Evaluating Real-World Assignments to Engage Students and Improve Communication Skills
Rebecca Hewett, English Professor
California State University, Bakersfield
Hewett uses Turnitin to evaluate assignments other than the traditional research paper, assignments like powerpoints, data visuals, public service announcement posters, and other community-oriented assignments that engage and empower students to see the value of their education and improve communication skills.
Turnitin: Welcome to the Turnitin Educator Spotlight Series! My name is Kenneth Balibalos. Joining me today is Rebecca Hewett, English Professor at CSU Bakersfield and the Grading & Feedback Winner for the Turnitin All-Stars Award Program. Welcome Rebecca, thanks for joining us today.
Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
R.H.: My name is Rebecca Hewett, and I am an English Professor at California State University, Bakersfield. I teach primarily general education courses that everyone has to take at all levels--from freshman comp to upper-division writing that they have to take before they graduate, to graduate-level writing classes specific to different departments. Some of our graduate programs require writing courses, for example, “Writing in Social Work,” “Writing in Business,” and those kinds of things, or nursing or whatever. So it depends on the program, but mostly they’re either required courses by campus-wide or by particular programs.
Turnitin: How do you use Turnitin, and does it change depending on the different classes you’re teaching?
R.H.: If you have a basic freshman comp class, the point of those classes--the basic freshman class--would be to generate a research paper. So they may have smaller research activities beforehand, but they’re usually writing. They may have some timed, in-class writing that they do that they’ll submit to Turnitin. They may have some reassignments, where I give them a source and they summarize it into a short, one-page typed summary, and they’ll submit that to Turnitin. It’s kind of cool, because that way, I can see how they’re using and incorporating sources and whether or not they’re taking things out of context, or they’re not punctuated properly or plagiarizing unintentionally. So that would be a typical composition course, and it’s mostly all papers.
Then, I have more business writing type courses where they’re doing letters and emails and memos and meeting minutes and agendas and things like that. They’re looking at all the different kinds of writing that happen in a workplace—different things like PowerPoint presentations or visuals.
Turnitin: What are some of the benefits of using Turnitin.com?
R.H.: On Turnitin.com, I can see the whole document, and I can place in my comments strategically without moving around any of their formatting. You can see the entire document, you can see my bubbles of comments, and they’re not shifting anything around and students see exactly what I’m pointing to. I can highlight parts; I can change them to different color; I can strikeout; I can highlight parts and say strikeout; I can highlight parts and put a comment in that says what it should look like. So across the board, I love the way that it doesn’t mess up their formatting, and it doesn’t cause me time trying to fix their formatting so that they can read my comments. They can read my comments right on top. So that helps. Turnitin offers so much more than just looking for plagiarism or helping with plagiarism.
Turnitin: What about your graduate-level courses? How do you use Turnitin?
R.H.: Graduate-level writing courses are usually specific to a particular program. So for example, like the social work program, they’re reading, they’re writing, they’ve done PSAs (public service announcements) projects which incorporate research that maybe focus on a particular organization here locally, and they can submit a PSA as a visual, like a poster. They can submit a PSA as a commercial and maybe break it down into a PowerPoint presentation, or they can turn it into a Word document, either way.
So, those types of assignments are different than just a typical paper. Students are actually trying to spread awareness about child abuse or alcoholism or some social issue, and maybe it’s not something that they can write about, or they could write about it in a paper but maybe my assignment isn’t just a paper. So, it’d be something that maybe could be broadcasted or televised or hung in a welfare office.
Turnitin: Why do you have those types of real-world assignments that you talked about?
R.H.: I like to have assignments that are practical and useful. For example, the proposal assignments where they’re targeting a specific workplace and finding something in their workplace that they’d like to see changed.
One person worked for PG&E, and his project had something to do with travel and travel expenses that for which he wanted to see a policy change. I have students who are waiters in Elephant Bar and want to see a rule changed for breaks, or maybe they want to move a smoking section for the employees or different things like that. I have students who work for Air Force bases and face different steps of protocol that they need to go through. Police departments or law enforcement also involve these completely different types of protocols and hence proposals.
Multiple times students have taken that proposal after they’re finished with my class and submitted it to their supervisors or their employers and had policies changed because they have something well thought out and researched and well presented that they can provide to an employer and see that change, and be taken seriously.
So, I love practical examples. I love things that are useful in our community or useful to their personal lives, and those are the types of assignments that I do. So, it’s not always just an essay. I think that’s what this approach has done for me, and we can adapt assignments to make them easier on ourselves and more effective for the students.
Turnitin: What type of feedback do you give them as an English professor?
R.H.: I’m commenting on a visual assignment that they’re submitting to Turnitin.com. So they’re submitting their visuals and explaining them. I’m commenting on those. They may be incorporating them into a PowerPoint presentation and they’re submitting those, and/or they may be incorporating them into a proposal, like a report-- that’s documented that outlines what change or policy or whatever they’re trying to propose, and they include those visuals into that, and they submit that to Turnitin. So all along the way they’re getting their work submitted.
Their images are ridiculous. Sometimes students will use different kind of graphs to chart something that shouldn’t be charted. Maybe they need the pie chart which should show parts of a whole that add up to 100%, and they’re trying to depict tracked sales over the course of four years. I let them know that you can’t use a pie chart to depict that kind of data, so my feedback has more to do with the types of visuals that they’re using and whether the visuals are going to be effective for presenting the information that they are trying to present. Those visuals will end up being then incorporated into their proposal.
I have the opportunity to say, “That visual is not going to work,” or “That visual is great,” or “That visual is great, but your color scheme is horrible,” or, ”You can’t tell the difference between those two columns, choose a different color.” Or, “This is very pixelated,” or “This looks like you got a lot of this information off the internet, you need to make sure that you cite the source of this information. You need a citation and it should look like this.” Or maybe they have a citation, but it’s incorrect, so I can correct it then. It gives me the chance to check all of those things before they put it in their formal proposal.
Turnitin: Why is it so important to engage students in this way, engaging them with learning that has practical applications in the real world? It seems like this is a very clear way that you approach your instruction.
R.H.: I think so. But like I said, some people would disagree with me, but that’s how I feel. I feel like if I can apply my education to my life, then I’m going to learn more, my education is more valuable, and it’s going to carry with me into all these other aspects. We’re making that connection.
So to give students that kind of an opportunity--to do that now while they’re in college-- it won’t be a culture shock when they graduate. And now, we can say okay, go find a job when they have the tools and the knowledge and the understanding of how things work and what their part is in that and that they have the power to communicate effectively in whatever venue that is.
And I think that’s maybe part of it, too--we think of English, especially writing classes as, “You’re writing. You got a piece of paper, you’re sending it to somebody else, whoever your reader is, and that’s all they have.” It’s flat and one level, and that’s it. And that’s really not how the world works anymore. It’s international and multimedia, and they need to know. They need to know how to use all of those tools.
Turnitin: Why is Turnitin so important for you as an instructor?
R.H.: Turnitin has helped me find multiple opportunities to teach and reinforce communication on all different levels--more levels than just an essay or a research paper, but through multimedia experiences and real-life interactions. And, being able to connect those to employment and the community and all the other avenues of a student’s life that incorporate writing is very important.
So, when they leave our classrooms, they know how to write some research papers, but they also know how to communicate with their employers, and they know how to communicate with the community, and they know where their position is in this whole cycle of life. And that’s empowering. Communication is more than just that research paper, and to see Turnitin offer the abilities to reinforce those communication skills--it’s changing the way I teach.
Turnitin: Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience with us. I’ve been talking to Rebecca Hewett, English Professor at CSU Bakersfield.