Teaching Revision through Conferencing in First Year Writing
A few days before my first year (FY) writing students were about to turn in their opinion editorial assignment, I (with the highest hopes) reminded them to revise their papers before turning them in. You can imagine my shock, then, when I read their final papers and discovered papers that very similarly reflected what had been written in prior drafts. My students had not made any substantive revisions. Instead, they had changed smaller issues, such as words and sentence structure. Was this what happened in other FY writing classes? Not surprisingly, many writing researchers have found a similar phenomenon with revision in their studies of novice writers. A research study by Nancy Sommers’ found that many novice writers, like those in Writing 150, do not make substantive revisions nor do they know how to make these revisions. Instead, they view revision as a process of replacing words and phrases, whereas professional writers revise extensively (381, 383). Part of the problem with helping students learn how to revise like more mature writers is that “[w]e teachers may assume that students are unwilling to revise when, in fact, they lack the skills necessary to be able to revise effectively” (Sun 88). Knowing that it is our responsibility as instructors to help students learn the skills needed to revise, various scholars and teachers have suggested methods of teaching revision by questioning, conferencing with students, and encouraging peer review. In order to more fully enhance the teaching of revision in the FY classroom, combining questioning strategies with student-teacher conferences offers a means by which students can learn how to direct their own revision and transfer revision to other assignments and classes.
Students are prone not to revise their work because they view revision as a series of small edits instead of focusing on the rhetorical success of their argument. Research has shown that students try to revise, but what they have been taught to do in the past leads to a “consistently narrow and predictable” (Sommers 383) series of edits. Part of the reason for this kind of revision is that students have been taught to revise for the teacher, and revising for the teacher means to focus less on the global issues of the paper and instead to focus more on the rules. Students will “stop revising when they decide that they have not violated any of the rules for revising . . . In general, students will subordinate the demands of the specific problems of their text to the demands of the rules” (383), suggesting that students have been taught to focus more attention on grammar and syntactical rules rather than rhetorical principles when they revise. In another study, Sandra Perl found that students spent much of their composing time on editing. While writing, “most of th[e] time was spent proofreading rather than changing, rephrasing, adding, or evaluating the substantive part of the discourse. Of a total of 234 changes made . . . only 24 were related to changes of content” (326). It is apparent that many FY writing students have not yet developed or understand how to move beyond editing to make larger revisions. They believe that most of their changes should come during drafting and not through revision. In fact, in a comparison between experienced and novice writers, “Poor writers . . . mak[e] 96% of their changes as they [are] writing” (Flower 17). As FY writing instructors, we need to help students approach revision as experienced writers do, where the “revision process . . . [is] a recursive process” (Sommers 386), and students focus on the rhetorical success of their argument.
Students believe revision is a series of grammatical edits because that is what they have been taught in the past. Many instructors’ comments on students’ papers “focus on surface level revision” and “are not text-specific” (Sommers 335, 337). No wonder students focus on grammatical changes: these are easily marked on the paper while comments that focus on larger changes are not specific and generally confuse students. Revision must be taught so that students can begin to look at the global aspects of text and understand “that revision involves perceiving something in the text that does not match what they intend and then bringing the text closer to their intentions” (Sun 87, 88) and overall purposes. Consequently, we must teach students that revision is a necessary part of the writing process, one where students begin to understand the “intentions” (Flower 20) of their writing and how an audience would react to those intentions.
In order to teach revision, FY writing instructors can use conferences to help students focus on the global issues of their paper. If we want students to engage in the revision process, we must “provide an inherent reason for students to revise” (Sommers 340). One means of motivating students to revise is through the student-instructor conference. Conferences are a necessary part in helping teach effective revision strategies because they are “[p]robably the best way to ensure . . . useful help with revisions” (Glenn 79). Conferences allow instructors the chance to help students recognize the global issues in their papers as well as give them the tools necessary to know how to revise their paper after the conference. A conference provides an opportunity to guide students’ revision, rather than “just turn[ing] them loose.” Instead, they receive “direction and structure” (Smede 118) while participating in the conference. The conference also “allows the student to talk about his or her writing, ideas, and plans” (Glenn 79), which helps get students involved in their own writing process. Conferences can help students learn the revision skills needed to think about rhetorical situations of other papers and begin to move beyond the surface level revision they may have learned from prior teacher comments.
