Is Writing Best Taught F2F?

Totally Online, by Jim Shimabukuro

In “Missing the Personal Connection,” Mark Bauerlein claims that “writing is still best taught face-to-face between teacher and student.” He cites as proof the following kinds of exchanges that take place in his F2F (face to face) conferences with students:

“Look at that verb in your opening,” I say. “What do you think?”

“Passive?” student mumbles.

“How about an active verb, one that lets us drop that preposition, too?”

Student ponders, tries out a few, then we settle on a better choice.

Bauerlein claims that 1-on-1 tutorials such as this take up no more than 20 minutes. Online, he says, the same process would take two hours because “each query, comment, suggestion, and rejoinder would have to go into print and travel from screen to screen. This amounts to revision by correspondence, a slow and exhausting process.”

I wonder how many teachers have had the same sort of experience. They take an approach that works well in the F2F environment and try it online. It simply doesn’t work or is so tedious that it’s not worth the effort. Based on this one experience of a vital instructional component, they throw up their hands and say, “The best approach to teaching writing is F2F, 1-on-1.”

Over the years, I’ve had enough conversations with teachers to know that episodes such as this are widespread. When a vital and effective F2F method fails to take root in the electronic soil, many of our colleagues conclude that F2F is the only viable alternative.

From my perspective, this is like trying to run your fastest times in water up to your chest. Definitely, running on a dry synthetic track is better. The simple rule here is that, for efficiency, the means must match the medium. For running, a dry, level, semi-hard surface is best. For water, swimming is a far more efficient means of propulsion.

Bauerlein’s F2F draft review process transported into an electronic learning environment simply doesn’t make sense. I can’t imagine any experienced online instructor using this synchronous text chat method with all of her/his students, one at a time, for every assignment.

The point is, in water, why run when you can swim? Or, for online instruction, why lock into a linear mode when virtual is available?

Perhaps the fundamental question is, What is the purpose of review in the writing process? In my opinion, the purpose is not to underscore the importance of the instructor but to empower the student. At the end of the course, hopefully, the student will be better able to serve as his own most critical reader, able to easily switch between writer and editor to objectively evaluate and revise his drafts.

To develop this editor’s role, the student must have practice in formulating and applying rubrics that reflect the purposes and guidelines for each assignment. And a critical part of this learning is instructor feedback on the student’s performance as a reviewer.

I’ve had the opportunity to observe many colleagues who approach online writing instruction as a student-centered process, and I’ve learned that, while individual methods may vary, they all use the strengths of the virtual learning environment (VLE) to provide practice in reviewing drafts. Despite the variations, however, the methods all share a common trait: They can’t be replicated by F2F instructors.

In my completely online college writing classes, students post their preliminary drafts in their own blogs. Classmates log in to read them and post their reviews as replies. Each student is required to review at least three papers. I provide guidelines for the drafting and reviewing processes. The writers then use the reviews to guide the revising process and post their final drafts in their blogs.

Unlike Bauerlein, I don’t review preliminary drafts. Experience has shown me that, when I intrude at this juncture in the writing process, students will automatically give more weight to my comments and ignore their classmates’, thus defeating the purpose of the review. Again, in the process-oriented approach, the focus is on the student rather than the instructor.

After the final drafts are posted, I log in to the students’ blogs to copy and paste their final drafts and peer comments into an MS Word file on my computer. I read the final draft and the comments received in the preliminary draft, and I assess both. (I use a boiler plate or text replacement utility to facilitate my review.) Thus, at the close of each assignment, I return, via email, to each student his final draft with comments and scores for the draft and for the reviews he wrote for classmates.

High scores on reviews usually translate to high scores on final drafts, and the opposite is true for low review scores. When their own reviews play a critical role in success or failure, students quickly learn to rely on and trust their own and their classmates’ reviewing skills.

In subsequent assignments, students are required to review comments received from classmates and the instructor on previous drafts before composing their final drafts.

In my evaluation of a student’s paper, I routinely open three or more windows on my desktop: one for his current final draft, another for his previous final draft, and a third for his blog, which serves as an electronic portfolio for all his drafts and peer comments. In this way, I have instant access to previous peer as well as instructor comments. I can quickly move between the windows to see if a problem is repetitive, implying that the student is ignoring suggestions for improvement and, thus, failing to take advantage of the opportunity to grow as a writer.

When it’s obvious that a writer is ignoring peer and instructor feedback, I don’t repeat previous comments. I simply remark, at the top of the paper, that he fails to follow suggestions made by me and his classmates in his preliminary and final drafts. And his score reflects this failure.

In the online classroom, the draft review process isn’t limited to the here and now, to a real-time interaction. Instead, it incorporates all of the past as well as present communications. It provides a historical perspective that can’t be emulated in a 20-minute F2F conference. The draft review process is not limited to a single brief meeting but extends over the length, breadth, and depth of the course, in defiance of time and space.

From the student’s perspective, the electronic classroom is a nearly unlimited source of instant information that’s invaluable in the review phase of the writing process. He can independently log in to classmates’ blogs at any time to read their drafts and the comments they’ve received from peers. In this way, he can learn from their example, from their successes and failures. If he’s unsure about his interpretation of an assignment, he can quickly peek into his classmates’ drafts and post a question as a reply or via email.

From the instructor’s perspective, the VLE is a limitless learning resource. He can refer writers to classmates’ papers for specific problems and solutions. In essence, the students themselves serve as resources or models. A URL embedded in a comment can link a writer to a classmate’s draft.

Thus, returning to the question, Is writing best taught F2F?, I have to say no. It can be taught equally well or better online.

