic writing. Professor Stephen Mumford’s paper on Academic Writing in the Arts (often referred to as the #mumfordmethod) sets out a very clear case for both a more instrumental approach to writing (writing is a means of communication, so get on with it and get it done) as well as a case for the significance of word smithing. His paper makes a compelling case for separating the process of planning and structuring a piece of writing from its execution. In my teachimg, I have experimented with this idea for a number of years now, and playing with different forms of planning for an essay has become something I have introduced ever earlier into skills development sessions with my students. But, until now, I had used essay plans as a means of formative assessment, which has worked especially well for stduents who were planing their essays anyway. While looking at a more rigorously planned essay structure with them, through discussions of the #mumfordmethod, I was able to reinforce already good skills in time management and organisation, but that did not work for the students who maybe benefit most from a more structured approach to writing. So, the logical next step was to make an essay plan a summative part of assessment. And gues what? Right at the point where I was experimenting with this as an idea, Stephen Mumford too was reflecting on these issues, in his paper on Academic Writing and Its use in Assessment…
So, for the first time this academic year, essay plans are now a summative part of assessment for my modules at Years 2 and 3. As yet, the percentage weighting assigned to the essay plans remains at a very small 10%; this may be revised up if I feel that the exercise genuinely benefits students and translates into better essays. A second consideration, alas, has to be work load and whether I can cope with this increase in marking. Of course formative assessment is an ideal, but it can be very difficult to reconcile this with actual teaching demands. Which is another reason why I made the plans part of summative assessment, to demonstrate the value of investing my time into them. What I am hoping for, of course, is that a greater engagement with an earlier stage of the planning process will make marking the essay that results from it both quicker and more developmental, but let’s see what happens.
At this stage, I have marked and returned feedback for 60+ essay plans at Levels 2 and 3. For both cohorts, I offered two deadlines, an early one in Week 5 of a 12 wek semester, and a second deadline in Week 8. Students could choose which deadline they were submitting for, and in both instances, I undertook to return feedback within a week, a tight turnaround time for me, but one I met; this is important to turn the plans round fast or the students have not got time to reflect on my feedback and write the essay up.
Of the plans I marked, quite a few were very well structured and developed for the first few sections of the essay, but this quality of work trailed off sharply towards the end. You could really see the point at which the writer had run out off time for getting the plan sorted and wrote’ Conclusion: summarize arguments’, which is really not very helpful and indicates that the thinking about a piece of writing is simply not done yet. Of course, I have followed up my written feedback on the plans with talking to students, and what became apparent then was something I had not anticipated. Because students were aware that I had indicated a one-week turnaround time for the submitted essay plans, they had moved off their work on my essay and worked on something else, and by the time they had my feedback and returned to their plans, their thinking had developed substantially, and in all cases indicated that the final structure for the essay would be better than the plans had indicated. I am hopeful that this exercise will result in higher quality essays for me to read but also a more pleasurable writing process for the students.
A second group of plans clustered itself together in a group best named the ‘Doubting Thomas’ group. These students engaged very superficially with the exercise and reproduced different types of plans in the #mumfordmethod 2-column format, but there was little linearity in those. Of course, This method of planning does not suit everybody’s writing and planning style, but I still expect that students in this group still benefited from planning in any way.
And then there was a third group who produced truly superb plans, linear, structured, with a nice sense of balance between analysis and description. The feedback I have had on the plans from this particular group tells of students who plan anyway but who have been challenged to refine their plans. In one instance, I saw a student plan by hand, carefully handwriting arguments. She articulated this process as one where by handwriting the plan she forces herself to think slowly, so her hand can keep up with the speed of her thinking, and to think carefully, as she does not want to have to rewrite her plan by hand. The structure of that essay looks as tight as any I have seen, so fingers crossed.
And something else has happened which is immensely pleasing to me: I have never seen more copies of a dictionary and a thesaurus out on tables in my building. With the process of planning concluded, the students have moved to the process of writing well, and seem to be rediscovering their love of words.
Now, the essays will come in next week, but at this stage, I am very hopeful that by placing more emphasis on the mechanics of writing my students have found the space for thinking? Win/win?