Many writing instructors argue that conferences are a useful way to engage students in revision, but the conference is ultimately too time consuming to actually be implemented in all FY writing courses. Some even argue that if students are actually interested in improving their writing, then they will come to the instructor and ask questions on their own, without the need to schedule a conference with them (Harrison 836). The problem with this kind of reasoning is that many FY students may feel uncomfortable or nervous about meeting with an instructor on their own. The conference gives these students the chance to practice talking with instructors and feeling comfortable doing so. The other argument against conferences, that about time, could be seen as a legitimate concern. As the university has changed over the past few decades, instructors are finding it more difficult to conference with students on a regular basis: “Amid heavy courseloads . . . we eke out our fifteen minutes of conferencing a semester, apologizing to students that it is all we can do. We hope that some students visit the writing center” (Lerner 208), but teachers can never be sure whether their FY students are getting the feedback necessary to learn revision skills.
While time is a valid concern against conferencing, there are ways to balance the time necessary for conferences and still help students learn how to more effectively revise. For one, grading time would be reduced if major issues could be discovered in the conference and then addressed by students. Also, there are ways to set up the conference to make it less time consuming, such as having conferences where two students will meet with the instructor at the same time. The instructor begins the discussion by asking the students questions about their assignment and then “drop[s] out of the discussion, leaving the students to develop a dialogue . . . [with] the expected results [of] improved . . . development” (Schiff 296). This kind of dialogue between students is useful for helping students understand how an audience would react to their work, thus helping guide aspects of their argument that need to be revised, while also making conferences less time consuming for the instructor.
From my own experiences teaching FY writing, and from researching other scholars’ work on revision, there are a couple of key points that can be used in conferences to best help students begin to learn and practice revision skills. First, conferences should be student-directed. Second, before the conference, instructors should provide revision guides, or a series of questions, for students to answer about their paper. Third, students should be given credit for attending the conference and making substantive revisions.
Making the conference student-directed enhances student engagement as well as helps guide them to think metacognitively about their work. Most students “are more than willing to let the teacher dominate any discussion, particularly during a one-on-one conference . . . But as soon as they realize that the direction of the conference belongs to them, rather than to you [the professor], they will be more comfortable meeting and talking about their work” (Glenn 80). As students begin to take ownership of their work, they will feel more confident about their writing. This ownership comes as the student becomes “invest[ed]” in the conference. As instructors, it is important to let students talk for most of the conference. Too often it is “easy for teachers to . . . revise . . . for students instead of helping them choose the course of the revision” (82). If instructors are constantly providing all of the answers to revision, then students are less likely to learn revision skills they can apply to other writing tasks. It is also necessary for students to feel that they can choose the route for their revision. Instructors should help “lead the student to identify the most serious problems in his or her writing” (Arbur 340), through the types of questions they ask during conferences. As the instructor allows the students to talk about their writing by guiding the students through questioning, students will begin to take ownership of their writing and revision.
To help guide students through questioning, instructors can use revision guides that students fill out before the conference time. Revision guides are a series of questions that help students focus on the rhetorical situation of their argument, particularly how a reader would react to the argument presented. The types of questions in a revision guide help students “imagine a reader . . . whose existence and whose expectations influence their revision process” (Sommers 385). In multiple research studies, researchers have found that students who use revision guides perform better revisions and in turn write better papers. For example, in a study done by Michael Flanigan, revision guides improved student revision better than “peer evaluation, self-evaluation, and . . . extensive teacher evaluation” (256). In another study done by Yi Song, researchers found that providing students with questions about their work, or revision guides, helped students write better papers. In the study, they “found that teaching participants to ask and answer critical questions about their argumentation schemes improved the quality of their essays” (Song 86), indicating that teaching students to ask questions about their writing improves revision processes. When students were taught to ask questions about the rhetorical situation of their argument, they “wrote essays that were of higher quality, and included more counterarguments, alternative standpoints, and rebuttals” (67). Using revision guides that ask students these questions help students think about the rhetorical purpose of their writing.
A sample revision guide would ask students questions about the rhetorical situation of their argument. It can be in the form of a “checklist or a comment sheet . . . [that] include[s] questions on goals, purpose, and audience” (Sun 88). This checklist gives students strategies for revising large portions of their paper by asking them to focus on the global issues of their paper (Smede 119). It might have questions like the following: “What are the stronger sections? The weaker? Why? Who is your audience? . . . What is the key line or passage? Why is it so important?” (Glenn 81–82). Revision guides can also be more detailed to guide students to specific sections of their paper. For example, a more specific revision guide might look something like the following:
Read the opening paragraph. What do you predict the argument will be in the paper? What do you predict will be the organization of the argument? Underline the phrases or sentences that led you to your predictions. If you were to stumble upon this on your own and you read the first paragraph, would you want to read more? Why?
