Revision Assistant Case Study: George Whittell High School

Motivating Students to Revise More Leads to More Practice, Greater Success



Needing to Motivate Students to Revise More

In Douglas County, Nevada, near Lake Tahoe, sits George Whittell High School, which is a small institution of about 200 students in the seventh through twelfth grades. It has the honor of being a Nevada High Achieving High School, and benefits from a strong and supportive community and parental base. Even in this setting, though, there are challenges in providing all students with the necessary attention it takes to encourage them to practice their writing and to revise. Susan Van Doren, an English teacher who instructs 60 to 80 students in the ninth and tenth grades, and in AP English, believes the problem lies in the fact that, “in the real world I can’t give immediate feedback. I can’t clone myself 30 times and stand over each student while they’re writing, and I certainly can’t grade 60 or 80 essays in one night and get it back to them the very next day. So by the time the essays get back to the students with my comments, sometimes they’ve forgotten what it was they wrote, or what the writing assignment was.” Ms. Van Doren also recognizes that feedback is best given to students while they are in the midst of writing, and that not all feedback is equal in its effectiveness: “the hardest thing is: how do I, on the spur of the moment in the writing situation, give feedback that is specific and helpful and that’s in their zone of proximal development.” Additionally, she worries that the students do not always read and apply her comments as effectively as they could, noting that they are mostly motivated to do so only when she makes their revisions a part of their class grade. And, again, because of the time factor, she cannot offer them many opportunities to revise in a normal setting.

Implementation

Ms. Van Doren’s introduction to Revision Assistant came about due to the fact that she was asked to score a select group of sample essays to help train Revision Assistant’s algorithms. She was so impressed by the system that she began using it in her own classes. At first, Ms. Van Doren assigned some prompts as homework assignments to her honors classes, and she even used one of the writing assignments as the final exam for her ninth grade class. In this latter, summative, context, she first had students read through the source document and identify challenging vocabulary. She then read it aloud and asked the students to respond to the text by writing down meta-cognitive markers. Next, she had them discuss their annotations in a Socratic-style seminar. Finally, they wrote their responses to the prompt in Revision Assistant. Following those initial uses, she began using the tool for in-class and at-home, formative exercises in many of her courses. She would be careful to make sure that each assignment was connected to her curriculum, so students would have received the necessary scaffolding.

Results

Though some expressed disbelief that a computer program could provide much help on their writing, the students showed excitement at the opportunity to use a new tool. Right away, Ms. Van Doren saw the students begin to revise more. She found this amusing because, “it’s not like I wouldn’t let you revise your writing before.” However, she believes that the instant feedback and the signal check icons (which measure the strength of an essay on each rubric criterion) motivated her students to keep working at crafting their pieces of work. The final submissions that came out of the ninth grade final exam were even, “the best essays I got out of that class all year.” One possible cause for this, she observes is that, “they don’t really see it as ‘I’m doing more revising; I’m doing more work,’ even though they are. They see it as, ‘there’s somebody here with me me that is helping me with my writing and helping me improve it.’”

The best essays I got all year were out of that class.
— Susan Van Doren

Though Revision Assistant’s feedback and signal checks more directly supported the development of the students’ writing, their improvement could not rely upon the tool alone. For that, they depended upon one another in peer-to-peer discussion and upon Ms. Van Doren with her lectures and in-person conversations. However, she saw that Revision Assistant had an influence on how these interactions occurred. Ms. Van Doren finds it challenging to talk to students about their assignments if they have hardly done any work on them at all. But since Revision Assistant helps them get started and work through many issues before talking with her, and she can see what they have written with the tool’s comments, then, “I can help them understand those comments or help them understand what to do with those comments. It takes me so much further ahead in my ability to help my students.” In addition, she has observed that the system has facilitated much deeper and more effective conversations the students have with one another. Her students are at a stage in their development where it is difficult for them to articulate detailed, actionable commentary on others’ work, as it is also difficult for them to separate the person from the writing. Yet, when using Revision Assistant, they encounter terms (such as “word choice”) in the feedback, and see how those terms connect with their writing. Given the vocabulary and the context, students are much more capable of having rich conversations about the writing concepts and how to apply them to their essays.

It has made all of us, not just better writers, but better communicators about writing.
— Susan Van Doren

One result of all of this Ms. Van Doren had not foreseen was that, “Seeing the comments that Revision Assistant gives; hearing the kids talk about which of these comments are helpful and which aren’t; helps me to give feedback to them when I am evaluating their final work, and when I’m talking to them in class as they’re using Revision Assistant. So I have noticed that I’ve gotten a lot better at giving feedback since I’ve been using it.” In reviewing the data reports in the tool, and reading through the students’ drafts, she could identify the common issues the students were encountering, and modified her instruction appropriately to help them. Also, Revision Assistant reinforced the importance of her suggestions and advice by providing an impartial, “second opinion” to the students.

Interestingly, Ms. Van Doren observed a difference in reactions to the tool between her developing and honors students. The honors students were accustomed to being commended for their writing, and as a result, had been extremely self-confident. Though they certainly did have well-developed skills in some areas, most needed more work on other skills (as it is with all students), and Revision Assistant would highlight these needs for improvement. Sometimes, the honors students found this information difficult to accept, and, at times, confusing, since it conflicted with their self-perceptions. But again, here Ms. Van Doren points to the benefits of Revision Assistant, since it allowed these stronger writers to focus on developing those specific skills. Additionally, she remarks that the use of systems like Revision Assistant might be an opportunity for teachers to reflect on what they accept as proficient writing, and as a chance to hold students to higher standards. The developing writers, on the other hand, appreciated Revision Assistant’s value more because it offered them support immediately, with specific and targeted feedback. They already knew that their writing needed improvement, but receiving positive comments made them feel more confident that they could improve.

There was one particular student with whom Ms. Van Doren struggled to get to write or revise much at all. However, using the tool, he was able to relate to the comments, whether positive or constructive. In Ms. Van Doren’s words, he would say, “‘Yeah, I know I’ve always had trouble with my language, and this is telling me that I’m having trouble with my language,’ and then he went in and started to fix it.” This student also gained more confidence when Revision Assistant informed him of the areas in which he did well. He produced more writing on his final exam, using the tool, than he had for any other assignment in the rest of the year, and continues to this day to write and revise more than he ever did.

Madison, a sophomore English honors student, confirms that using the tool had an effect on her self-esteem: “I like how it tells you how you can fix your essay to make it stronger and better, but I also really like how it gives you confidence on what you did well so you know to keep on doing that.” This confidence led to more practice and revision. McKenna, another sophomore honors students confesses that with traditional pen-and-paper, “To be quite honest, I did not do many revisions….because I assumed that [it] was already good.” Using Revision Assistant, however, she went through nine revisions on an assignment before turning it in. She also claims that the tool specifically helped her improve her essay’s structure and transitions between paragraphs. Tiller, an eighth grader, would typically only write one or two drafts for an assignment, whereas, with Revision Assistant, he revised twenty times. And, during the writing process, he doubled the length of his essay. In his view, Tiller believes that using the system helped him produce more engaging essays, as well.

Ms. Van Doren observes that, after having experienced Revision Assistant, her students have learned the value of editing and revision. While she previously, “struggled with how [to] get my students to revise,” now her classes, “know now that revision works; they’ve seen it happen.” Consequently, the students’ writing has increased across the board, because they are more prone to apply this lesson to all of their assignments. In Ms. Van Doren’s view, however, there have been other benefits. Revision Assistant, “has enabled conversations that I have with my students. It has enabled conversations that they have with each other. And it has made all of us, not just better writers, but better communicators about writing.”

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