Essay Structure: The Cake Analogy: Blogiversary Post #5

Here’s a nice little post with a link about using a “layer cake” analogy to explain essay writing to students.  I’ve never actually used this analogy, but apparently a bunch of other people have, because the original post got a LOT of shares.  So if your students aren’t getting how to put an essay together, this might be something to try.  You also might want to check the comments on the original, wherein readers share their own favourite tips for teaching essay structure.

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This week, I am working on essay structure with my post-intro students.  After 22 years of teaching essay structure in various forms, I am, as you can imagine, sick of it.  But then I came across this little analogy: how to bake your essay like a cake!  It’s cute.  It’s tasty.  There are things here they might actually remember.

This got me thinking.  A lot of you out there must have analogies that you use over and over in your classroom, because they work.  Or maybe a teacher gave you an analogy years ago that you’ve never forgotten.  Could you please share some of them here?  That way, the rest of us can learn, steal, or just admire your ingenuity and  that of the teachers you’ve known.

Image by Jonathan Fletcher

Science, Art, and the Myth of the “Discipline”

oENpvxkI’m always delighted to read about college teachers who are are taking unusual approaches to pedagogy.   Jailson Farias de Lima is one such teacher.  In an article published on ProfWeb yesterday, he describes an innovative project he has designed for his chemistry students, challenging them to express their understanding of scientific concepts through art-making.  Science teachers may be particularly interested in this article, but I think anyone who is a little skeptical of the divisions between what we call “disciplines” will appreciate the efforts Lima is making to integrate skills and knowledge from various arenas.

What do you think?  Does Lima’s project appeal to you?  Do you make efforts to make links between your course content and other subjects, or do you have memories of teachers who did so?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of such an approach?

Image by Dez Pain

Classroom Blogging

nIMK48mI’m having my students keep blogs again.  I’m both excited and wary.

Student blogs are a lot more fun to read than papers, but they’re also more difficult to evaluate.  The setup process has gone fairly smoothly so far, but it’s still been a lot of work.  Reading a ton of blog posts every week can be really inspiring, but can also be draining.

The setup for my class is this: Each student will keep a blog.  They’ve been assigned to “blog teams” and are required to comment on others’ blogs as well.  There are minimum requirements they must meet to pass, but if they want to do well, they will have to post more regularly and engage more actively in their blog networks.

I’ve done a few things to ease the burden of reading, commenting on and grading 82 student blogs.

  • I’m requiring students to post only 3 times a month.  However, this is a MINIMUM requirement; a student who wants 100% on this assignment will need to do more than that.
  • I’ve created very detailed written guidelines on possible blog topics, protocols for commenting, and evaluation criteria.  Some students seem overwhelmed by this flood of information at the moment, but I hope they will find it useful as they get into the blogs.
  • Rather than receiving a grade for each post (impossible!) or a single grade at the end of the term (as I did last time; totally overwhelming), students will receive a grade for February (and a face-to-face meeting for feedback), a grade for March, and a grade for April.
  • I’ve decided to set aside a few minutes at the beginning of each class for blog concerns.  Today we’ll go over the mechanics of putting up their first post and making their first comments; next week we will talk about the ins and outs of using images (including copyright issues.)

Their first posts are due on Friday.  Do you have any advice?  I love student blogs, but last time I used them, I thought the workload might put me in an early grave.  What tips do you have for streamlining, responding, tackling problems, and otherwise making this assignment as effective as possible?

Image by charcoal

Evaluation Rubrics

I’ve been asked to sit on a panel in January to discuss evaluation.  One of the topics under discussion will be the use of rubrics to evaluate student work.  I’m curious about others’ experiences with using rubrics.

I have no idea how I’d manage without rubrics.  I sometimes decide to “give myself a break” by reducing feedback on less critical evaluations to general grades and comments in a few categories (usually content, organization, expression and formatting) instead of filling out a detailed rubric with criteria and subcriteria.  I usually regret it.  A table with checkboxes for each criterion and a space for comments is the easiest, most efficient and most mathematically neutral (which is not to say actually mathematically neutral, because evaluations never are, but as close as possible) way to give students some meaningful feedback and a numerical grade.

Each sub-criterion receives a grade between 1 and 5.

  • 5/5 = excellent!
  • 1/5 = WTF?
  • 0/5 = this essay shows no evidence that you were even aware that this criterion was being evaluated, despite the fact that you had this rubric in front of you while you were writing it.

Each category is then weighted according to its importance in that particular assignment.  Major essays in post-introductory courses are usually weighted more toward content, while a first version of an essay in a remedial intro course might emphasize grammar.

These rubrics are immensely helpful when students come to ask questions (as they are all required to at least once a semester in order to revise and resubmit), and when students challenge a grade.  Just this past week, a student came to me ready to burst into tears about an oral presentation grade.  I was able to say, “Ok, there are two different ways of looking at this.  The first is, ‘I’M UPSET!!'” (I wave my arms in the air and shake my fists.  The student laughs.)  “The other is, ‘I don’t understand why I didn’t do well on this particular aspect that I got 2/5 on.’  Let’s try the second approach.”  So we talked it through, and in the end, she got it, and no adjustment to the grade was made, because frankly, the presentation, although a valiant attempt, was a structural mess.  She didn’t know what was meant by that, and now she seems to understand a bit better.

Teachers: Do you use rubrics to evaluate your students’ work?  How do you structure them?  Do they help you?  Do they help your students?

Students: Do your teachers use rubrics to evaluate your work?  What kind of rubric best helps you learn?

You will find some more thoughts on the use of rubrics here.

Image by Steve Woods

Essay Writing: The Cake Analogy

This week, I am working on essay structure with my post-intro students.  After 22 years of teaching essay structure in various forms, I am, as you can imagine, sick of it.  But then I came across this little analogy: how to bake your essay like a cake!  It’s cute.  It’s tasty.  There are things here they might actually remember.

This got me thinking.  A lot of you out there must have analogies that you use over and over in your classroom, because they work.  Or maybe a teacher gave you an analogy years ago that you’ve never forgotten.  Could you please share some of them here?  That way, the rest of us can learn, steal, or just admire your ingenuity and  that of the teachers you’ve known.

Image by Jonathan Fletcher

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