Amazingly, the semester is already drawing to a close. I’m sure it just started a week ago Monday! Students in all three sections — two of freshman comp and one of magazine writing — are doing exceptionally well. Only a few are under-performing; most are getting their assignments in on time and doing at least a creditable job. More classmates than usual are turning in “A”-level work.
And that is very, very nice.
To tell the truth, about midway through the term I made a change that has made my job a LOT easier and that, paradoxically, seems to have something to do with the classmates’ enhanced performance.
Stealing a page from another instructor’s book, I had developed the habit of asking classmates to write “reading responses” to the assigned chapters in the book. The idea was to get them to go so far as to…well, yes. READ the damn book!
They hate that, of course. And understandably: the book is mind-numbingly boring, and the publisher charges something in excess of $80 for what should be, at best, a $25 paperback. But sadly, the thing does contain pointers and instructions that, once absorbed, will help them to succeed in the course and, one hopes, in future writing projects.
Well, after a few semesters of this strategy, I had come to hate the reading responses, too. There were eleven of the things. About a quarter of the students’ responses to any given RR served only to notify the instructor that their authors had not bought the book at all. Another third or so were exercises in mediocrity. A few of the rest went on at lengths reminiscent of À La Recherche du Temps Perdu. And two or three papers per assignment would show, succinctly and intelligently, that their authors had read the chapter and made a halfway decent attempt at applying its principles to one of the chapter’s attached essays. Reading the stuff had become a tedious chore and a clear waste of time.
So, about midway through the semester, I ditched the remaining RRs and replaced them with machine-graded quizzes.
These were not intended to serve as assessments. Their point was more like that of the annoying online “tests” they make you take to pass some driver’s re-education course you had to take after you got caught speeding on the freeway. The idea was to highlight the key points in each chapter and to give the student a chance to indicate she or he had acquired some grasp thereof. Students had three chances to get the answers right. Quizzes over substantive chapters contained 15 one-point questions; those over what we might call “craft” chapters — “how to write an extended definition,” for example — had five three-point questions. Thus in total they would rack up enough points to make a difference in the final grade, but 165 points (assuming a person aced all 11 quizzoids) wouldn’t overshadow the total 600 points available for the essays & draft materials.
I’d figured this would make my life easier — ELEVEN PILES OF DRIVEL I WOULDN’T HAVE TO READ! — but I had no idea how much easier. To judge by their last set of assignments, suddenly they’re entirely different students. I’d estimate that a good 70 percent of them presented well organized, decently researched, reasonably intelligent arguments. Another 25 percent did…uhm…well…good enough for government work. And only about 5 percent crashed in flames — and in all those cases, it appeared not that the writers were incompetent but that they were lazy: they just hadn’t bothered to do the job.
With those quizzes online, it feels like I’ve hardly worked on the comp courses this semester.
Not so, of course: it took many hours to write the questions and mount them online. Once I’d written quizzes over the remaining assigned chapters, I went back and wrote more questions to cover the chapters for which they’d already done RRs: that is, eight twelve-question instruments and three with five questions. It was a lot of work, but evidently it’s helping the students.
Meanwhile, over in the maga-writing section, only three of the original ten students are turning in responses to any of the assignments. One of these folks is a professional-quality writer whose work would be eminently publishable in national forums. The other two are unarguably “A” students — though I may devote some time to conversing with them, that’s quite different from the soul-crushing job of trying to explain basic literacy to some poor soul who can’t write a grammatical sentence or build a coherent paragraph.
I kind of doubt the college will let the magazine writing course go again. Really, what a waste of the district’s resources to pay to instruct 30 students when only three participate. I almost feel guilty for accepting the money. As for the comp courses, turning the busywork into machine-graded DIY learning “quizzes” lifts so much dreary labor off my shoulders that it almost feels like $2400 is fair pay for the work I’m doing.
We’ll find out this summer, when I have a seven-week online comp course. We’ll recycle the quizzes, replacing all of the reading responses. And that will mean only the essays and the prewriting exercises for them will have to be graded! And six papers is a far cry from 17…