Responding to Student Writing Using Cloud-Based Microlessons

by Benjamin Spanbock

Want to watch a video introduction to microlessons? Click Here

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Why Microlessons?

While the applications of hyperlink technology to student essay writing may seem narrow at first glance, building instructional content directly onto a digital document has the potential to critically intervene into discussions concerning best practices for responding to student essays. Using Google Docs, a hyperlink to any lesson created and housed online (as another Google Doc, for example) can simply be pasted into a comment and directed towards a specific area of a student essay. Students can then click on the link and access a "microlesson" on any topic the instructor chooses.

Adding concisely presented and targeted microlessons directly to a student’s essay complements the shift in the field of writing instruction from what John Bean refers to as an “editing-oriented commenting strategy” to what he calls a “revision-oriented commenting strategy” (68-70). Briefly, the shift suggests a movement away from marking and/or correcting errors towards a model favoring feedback in the form of poignant questions and encouraging critique. He writes for example that, “by not marking errors, instructors avoid sending the misleading message that a poorly written essay simply needs editing rather than revision.” Bean’s model is part of a larger strategy that advocates the benefits of learning primarily through engaged interaction with a task, and in this case the student’s engagement with her or his own writing.

This more active approach to the essay writing process holds students responsible for engaging with and improving their own writing, rather than passively correcting mistakes. Yet it also presents logistical limitations for instructors. First, it presupposes that students already have a strong understanding of the conventions of written English, and specifically the kind of written English that is required for the particular essay they are writing. This is particularly concerning given the increasingly large number of students still developing full fluency in English, who might be genuinely unsure of how to revise their prose beyond what is presented in the draft. Second, despite the incredibly honorable intention of privileging higher-order thinking, Bean’s model for revision-oriented commenting devalues mechanics as a second-tier skill divorced from skillful argument. 

In response to these issues, microlessons allow instructors to target both lower AND higher order problem areas of an essay, and respond to them with a lesson (rather than a correction or a comment). By creating lessons that address some of the most common issues that undergraduate writers struggle with, instructors can quickly provide materials to help a student learn how to identify and improve problem areas specific to their own writing without correcting “mistakes” for them. This technique might be particularly valuable in field-specific or topic driven courses, where good writing is fundamental to student success but does not factor into what an instructor can or should tackle in class or when providing feedback. Microlessons might also be used to reinforce course content directly, by referring a student back to a given day’s lecture notes posted to the cloud.  In a course principally about writing (like those I teach in the College Writing Programs), microlessons can reinforce lessons taught in the classroom. They can also save time spent writing the same comment over and over again across a set of student essays. In many cases microlessons can free-up classroom time from reviewing concepts that not all students need practice with, and avoid the potential for writing lessons to become divorced from the actual writing process.

In this later example, microlessons reflect the ethos of the “flipped classroom” model, in that they take passive instruction on course materials and move it out of the classroom. Like the flipped classroom model, microlessons have the potential to create more time in the classroom for active engagement. The critical difference between microlessons and traditional renderings of the flipped classroom model is that these lessons can be used as frequently or infrequently as required, and on an individualized and case-by-case basis. As described below, they can also be designed to require students to engage actively by applying the lesson to improving their own writing, so that non-classroom engagement is increased and given a more active quality.

It should be noted that microlessons do not have to exist in place of revision-oriented commentary. They can stand side-by-side any other comments left on the page. They can also alleviate some of the repetitive commenting and editing that may, as Bean claims, suggest to students that the paper “simply needs editing.” In my experience, adding a hyperlink to even one lesson on a student paper can save a great deal of time otherwise spent commenting on a single issue several times. In this regard, microlessons also save time when providing feedback on student writing, another tenet of Bean’s revision-oriented strategy (246). Yet more importantly, microlessons can turn a pervasive problem into a  meaningful instructional opportunity 

What should microlessons look like?

