Words of Wisdom
Easy reading is damn hard writing. But if it's right, it's easy. It's the other way round, too. If it's slovenly written, then it's hard to read. It doesn't give the reader what the careful writer can give the reader.
According to the National Council of Teachers of English, class size, or, more important, teaching load, can affect student performance, engagement, and long-term academic success. The Faculty Senate at Texas A&M has recommended a 20-to-1 ratio for W and C courses. Realistically, this ideal isn't reached at Texas A&M even in most humanities classes. However, a ratio which exceeds 25-to-1 is demanding and most probably the quality of instruction will suffer.
Good writing and oral communication instruction requires that the students (1) get ample practice; and (2) receive frequent feedback on their efforts. Creating assignments and providing feedback are labor-intensive activities. Careful course design and the availability of trained and supervised assistance will make the task more manageable. Departments in charge of large-enrollment writing- or communication-intensive classes need to take into account the time they will spend not only designing a course but also mentoring and monitoring any teaching assistants.
Availability of Assistance
The Faculty Senate has set the following requirement:
As a general rule, undergraduate students will not be allowed to grade writing for a W course. However, if special circumstances demand their use, an exception is allowed if said students are trained and supervised by a faculty member. Further, undergraduate students may determine no more than ten percent of the writing portion of the final course grade.
Departments will have to make their own choices about the best assistance. Obviously, undergraduate students and graduate students could be used, or the department might hire professional staff (i.e., faculty). Further, the Faculty Senate strongly recommends that:
The instructor of record for a W course should be a faculty member who is in control of the curriculum and who is available to students as well as to any assistants (such as peer tutors or teaching assistants). Faculty should have approval over grades given by any teaching assistant and should have set up a workable method to ensure consistent and fair grading. Keep in mind that although a substantial part of the final course grade should take into account writing quality, there are many ways to provide ungraded or low-stakes practice to writers that will help them improve.
The University Writing Center can train your assistants and help you design and sequence assignments. Request a consultation by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
Use shorter assignments. Sometimes a series of shorter assignments are as effective as one or two longer ones, and smaller, shorter assignments may be advantageous in training graders.
Include small group discussion sections or other means to achieve the 25-to-1 ratio. Encourage students to get to know their group leader (for example, the GAT or peer tutor who works with them.) If possible, have this assistant hold office hours. Discussion sections should be devoted as much as possible to working on the writing or speaking assignment.
Do not allow discussion sections to become lecture sessions. Students learn to write or speak through active engagement, and there are many activities that discussion sections leaders can undertake to achieve this.
Design a rubric for evaluating student work, and use it to create consistency in grading with assistants. For each paper they grade, hold a norming or calibration meeting where you all grade the same work and then discuss your differences to reduce them.