Revision Assistant Case Study: Dalton State College
Providing Support to Increase Success in Post-Secondary, Developmental Writing
Seeking Greater Support to Build the Foundation for Success
Dalton State College, a unit within the University of Georgia system, is a broad access institution that serves around 5,000 students. Many Dalton State students are the first in their families to attend college and work full- or part-time while attending to their studies.
Developmental writing professors in Dalton State’s English Department face a variety of challenges in providing every student with the support they need to write at a college level, a skill that is fundamental for success in all their courses. For one, Jenny Crisp, Assistant Professor of English, recognizes the value of timely feedback: “the faster students get feedback, the better they feel they’re able to respond to it.” She notes that even if a week passes between writing a paper and receiving comments on it, students have forgotten much of the context and the thoughts they had while writing, which makes it more difficult to work with and apply the feedback towards their next revision.
Jennifer Randall, Assistant Professor of English, finds that it is challenging to get students to start writing, to get them motivated and enthusiastic, and to inspire them with topics about which they are interesting in writing. Dr. Randall notes that students also look for many different kinds of feedback. Often, they focus on features such as grammar and sentence structure, though she would like them to pay more attention to their essays’ organization, construction and thesis support. Janice Bolding, Lecturer of English, adds that providing enough feedback to encourage them to write more and acquire more practice is key. Yet, the more drafts students write, the less time professors have to dedicate to each individual draft to provide that critical feedback.
Recognizing these issues, the English Department at Dalton State explored and experimented with a couple of computer-assisted writing systems before implementing Revision Assistant. There were issues with these prior programs, however: one was too complex and cumbersome to use and the other came with considerable cost barriers to students. Dalton State’s English Department began using Revision Assistant because it did not have these problems, but still provided significant support to students’ writing, which led to substantial results of success.
The English Department piloted Revision Assistant within two classes in its first semester of use (with around 60-80 students), and then continued using it within all developmental classes in the two semesters following that (around 175 students each semester). Each course used Revision Assistant for at least two papers. Students typically began by composing their first draft in a timed writing environment, and then continued to revise and re-work the essays as homework following that. The advantage with this structure is that it gave students practice for their final exit exam, which is a timed writing assessment, but they would also learn how to draft and revise. Dr. Crisp also assigned papers over the semester break, noting that Revision Assistant offers the advantage of giving students support while they are on their own, outside of school.
The professors observed that students’ initial reactions to the system were of trepidation and skepticism, not knowing exactly how it worked, nor believing that a program could offer insightful comments on one’s writing. However, after familiarizing themselves with Revision Assistant, students took to it quickly and used it frequently for their assignments. Whereas students hesitated in using the prior essay evaluation applications, all of their students enthusiastically used Revision Assistant. Dr. Crisp believes that, “as they become comfortable with it, it feels like...having help while you’re working on something, even on a break.” It may also have been the case that the students were less nervous about the “judgments” of a computer program than those of their instructors. According to Dr. Randall, “it’s more like a helpful friend than this eye in the sky kind of looking down and saying, ‘oh, you made a mistake!’” Since the students were more at ease, and because they had the benefit of the tool’s instant feedback, they were more prone to revise. In Janice Bolding’s words: “I think one of the things I noticed immediately with Revision Assistant was a comfort level with writing essays that I hadn’t seen before because they could just practice and practice and practice.”
The other professors agree with this perspective. Dr. Crisp observes that, “students write many drafts; they write more and I think they spend more time with it because they can get that instant feedback.” The feedback served the students and instructors in multiple ways. For one, it offered the students preliminary help and suggestions on issues they could take care of on their own (such as organization, style choices, avoiding formulaic writing, and adding more examples to support their theses). In enabling them to get their essays in good enough shape, the feedback saved their professors time so that student and instructor could concentrate on the more complex problems within the writing. Subsequently, the in-person interactions and meetings had more value. Additionally, students did not always understand the feedback that came from the system, and they needed more clarification. This led to other in-person discussions with the professors that opened up opportunities to discuss more nuanced issues about their work.
In conjunction with the feedback, students receive “signal checks” in Revision Assistant--graphics that look similar to a cell phone signal icon--that show the strength of a student’s essay as measured against several rubric criteria. The professors think that students were motivated to “raise the bars” of the signal checks, almost as though it were a game. Dr. Randall notes that ,”revision typically is such a hassle and no one wants to do it, but when you use Revision Assistant...they enjoy revising because it’s almost like a game, they get to see where the errors are, how they can fix them, and then they re-submit for a higher grade.” The students, also, make similar statements about the program. Hannah, a freshman at Dalton State, recounts how Revision Assistant helped motivate her towards a better product: “The first time I used Revision Assistant I noticed a difference between my first draft and my final draft, because I took the feedback and I re-typed, and re-typed, and re-typed...and I kept clicking on the signal check to make sure that I had revised it as best as I could. And then when I got to the end of my paper, taking from my first draft and going all the way down to the last draft, I could see such a big difference.” Another Student, Martha, when asked whether writing had become a more fun experience for her, replied, “Definitely….I don’t really like to write papers, it’s like my worst enemy, but with Revision Assistant it’s really become a huge help. With all the tools that Revision Assistant provides ….it makes it fun to write.”
The feedback and signal checks lead students to not only make substantial revisions, but to work and experiment with the details of their papers. As such, the instructors saw students in many cases strengthen their essays incrementally, with dedication. According to Dr. Crisp, “they’re using it at that fine level [of] editing and changing a few sentences and improving those sentences, and trying again...and I’ve noticed that the students who are struggling most with [the] development of a paper, for example, the more drafts they write, they start putting in a little piece, and then they’ll put in another little piece...and then suddenly they’ve got examples all over the place and it’s like, ‘yes, that’s what we’re going for!’” Dr. Crisp believes that in making these small, constant revisions, guided by the feedback provided by Revision Assistant, students, very consciously, recognized the value of the writing process itself.
The students in Dalton State’s developmental writing program are emerging writers. They, as all students do, need as much support as they can get in order to improve upon their skills and reach the next level. Yet, students write at all times of the day and in many different places outside of class, so their professors cannot always be around to offer advice. Instructors must also divide their time and attention amongst many students. Revision Assistant served to fill in those gaps, and provide support when instructors were not available. Its feedback offers guidance, while the signal checks motivate students to write more.
The English professors at Dalton State believe that the increased practice is the key to the students’ success. “I think Revision Assistant helps students the most really just getting them to write more, getting them to edit more, and getting them to see the value in that,” Dr. Crisp says, “they start seeing ‘hey there’s some value to this writing process thing after all.’ And so when they get to a final product, it’s something that they’ve worked through, and they’ve proofread, and they’ve edited, and they’ve revised...and they can see ‘hey I never wrote anything like that before.’” These sentiments are echoed in the students’ statements. Hannah’s summation of her experience demonstrates how her use of Revision Assistant led to greater confidence and sense of self-efficacy: “I would say that Revision Assistant has made me an amazing writer. I love writing now...during my first few times I probably revised more because I liked the signal check….But as I’ve grown into a better writer I use it less because I know what needs to be changed. Revision Assistant has [helped] me catch things that I didn’t use to catch.”Download PDF