As hyperlinks written inside a comment bubble, microlessons attached to student writing will look very similar on the page. Yet due to the the variety of instructional materials that might be required by any given course or instructor, the content of microlessons can be very different. Perhaps the most compelling quality of microlessons is that they are only limited in form by what you are able to create online. As suggested above, they can be directed towards specific grammatical content, higher order writing issues such as paragraph development or incorporating topic sentences, or content related to the student’s topic. In example one (below) You can see what a handout on guidelines for using articles with nouns looks like applied to student writing

Of course, the web is a dynamic place, and you are not simply limited to written content when applying microlessons. As suggested by the comparison made earlier to the flipped classroom, microlessons can also be “microcasts,” or short explanatory videos made with increasingly accessible screen recording technology. In example two (below) you can see what a video discussing integrating quotes into an academic essay looks like when applied to student writing. (Because I was already working in the bDrive/Google environment, this semester I developed several microcasts from home using Snagit, a free technology for recording voiceover demonstrations of whatever you put on your computer screen. Snagit then saves finished products directly to your Drive. For those looking for a more professional touch or assistance, ETS also offers high quality lesson recording in their studio facilities.)

Example One:

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Example Two:

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What should microlessons ask from students?

To ensure that these lessons are not just forgettable moments or wasted pedagogical opportunities, students should always be asked to actively apply the strategies presented in the lesson. (This also prevents against students learning to just avoid clicking links you send them!) This can be done by asking students at the end of the lesson to respond to the hyperlink comment with a description of how and what they have changed in their essay. (You can see this in the first comments provided in examples one and two.)

Reviewing student work and commentary on writing errors also supports the pedagogical utility of creating a ‘culture of follow-up’ when presenting new information outside of class. At this point, live meetings on a document and email notifications created through document comments can play a critical role, as can in-person office hours and, when appropriate, seminar style in-class discussions on the different areas where students are focusing to improve their writing. In the next two examples, you will see responses from students provided from examples one and two, as well as my follow-up on their work. Changes made to the draft by students is highlighted in green.

Example Three:

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Example Four:

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In example three, you see a student’s response to my initial comment shown in example one. After highlighting changes green, the student called me back to the essay using the +email configuration described in more detail here. The student read through the lesson and made an effort to revise the paragraph, with some success. The paragraph included here shows some of that success, and also some continued trouble. After reading the lesson, the student still demonstrated some confusion regarding when and when not to use an article (choosing to include the word “the” in front of both instances of  “affirmative action” in this paragraph for example). However, with the essay already notated it was easier to identify the issues and areas that needed continued work, facilitating a more productive follow-up.

This brings up a critical point about microlessons, and flipped writing instruction in general. The lessons provided for students must never be thought of as a solution for treating “problems” in student writing. Rather, they are meant to be the beginning of a discussion about rules, conventions, and stylistic techniques made personal by beginning precisely at the site of each individual student’s writing and isolating specific needs for continued practice and development. This dialogue, and the student driven work that fuels it, become the principal factors in creating active engagement online 

The process of tailoring engagement through follow-up is seen in example four as well, which also demonstrates progress based on information drawn from the lesson. In this case, the student’s response is linked directly to the microcast lesson. After watching the video and highlighting changes, it was easy to identify what suggestions could be made to customize the lesson for the student.

Implications and Future Directions:

The implications of online writing instruction executed in the manner described above are wide ranging. Principally, pushing writing instruction online raises a number of questions concerning how we as educators define the limits of “active” learning, a concept not typically associated with online instruction. However, my feeling is that, as social connectivity continues to grow online, engagement will become a concept with unique connotations in online and physical spheres respectively, with each holding distinct potential and value. It therefore also seems relevant to mention the physical classroom itself here, and how active engagement online translates to, corresponds with, and brushes up against the more conventional kinds of “physical space” active learning that are vital to the writing process and a hallmark of both traditional and more contemporary active learning classrooms. To be sure, the promise of creating spaces for active engagement online creates an urgent need for both rediscovering and re-imagining the active potential of classroom spaces.

Works Cited:

Bean, John. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Blass Publishers, 2001. Print.

Ben Spanbock, UCB College Writing Programs