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Category: Building Relationships

The two professors who developed this assignment created it “to help us engage more directly with students about their writing.” (p. 146)  Most teachers who now assign writing emphasize that it's a process, not something a writer sits down and does all at once.  As these authors, note many students have negative attitudes about writing and writing assignments cause them significant anxiety.  “Our process memos directly address students' anxiety about writing by asking students to indicate areas of struggle, write about their feelings about their work, and provide us with feedback on our attempts to help them improve their work.” (p.148)  They believe that having students write about their writing experiences is better than trying to address negative attitudes and fears in a class discussion.  All students, not just those who participate in the discussion, write about their experiences and they do so in the memo so there is no fear of embarrassment.

For paper assignments that included submission of a draft, students compiled a process memo to accompany both the draft and final version.  They responded to a set of prompts for the draft that included questions about the writing process used to prepare the draft; did they do prewriting, and did they find the rubric helpful, for example.  They were also asked if they had any questions about the assignment and to identify parts of the paper they were proud of and parts that still needed work.  The second process memo asked students about how they had used the feedback provided on the first draft.  Which comments were helpful and which were not?  Did the writer think the paper had improved and if so, in what ways?  And finally, students were asked to offer advice to students who'd be writing the paper next time the class was offered.

The authors used these process memos in sociology courses at all levels from introductory to upper-division courses.  The memos were not graded but students were told that their papers would not be graded unless they were submitted with a process memo.  So that they would not be influenced by content in the memos, the teachers read and evaluated the papers before reading the memos.

Using a grounded theory approach, the authors analyzed the comments made by students on 240 process memos from six different courses and they report some interesting findings. “Students were typically very honest—and correct—about the parts of their paper that were weak.” (p. 150)  In fact 66.7% of the time students identified the same areas for improvement as the teacher had noted in feedback comments.  “Notably, students of all achievement levels were able to successfully identify area of weakness, underscoring the broad applicability of this tool.” (p. 150)

Content in the process memo also helped the teachers identify those areas of the assignment that were causing students to struggle, which meant that they could address those areas with additional instruction.  At a more individual level, the teachers could suggest resources that the writer might find helpful, like asking a librarian to assist with data base searches or consulting those in the Writing Center for help with proofreading strategies.

The advice students offered future writers of these papers included recommendations about time management, responding to instructor feedback, using rubrics, and meeting with the instructor.  The instructors have compiled a collection of these comments, which they now give to the next group of students.  “Although we give much of the same advice, we find that students take advice from previous students more seriously.” (p. 152)

In summarizing the benefits of process memos, the authors write, “We have found they make us stronger teachers, as we are better able to understand student weaknesses, respond to specific student reflections on their writing, and incorporate student feedback into how we approach teaching writing.” (p. 152)  It is also clear that process memos are an approach that give students a larger role in developing their own writing and learning processes.

Reference:  Parrott, H. M., and Cherry, E. (2015).  Process memos:  Facilitating dialogue about writing between students and instructors.  Teaching Sociology, 43 (2), 146-153.