Blending Classes With Creative Student Work
Writers don’t complete quizzes. They write. They read. They reflect about what they’re doing. They discuss what they’re doing.
–John Vigna, Assistant Professor of Teaching (CRWR) and Annabel Lyon, Professor (CRWR)
This set of learning activities provides a model for using low-stakes, formative assessments to build towards a major assignment through a process that integrates opportunities for peer feedback and self-reflection. The activities were developed by John Vigna and his colleague, Annabel Lyon, as part of a redesign of the course CRWR 209, Introduction to Writing Fiction. In the course there are three major writing assignments, with each following a similar pattern of activities that build up to it.
The components that are part of the sequence leading up to the major assignment are:
- A carefully planned series of low stakes writing activities incorporated into the weekly lessons. These are used as active learning exercises during class and give students the opportunity to practice applying concepts from the lessons through short writing and develop materials that build towards the major assignment.
- A guided peer assessment activity where students share drafts of their assignment and receive feedback.
- A structured self-assessment that guides students to reflect on the writing process, the feedback they received and how they incorporated that feedback into their writing assignment.
Together, these learning activities provide a scaffolded approach to the major assignments that build confidence, foster community and provide multiple opportunities for feedback and reflection.
As part of the Large TLEF project, Redefining the undergraduate learning experience in Creative Writing, John Vigna and Annabel Lyon engaged in a redesign of CRWR 209, Introduction to Writing Fiction. The course, which was traditionally taught as a large face to face lecture course, was transitioned to a blended model where 50% was done online and 50% was done in person, and later to a fully remote course in response to Covid-19 during the 2020/2021 academic year. As part of the redesign work, the course team wanted to make sure that the pedagogical decisions they were making were grounded in what students wanted. Through an extensive effort to collect student feedback, John and Annabel learned that:
- Students wanted much more emphasis on community.
- Students had difficulty managing distraction and staying engaged.
- Students recommended more facilitated interaction with instructors, TAs and peers through active learning.
The first iteration of the course used quizzing and discussion as a way to encourage engagement with the online materials, but the instructors weren’t happy with the response. Although they understood the need for frequent formative assessments, they wanted to move towards more authentic activities that had greater relevance in the discipline. Writers don’t complete quizzes. They write. They read. They reflect about what they’re doing. They discuss what they’re doing. The redeveloped assessment design refocused students’ time and effort on the type of things that writers actually do.
- Build a sense of community in courses focused on creative student work through active learning
- Provide frequent, low-stakes, formative assessment activities that allow students to apply key concepts through writing
- Help students develop their craft as writers through scaffolded, sequenced series of teaching and learning activities and assessment tasks
- Offer cycles of experimental practice, feedback, peer assessment, self-assessment, and critical reflection
Course: CRWR 209 008, “Introduction to Writing Fiction”
Number of Students: Large Lectures
Delivery: Synchronous and asynchronous. Students engage with online lesson content that prepares them for the class sessions where the learning activities take place.
Pedagogy: Active learning, blended learning, peer assessment, community building, self-reflection, scaffolded assignments
Technology: Canvas Assignment tool, personal laptop
Keywords: collaborative group work, peer discussion, student engagement, self-reflection
Learning Activity 1 | Low Stakes Assessments Building Towards a Major Assignment
Each week, students engage in low stakes writing exercises that provide opportunities for them practice elements of creative writing being discussed in that week’s lesson. Since writing can be anxiety inducing, these low-stakes activities help students start to apply the skills they are learning in a context that puts them at ease and allows them to take risks and try new things. In addition, the writing activities are designed so that the material students generate builds towards one of the major assignments. This helps students connect the concepts they are learning each week to larger course goals and see practical value in engaging with the activities.
Can be done synchronous or asynchronous
- It is important to make sure that the writing activities are aligned with both the weekly lessons and the major assignments. To do this it is helpful to use backward design to first identify key learning goals, then plan the major assignments before mapping out the weekly lessons and corresponding writing activities.
- Prepare the writing prompts for each lesson. They can either be posted ahead of time on the course web site if you want students to have time to think about them or presented to students during class, depending on the nature of the prompt.
- Set up a Canvas assignment for each weekly prompt where students will submit their document for grading and feedback.
- Students are required to bring a laptop to class to engage in the writing prompts. It is important to include this requirement in the syllabus and discuss the expectation with students at the beginning of the term.
- The writing prompts are used as active learning exercises during class sessions. In a typical class session the instructor might spend 15-20 minutes presenting a concept related to writing craft and then stop the lecture for students to engage in the writing activity.
- Students are given time to work on the prompt, independently in class. Then, students might be asked to reflect on or discuss their writing in small groups or as part of a whole class discussion.
