You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

David Schaffer/istock/getty images plus

We often claim that we encourage our students to take risks in their writing, reaching beyond comfortable topics and habits to learn new perspectives and skills. We might encourage students to revise a piece of writing in order to think differently about a particular topic and even stress the difference between revision and editing.

What we frequently do not address, however, are the ways our learning environments can directly contradict our claims and encouragement. Critical thinking, reflection and the application of what one has learned seem to be everyone’s goals but not always everyone’s practice. To establish an environment that truly supports student learning, we should ask ourselves the following questions.

1. Do our students feel safe enough to take risks? Humans have evolved to avoid threatening situations. The paradox we face as teachers is this: the more comfortable we make students feel, the more they will embrace the discomfort of learning something new. The more we can ensure safety, the more they will take risks. Considering the extraordinary effort required not only to learn how to write but also to learn through writing, we need to cultivate an environment in which failure is natural, welcome and necessary.

Success or failure are not individual products; rather, they are dependent on the social context. In other words, if a student struggles, a sociocultural explanation would not view the struggles as inherent within the student—instead, struggle emerges via the social interactions in which the student engaged. This difference is vitally important. Attributing struggle to the individual student assumes that the student will always struggle. A sociocultural attribution believes the student may not struggle if the environmental conditions are changed.

Feedback can play a critical role in shifting students’ perspectives from fixed to shifting contexts. For instance, instead of focusing on what students did (right or wrong) in an assignment, feedback can call attention to what students can do in relation to the learning objectives: “Now that you successfully wrote a summary, you can synthesize multiple summaries into a review.” Some call this approach “feedforward,” because it keeps the perspective on what can be done next.

Feedback can also emphasize context by providing students with options for improvement rather than recommendations or prescriptions. Making them aware of the impact particular choices can have but ultimately leaving the choice with the student empowers them while also reminding them that there is no fixed answer.

2. Do we assign failure as a natural part of revision and, ultimately, learning? Assignments need to be designed for students. Descriptions need to invite, not demand, student engagement, and invitations are most effective when they are encouraging and interesting. Remember the paradox: the more difficult the tasks, the more encouragement is needed.

The fixed mind-set, according to Carol Dweck, confuses performance with identity (“If I fail at writing, I must not be a writer”) and thus fixates on performance. No one wants to be a failure, a very different phenomenological experience than simply failing at something. Therefore, people with fixed mind-sets are more likely to worry about how their performances are recognized by others. On the other hand, because growth mind-sets separate performance from identity (“If I fail at writing, it doesn’t mean I’m not a writer”), it promotes the idea that potential can be cultivated through different means.

To encourage a growth mind-set, I don’t provide an ultradetailed assignment prompt that takes cognitive effort just to unpack; instead, I invite students into the design process and simply give them the objectives. I might say something like, “In this age of Twitter and TikTok, people want bite-size information. If we want our ideas to be considered, we need to be really good at summarizing.” After presenting the objective’s associated skills, students contextualize how they will apply those skills towards purposes that matter to them.

For instance, one student might summarize a source or argument related to climate change to learn how a different discipline approaches the topic. Another student might summarize a text so that they can compare their experience to it. The goal of my courses is that students learn how to apply writing skills in various contexts, genres and domains—which requires an ability to transfer. More important than the prep time I save, collaborative design is both inclusive and more likely to promote growth mind-set thinking.

3. Do we intentionally respond to student work with the goals of affirming and challenging them? Let’s say, for example, that a student misuses a term in a paper. The teacher or a peer responds by writing the correct definition. In a later paper, the student writes the exact definition as the teacher or peer wrote it (or, these days, ChatGPT did). We can’t be confident that the student can correctly use the term unaided. If, on the other hand, the teacher or peer asked the student questions about their intentions with the term or provided options for how the student could use the term without providing an exact definition, the learner is aided while still retaining control of their learning.

In other words, the decision for how they use the term differently falls onto them. There is no standard, however. Humans have different experiences that have shaped different needs. What helps one student won’t help another. Instruction, therefore, needs to be relationship-rich and infused with care.

Learning to write takes an extraordinary amount of effort. When interest is high, students are maximizing their effort. In our responses as instructors, we also need to remember that learning is exhausting, even when we are successful. It is especially exhausting when we aren’t successful. We need to validate effort and affirm any success there is, however small. This is worked into the assignment design process through scaffolding. Reflection, critical thinking and other “higher-order” skills are process-dependent, and we often skip the process by not letting our assignments play out over time. Imagine breaking up any assignment into multiple parts. At each part, students could receive feedback, self-assess and make needed changes before moving onto the next part.

4. Do students get a chance to digest, interpret and apply the feedback we provide? Breaking down the assignment into smaller chunks—for instance, demonstrating one skill at a time—gives students early moments of public success. If I am asking students to meet the objective of summarizing a text, I will start with something low-stakes that affirms they already have some skill meeting the objective. Maybe they give elevator pitches for their favorite films or create dating profiles for a fictional character. Then, when we transition to the actual assignment, I highlight the skills they playfully demonstrated as the starting point. I then walk them through phases of effective summary writing (“Step 1: identify the main idea of the text,” and so on) that they contextualize for their purposes.

Finally, on the days when I return students’ writing with my responses, I make it something of a ceremony. First, they verbally reflect on the process. They share challenges, successes and specific skills they used. Then we examine the objectives and whether students understand them as relevant for their individual purposes. Do students feel like they can accomplish their goals, whether it’s succeeding in their major or fighting climate change, because of the objectives they are attempting to meet? These reflective conversations prime students for interest in my responses, as opposed to grades, because they are encouraged to also read responses for growth.

Most of my students submit their writing on the learning management system and therefore would already have instant access to my responses. Still, I hold time in class to review what I told them, allow students to ask me any questions for clarification and organize my responses into a revision plan.

The result of this growth mind-set–by–design approach—of asking and answering the questions that I’ve outlined—is that students leave the classroom with a sense of agency. They have gained not only control of their next steps but also an understanding that those next steps matter.

Next Story

Written By

Found In

More from Career Advice