Peter Elbow, "How to Use Writing to Improve Student Learning"

February 13, 2015

Description: We invited Peter Elbow to reinvigorate “Writing Across the Curriculum at the college.” This initiative was begun in 1973 and it needs to be renewed and reconsidered periodically. We all need ways to help our students learn to write well in our interdisciplinary programs. It is a skill that all graduating students should have.

Peter Elbow is Professor of English Emeritus at UMass Amherst. He directed the Writing Program there--and earlier at SUNY Stony Brook. He also taught at M.I.T., Franconia College, and The Evergreen State College from 1972 to 1981.

His most recent book is Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing (Oxford University Press, 2012). In it he explores spoken and written language and shows how even casual careless spoken language has many linguistic and rhetorical virtues that are needed even for careful writing.  And his edited volume has just appeared:  Landmark Essays on Speech and Writing (Routledge 2015).

His other books about writing include Writing Without Teachers, Writing With Power, and Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. He also wrote Oppositions in Chaucer; Embracing Contraries: Explorations in Learning and Teaching; and What is English? With Pat Belanoff, he wrote a textbook, A Community of Writers and a shorter version, Being a Writer.

The National Council of Teachers gave him the James Squire Award "for his transforming influence and lasting intellectual contribution" to the profession. The Conference on College Composition and Communication gave him the Exemplar Award for "representing the highest ideals of scholarship, teaching, and service."

Summary: Peter began our session by asking us to write on the topic of what we hoped to get out of this session and what problems we face. He did this to suggest that we need to set up conditions that lead students to write. Free writing that is private is a good way to do this. He suggested four modes of writing(PDF): writing that will be evaluated, writing with responses that do not contain judgment, writing that is read out loud but  receives no responses (except perhaps “thank you”), and private writing. Writing, he explained, should be about perplexity. It is good to wrestle with ideas. For this reason, it is useful to use low stakes writing(PDF) because students don’t learn about a discipline unless they can write about what they’re learning using their own words and metaphors. He suggested free writing about a problem or issue or question. He also suggested using writing after students solve a problem to reflect on how they arrived at the solution. Giving students heuristics to solve problems may not be the best way to help them. Research shows that students do not move from step to step as they solve problems even if they have learned a heuristic.

When you assign middle or high stakes writing(PDF), it is useful to think about why. Naturally there are times for high stakes writing(PDF); that is, writing that will be evaluated. When asking for high stakes writing, it is important to include peer review and comments from you in drafts. If we only comment on essays, projects, and research papers due at the end of the quarter, students may not benefit much because they’re on to something else the following quarter. He likened this process to an autopsy.

Peter then asked us to write again, this time to reflect on our own writing. He asked us to read what we had written, at least in part, to the person sitting next to us. This was a great way to bring us back to the points he was making about the value of low stakes writing to help students learn because we also wrestle with ideas in our writing.

In assessing high stakes writing, Peter advises a two-step process. Ask the student to write a cover letter explaining what was going on when the student wrote the piece. What is the student trying to say? How is the student responding to comments in the peer review? This helps you understand more about the writing. He provides helpful ways to respond to student writing(PDF) that saves time and addresses multiple aspects of the writing. [Note that handouts from his talk are available by clicking on the blue links.]