- In a class session, there may be one writing activity, or the activity might be broken up into smaller parts that are used as separate activities dispersed across the lecture.
- For each class session, students create a single document that they submit online at the end of the class for grading and feedback.
Grading and feedback
- TAs and Instructor read the submitted writing activities each week and give a pass/fail grade.
- For about 10% of the students each week they respond with light, supportive feedback, often in the form of a question to help prompt thinking and connect low stakes activities to larger assignment. The instructional team rotates through the students that receive feedback each week so that throughout the semester all students receive feedback on a portion of their assignments from both the instructor and TAs.
- For some of the activities, the instructor will select examples of student work (with permission) to share with the class. These examples are used as in class discussion activities and then engage students in conversation about the work. This provides in opportunity to showcase examples and model in-depth, constructive feedback.
Learning Activity 2 | Peer Assessment Workshop
For each of the three major creative assignments in the course, students participate in a “draft day” one week before each assignment is due. On this day, students bring a rough draft of their assignment to class and engage in a structured peer review activity. Students work in small groups and the instructor provides a template of questions to guide students through writing feedback for their peers. Then, the groups discuss the drafts using a second set of guiding questions. Students share their written feedback with each author and also take a picture of the feedback they receive to submit to the teaching team with their final draft. Students explore the peer feedback and make a plan for how they will revise their final assignment.
The activity is done in a single class session.
- Draft days are planned for the class session one week in advance of when the major assignment is due.
- Prior to the peer assessment session, it is important to introduce students to the peer assessment process and model or provide guidance on how to provide constructive feedback. It is important to guide students to go beyond encouraging or flattering feedback and how to present valuable, critical feedback in a way that is diplomatic.
- Develop and distribute the guided worksheet that students will use for the activity. Go over the worksheet with students ahead of the activity and if possible, modelling how to use it to provide effective feedback.
- Students break into small groups and share their drafts with each other through a guided process.
- The instructor provides a template of questions to guide students through writing feedback for their peers. Then, the groups discuss the drafts using a second set of guiding questions. Students share their written feedback with each author, take a picture of the feedback they receive, and submit their feedback to the teaching team.
- During the activity, the instructor and TAs monitor the room and offer peer groups questions to ask of each others’ work, provide guidance on ways to read each others’ work, and share strategies for offering feedback.
- Students receive feedback on their own work from their peers and then have one week to incorporate the feedback, revise the draft and submit the final assignment for instructor grading
- Completion of the peer review activities on draft days counts towards each student’s participation grade.
Learning Activity 3 | Instructor Feedback and Self-Reflection
When students submit their major assignment, they are also asked to submit a self-reflection along with it. Students are asked to reflect on:
- How their writing prompts build each week,
- How the draft is taking shape,
- How it is being received by their peers, and
- How they can synthesize the feedback to apply it to their work.
- What their challenges were
- How they will address these in their next assignment
Although students are being graded and receiving instructor feedback, it is important for them as writers to be able to assess their own work and think critically about the feedback from their peers. Another goal is for students not just to think about the grade, but to think about what they’re doing, how they’re doing and what they can improve upon. In addition to the formal reflection students submit along with their final draft, there is also an informal reflection activity completed in class on the day that the final drafts are due.
Synchronous and asynchronous
Students complete a larger reflection outside of class and then a shorter reflection as part of an in-class activity.
- Prepare a set of guided questions that students will use to engage in the larger reflection activity that is submitted along with the major assignment.
- Set aside time at the beginning of the class session following the assignment due date to debrief as a class and complete the self-reflection activity.
- Students complete the self-reflection activity as part of the submission for their major assignment using the guided questions that are provided ahead of time by the instructor. Instructions for the self-reflection activity are provided to students as part of the larger assignment instructions.
- On the day the assignment is submitted, when students are ready to forget about it, the instructor engages them in an activity to reflect on how they are feeling after submitting, but before receiving their grades. During the first part of class, the instructor leads the class in a debriefing discussion and gives students some time to write down their thoughts about what they learned from the assignment, how they utilized the feedback from the peer assessment and what they learned through the self-reflection. Students are then asked what they will take from the experience to help them improve as writers and bring forward into the next assignment.
- Students submit the in-class reflection at the end of class as part of the writing exercise for the day.
- The larger self-reflection activity is included as part of the grade for the major assignment. The in-class reflection is part of the writing exercise that is graded as participation for the day it occurs.
Example Materials/Additional Resources
Additional Resources: Blending Classes with Creative Student Work: Balancing Online Interaction & Live Lectures (July 20, 2020)
- Learning Activity 1 | Low Stakes Assessments Building Towards a Major Assignment
- Learning Activity 2 | Peer Assessment Workshop
- Learning Activity 3 | Instructor Feedback and Self-Reflection
- Examples Materials/Additional Resources