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Critical thinking: Posing questions as feedback on writing

Hello Colleagues, In my experience, I’ve found that asking students to revise the first draft of a piece of writing in response to a set of questions about the content, rather than by marking mistakes, has been effective. I’ve also involved students in providing feedback to their peers – also in the form of questions. We write our questions on sticky notes, and then students revise their writing by responding to the questions on the sticky notes.

In an article found here http://www.nea.org/home/34816.htm, Derek Turner argues that posing a set of questions on a piece of writing can be an effective way to support the development of critical thinking skills. I think Turner makes an excellent point. The process of writing questions for peers also provides learners with the opportunity to enhance their skills as critical thinkers, so both the writers and the peer reviewers use and refine critical thinking skills in the process.

What do you think about posing questions about writing as a way to support and enhance critical thinking skills? Have you used peer review? How has that worked in your class?

Cheers,

Susan

Moderator Assessment COP

Comments

Di Baycich's picture
One hundred

Several years ago a friend of mine did his dissertation on what effect written comments had on students' writing. What he found was that students a. didn't understand the comments, b. didn't know what to do about the comments, c. ignored the comments and just looked at their grades. So, I agree that asking questions would be a great way to guide the revision process.

Miriamb3's picture
One hundred

This is very interesting, Di, about students ignoring the comments and just looking at their grades. Maybe the students could be sort of scaffolded to understand and respond to the comments: The  teacher could take time during class to discuss the questions one-on-one with the student to explore how the student might answer the questions and rewrite the paper.

Di's comment about her friend's dissertation reminds me of a philosophy class I had my freshman year of college. The teacher never wrote comments on the papers we wrote - just letter grades. A classmate who had received  a C or below on her paper said she had asked the teacher how he graded the papers and he told her that he just threw them down the stairs and whatever step each paper landed on was the grade assigned it - A for the top steps and so on down the stairs down to F. She said she wasn't going to try anymore because it was clearly just random. Of course the teacher had been joking, but because he never wrote any comments on the papers she was willing to believe that there was nothing she herself could do to improve her grade! So let's hear it for questions and comments and time to address them in class.

Miriam

 

 

Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

Hi Di, Miriam and all, I think it is true that students do not always understand the comments teachers make on writing. Having a one-on-one conference with a student is a good idea since the teacher can explain the comments and respond to the student's questions about the comments. The article I cited suggests posing a set of questions on student writing and asking students to respond to the questions in writing, in lieu of asking students to revise their writing. The author talks about how students often approach revision in ways that are rather perfunctory. Responding to questions provides a structure for student writing that could be seen as more meaningful. Thoughts?

Cheers, Susan

Moderator, Assessment COP

irina morgunova's picture
Ten

This is absolutely true with my students.  They just don't read the comments.  Even when I write, "Please talk to me" or "Please stay after class", they never do because they don't read that.  When asked to correct their mistakes, students would rather write the whole thing again differently than work on the mistake correction.  So special activity with questions would help students understand how to work on their mistakes and how to read and understand teacher's comments.

Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

Thanks for sharing your experience about giving feedback on writing with us, Irina. If you try out the approach of asking students questions about what they have written, please let us know how it goes.

Best, Susan

Moderator, Assessment COP

Sarah Braun Hamilton's picture
First

I find that asking questions at every stage of the writing process is very helpful for all students to learn to focus and revise their writing. I try to function as the audience for my students' writing and ask my genuine questions about what they mean, where they are going with their ideas, and what I'm curious about that they haven't mentioned. Once the final draft comes around, though, if there's a grade involved, it's true that students no longer look at comments or questions, they only look at the grade. So the questions need to come earlier: on the topic proposal, the thesis statement, the outline of main points, the first draft, etc. And then the grade needs to be based on (among other things) how well they responded to the questions. A one-on-one paper conference (with the teacher or with a peer) is also useful. I feel that a lot of what I am doing is teaching students how to be curious and express their curiosity in terms of questions, and to answer questions. So we ask questions about what we read and share them with each other (I love the idea of writing questions and passing them to another group to answer), and then we treat our own writing in the same way. Sometimes I need to remember to phrase my comments as questions ("What do you mean by _________?" rather than "I'm not sure what you mean here.") I feel asking a question rather than making a statement models expecting answers rather than accepting confusion. ESOL students especially, but also native-speaking students who are not strategic or experienced readers, often blame themselves for not understanding something, rather than blaming the writer or speaker for not being clear. So it's great practice in critical thinking and assertiveness all around.  

Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

Sarah, Thanks for your thoughtful response. You remind all of us of the benefits of phrasing our comments on student writing in the form of questions. Someone I've learned a lot from about providing feedback on writing is Rachel Martin (2001). Some folks on this list might be familiar with Martin's wonderful book Listening Up: Reinventing Ourselves as Teacher and Students. Martin makes the important point that she does not want her comments to predetermine what the student writes. She states that she wants to "avoid telling the writer what to do, while at the same time encouraging people to keep writing" (p. 104). In Martin's class, she often asked volunteers to read aloud their drafts. Here are some of the questions Martin uses when responding to students' personal narratives:

  • "What's the most important thing you're saying?
  • What came into your head as you finished reading?
  • Where are you going to go next?
  • Do you hear any voices? Do you see a scene?
  • Can you place a check where there's more to tell?

I think these questions are especially well-suited for narrative writing and could be adapted for other genres as well. What do others think?