9 Responses

  1. Great example of comparing teacher-centered and student-centered learning! I’d have preferred to have had the student-centered version when I was a student.

    One-on-one sessions with students are very time-consuming for the most limited resource: the mentor.

    I’d like to see a similar model for learning the nature of science and developing scientific thinking skills for science students. I think that students would have to do experiments, collect data, make conclusions, and share that information with others, who would critique it. The teacher would play the same role as described for learning to write.

    As I think about this scheme, I am led to believe that the problems posed (or the conclusions expected; about the same thing) would have to require some thinking and could not be readily available on the Internet. Few of the typical high school science experiments done these days would meet this requirement.

    Two parallel processes are taking place now in this regard. The College Board is redefining its science curricula for advanced placement. The National Research Council has a committee working on new national science standards. Both claim to be seeking deeper understanding of science for students.

    How will new technologies affect their conclusions? Will the student-centered model of learning play an important role in the final drafts?

  2. Harry, your comments based on science always force me back to the real world of concrete, objective events and ideas.

    I think the student-centered paper-review process I describe could work for students in an active-learning science class. The instructor would provide the problem and guidelines for actively addressing it. The students could work alone and post a draft, summarizing their methodology, results, and conclusions.

    The preliminary draft could include photos and charts, videos, audio, etc. Each student would post it in her/his personal blog.

    Classmates would log in and, using a rubric designed by the instructor, review the summary, suggesting ways to improve it.

    Using the peer feedback, the student revises the draft and posts the final draft in her blog.

    The instructor logs in to the blog and downloads the final and its peer comments, etc.

    Again, the report could be a video or other multimedia.

    During the composing phase or after the reports have been submitted, the instructor could refer the class to particular student drafts, using them as models for best practice.

    This web technology, blogs, is readily available for free. I ask my students to use Blogger instead of WordPress because the learning curve isn’t as steep.

    In this scheme, students will still need to interface with web-based or F2F science learning resources, equipment, and material.

    As a writing teacher, I can’t help but feel that extensive and complex writing tasks ought to be part of the learning in every field. It’s a way for students to “discover” what they know and don’t know, what they feel about critical issues, etc.

    -Jim S

  3. I’ll begin at the end. Learning science or learning about science should provide a great way for students to expand their writing and numerical abilities. Of course, the science instructor must be capable in those areas.

    I like your general approach and think that some science instructors must already use it. I hadn’t really thought of the student lab report as a “paper,” but that’s a terrific way to create more engagement. Having randomly selected students act as reviewers works very well, especially because it mirrors what happens in the real world. Everyone gains.

    It wouldn’t matter whether the experiments were conducted hands-on or virtually, except that virtual experiments must really capture real-world data and work best if the students use their own judgment and care to collect the data point by point. Data that comes from going out into the field are really great for this sort of learning experience. Even online courses can provide that experience so that the lab experiences aren’t all virtual.

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  5. Hi

    Wouldn’t you agree that any form of learning whether it be grammar, writing or oral is better face to face. However, when face to face is not possible or is not possible frequently, then the next tier i.e. online might come to the rescue?

    • I would not agree to any such blanket statement, even if mostly true.

      In this case, the approach affects the modality. F2F works for approaches that were developed primarily or exclusively FOR a face-to-face environment. You simply have to imagine ways of learning and of assisting learning that aren’t restricted by the F2F environment. Once you realize that F2F, instead of being an advantage, is a restriction, then you allow your creative mind to soar and open up new vistas in education. It’s easy to do the old and hard to define the new.

  6. Hi, Andrew. I think we need to get away from the notion that F2F is automatically better for learning simply because there are many other models, including online. I think these approaches are different and that each can be very effective. Each has its advantages, and the result is learning.

    I’m biased in my belief that the virtual model offers advantages that make it better-suited for today’s learner. In comparison, the old F2F approach seems anachronistic, inefficient.

    -Jim S

  7. Hi, Andrew and Jim,

    It depends on what you mean by F2F, Andrew. For instance your lingomatch service that allows people who live in the same place and are learning each others’ languages to meet is a brilliant idea: talking with native speakers is an invaluable part of learning a new language.

    However at times some people at least want some more theoretical help – eg to understand why something you can’t say or write something. And often even highly educated native speakers are not very good at explaining this kind of things, unless they are language teachers.

    So that takes us to the traditional teacher-learner relation. Is F2F better in that case? As Harry Keller wrote before: “One-on-one sessions with students are very time-consuming for the most limited resource: the mentor.”. And one-to-several. as in a classroom, makes it difficult to adapt to each student’s learning style and background – and even more, to their different moments in which each want to learn something (when they do).

    Distance education on the other hand is asynchronous, and you can prepare/explore in advance different types of responses to learning problems, then offer the right one/s when a student is faced with one of these problems in a task you have set towards a learning goal.

  8. Hi Claude & Jim

    Nice responses. I agree that with teaching one-on-one F2F is not that efficient but I was saying it is quite effective especially with grammar etc and I agree for grammar one definitely needs a teacher!

    However you both make great points about the ability to prepare and focus a lesson tailored for the individual with distance learning and it can be delivered more efficiently and probably more often given no one has to go anywhere.

    I was not really trying to compare LingoMatch with distance learning. LingoMatch is supposed to fill in the gaps and facilitate social activity to the extent that one even forgets its work because one is too busy having fun.

    My personal experience with language exchange is that typically you both end up more comfortable in one language, so one person is gaining more than the other. However, no one really cared because it was fun and you were both absorbing language as if by osmosis! :)

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