Read through the entire paper. Write down the answers to the following questions: Who is the audience (who would read this)? What is the tone? What is the main argument? What are the supports for this argument? Which are the most convincing? Why? Which are [the least] convincing? Why?
After reading the paper, did the predictions you made during the introduction match the actual argument and organization of the paper? If not, how could the introduction be changed to reflect the argument of the paper? (Adapted from Flanigan 257–58).
Depending on the purpose of the paper, the questions in the revision guide might change. When students are writing an opinion editorial, the questions in the guide might focus on helping students determine whether the argument is engaging for the readers. For a research paper, the revision guide could have questions about the students’ research and their incorporation of quotes. The most important part of determining what questions to ask students is to make sure the questions help the students think about the criteria of the genre as well as how an audience would react to the paper. The revision guide should “help students perceive the effects of the writing and its congruence (or incongruence) with the writer’s purpose” (Flanigan 259). If students can begin to understand how to question their work as being the readers instead of being the writers, the FY students will have more strategies to determine the kinds of revisions that need to be made.
Students should complete revision guides before their conference, and then the instructor can guide the students’ revision based on the answers provided on the guide. By filling out the revision guide before the conference, the students start “tak[ing] responsibility for their own learning” (Flanigan 258). Too often conferences focus on instructors pointing out flaws instead of allowing the student to practice identifying problems on his own. Revision guides help students begin the process of identifying where revisions need to occur in their own writing. Students can then use these same strategies on other writing assignments. This process does not mean that instructors cannot talk with students about their papers because instructors should help guide students based on the answers provided on the revision guide; rather, it simply allows students to be an active participant in the conference.
Revision guides can also be used in a 2:1 conference setting. In this situation, students come to the conference having read their peer’s paper and filled out a revision guide for their peer as well as for their own paper. Students can then discuss with each other how their answers corresponded and determine how a real audience reacted to their work in comparison to a personal evaluation. This type of peer review gives students the opportunity to learn how an audience reacts to their work. During the conference, the instructor can help guide the discussion as well as point out parts of the paper that would address any concerns that were brought up on the revision guide.
Students should receive credit for attending the conference, filling out the revision guide, and making revisions to help keep them motivated. Students may not be motivated to give their best effort to revision if they don’t feel that they are getting credit for the assignment. As Marian Mohr explained, “To show that the class and teacher place a high value on careful revision effort, revision accomplishment receives rewards” (qtd. in Sun 88). Students are more likely to fill out revision guides, attend conferences, and revise if they know that their effort will be rewarded. If revision is an important part of a paper, then revision efforts should be rewarded. After the conference with students, give the students specific guidelines for revision, since “[a] successful conference should end with at least one concrete assignment” (Glenn 82) that you give the student credit for completing.
To reward revision, students can be required to attend a second conference where they explain their revisions. For example, when my students were writing rhetorical analyses, I required them to attend a second conference where they showed me three substantive changes they had made to their writing. They also explained how their revisions would enhance the rhetorical success of their writing. I then gave students points for accomplishing these revisions. Overall, students’ final papers were much better because they were required to think about the rhetorical situation of their argument during their revision process. Consequently, rewarding revision shows students that revision is an important part in the writing process. If students know revision is worth part of the points for the assignment, they will be more likely to finish a draft early and make the substantive revisions to improve their writing.
The use of these three aspects of conferencing (making the conference student-centered, providing revision guides, and giving credit for revision) increases the quality of student writing and helps students learn revision strategies they can use on other assignments. When my students turned in their first paper, the opinion editorial, many of them had not taken the time to make the revisions I had suggested during their conferences. After this experience, I decided to change the way conferences were held for the rhetorical analysis assignment. By incorporating these strategies into my conferences for the rhetorical analysis, students made better revisions. Overall, these student-guided conferences resulted in better-written papers that demonstrated an awareness of audience during the revision process. As students are guided to ask the kinds of questions that put them in the position of a reader instead of a writer, and as they receive credit for answering these questions and making the revisions needed, student writing improves.
Teaching revision has long been a topic of concern for writing instructors. The student-instructor conference can be one solution to helping students learn the strategies needed to make substantive revisions. As students take more charge in identifying and then completing revisions, not only does their work improve, but also they develop skills they can use when revising papers in subsequent classes and situations.
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