I especially appreciate your making the connection with asking questions and critical thinking, Sarah. Can you say more about that?

Cheers, Susan

Moderator, Assessment COP

Sarah Braun Hamilton's picture
First

Thank you for the recommendation of Martin's book. I will check it out. I like the questions suggested, especially "what's the most important thing you're saying?" It's very telling for a student when they realize that they aren't sure how to answer that question. For me in my own writing that's a critical part of my revision process. Modelling my own process is important, because I find that students expect to be close to finished after the first draft, whereas I expect them to take the whole thing apart and put it back together again in the revision process, including putting aside some parts and going out to find new information.

I have found also that asking questions around why students have included certain information that to me seems irrelevant can reveal connections that they assume but did not make explicit in their writing. "How is this connected to ________," "Why do you want the reader to know this?" And if they don't know, maybe that bit needs to go in their "outtakes" file for a little while. 

Lots to say and think about this topic, but I've got to run for the moment! Thanks for the good discussion.

Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

Sarah (and all), I like posing that question, "Why do you want the reader to know this?". I think that question could really get writers thinking about the purpose for their writing in fresh ways. There may very well be hidden gems that they can then make explicit!

Thanks for your response!

Best, Susan

Moderator, Assessment COP

Becky Webb's picture
First

I had just heard this in a recent conference I went to as well.  I like questions because they are looking for answers (ie a 2nd draft) as opposed to comments which are just there.  I also like them because they are a way to offer constructive feedback without sounding negative.  It's avoids the types of teacher comments like, "Your points are well organized, but your grammatical errors made them hard to understand" where students sometimes see the 'but', experience defensiveness or disappointment, and forget the positive stuff.  The emotional response can cause students to miss the value in the criticism.  Questions can help get around that as they're more neutral.

Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

Becky, Thanks so much for your comments. You make a good point about needing to phrase comments so that students can be aware of the strengths in their writing. We also know there is an important place for corrective feedback. I prefer to provide this type of feedback in a later draft of student writing rather than the initial draft.

I would welcome hearing how you and others provide guidance to students on grammar and mechanics in their writing. What has worked well for you? What questions do you have about providing this type of feedback on writing?

Cheers, Susan

Moderator Assessment COP

rtowne's picture
Ten

I use WH questions that can be added on to a student's written sentence.  Some students pick up on these  WH questions and use the technique on their own.  For example:

S writes: I drive to work.

T asks:  When or Where   or both

S writes the extension:  I drive to work in the afternoon. I work at Crayola.

Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

Thanks for this comment, Rosemary. I'm sure you have found, as I have, that English learners need a great deal of practice with those basic questions words. You've found an excellent technique to scaffold for those who need it and to review those words in ways that are meaningful to the learners.

Best, Susan

Moderator, Assessment COP

Dorothy Taylor's picture
Ten

One aspect of asking questions as feedback that I've found to be important is addressing with students how to incorporate the responses to those questions into their writing. Students I work with often have no problem answering questions that other students or I pose about their writing, but are completely stymied on how to revise their writing to incorporate this information. I've found that addressing this next step in one on one conferences helps, as does modeling how to incorporate changes in a whole group discussion with a student volunteer sample. Does anybody have suggestions for additional strategies?

Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

Thanks for your comment, Dorothy. I, too, have found one-on-one conferencing really important in helping students move forward with revising their writing. You also point out that students often need the teacher to think aloud while revising to help everyone to better understand how to revise. Your method of modeling this for the whole class is a great way to do this. Using student writing can work well, as long as students are comfortable. We can also use our own writing to think aloud and model the revision process. 

I would like to add that I have learned that talking explicitly with students about the value of the revising process is critical. I firmly believe that it is in revising that we develop our skills as writers. Those of us who write a lot, revise a lot. In fact, I've heard it said that there really are only three rules for good writing. Revise. Revise. Revise.

It would be great to hear how others have successfully engaged students in revising their writing.

Cheers, Susan

Moderator, Assessment COP

irina morgunova's picture
Ten

Journaling is another activity that I will add to my writing class on top of other assignments.  Journaling will not only help students gather ideas, but also help them write in a stress free environment where they don’t need to worry about all the mistakes they could possibly be making.

Peer presentation evaluations.  When students make presentations, its “easy” for me to understand, but do classmates understand them as well? I have decided that during an occasional presentation, I will have the classmates evaluate the presenter and grade them themselves.  It’s very important for the presenter to be able to reach all of the audience, and not just me.

Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

Hi Irina (and all), Thank you for your comments about journal writing and about student presentations. I have used journal writing a lot in my teaching and it has been a very useful approach, especially for certain students. In my practice, I have typically used journal writing as an opportunity for students to develop their fluency in writing -- stress free, as you put it, Irina. I've also used dialogue journals a lot, which is a conversation in writing between the teacher and the student.

While students often ask me to correct their journal writing, I usually don't. I explain that in journal writing we are working on fluency, i.e., helping students to express their ideas in writing without stopping to worry about spelling, punctuation, etc. We work on improving both the content and the mechanics of writing with other writing assignments. That being said, students might choose something from their journal writing to develop further. In that case, we would work on improving the content as well as edit for the mechanics of the student's written work.

You make an excellent point about student presentations need to be delivered in such a way that everyone in the audience can understand. What ideas do you have for ensuring this happens?

It would be great to hear community members' ideas for how to structure a presentation activity to be sure everyone can benefit from the presentation.

Cheers,

Susan

Moderator, Assessment COP

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