When Students’ Work is Disappointing
In a commentary about to be published in College Teaching, author and teacher Ellen Ballock writes about a set of student papers she found disappointing. I’m guessing that will resonant with most of us. Teachers regularly get work from students that just doesn’t measure up. Not surprisingly, we respond with emotion. Disappointment turns into anger and that morphs into frustration, which is followed by confusion and self-doubt. We know they can do better than that, most of them are coming to class, discussions of the content used in the assignment were good, and we’ve been feeling positive about the course. So, what in the world is going on?
Ballock’s reaction was to a set of “quick writes” in which students responded to a prompt she posed at the end of a class period. A lot of us now use shorter, less formal writing assignments, including those assignments that promote engagement before, during, and after class. These are great assignments. They get students dealing with the content as it’s presented, not just the night before the exam. They give students practice writing and using that writing to learn. Generally, they’re low-stakes which means less performance anxiety.
But we tend to forget that these informal assignments aren’t always conducive to good writing—writing that gets organized, revised, struggled with, and thought about. No, we’re getting first drafts, and I always remember what one of my best writing teachers used to tell us: “First time is for getting it down not getting it right.” Ballock also reminds us that there’s “messiness” involved in first encounters with new content. “I should have been neither surprised nor disappointed that my students would struggle to articulate meaningful big ideas after just one class period on the topic.”
And to that, let me add, that many of us aren’t teaching students with strong writing skills. They text and post comments with little or no attention paid to syntax and grammar. They’re used to free-flowing colloquial exchanges. And then here we are at the end of period asking them to write something that doesn’t count for much and do it before they’re allowed to leave. Is it really any surprise that they’re in a hurry to get something down and get on their way?
What I thought was most useful in Ballock’s honest analysis of her response were insights as to how writing like this ought to be read “expecting” that the thoughts will still be “under construction.” She also started looking at this kind of student writing to identify gaps in their understanding, things they appeared to misunderstand or the beginnings of understanding that she could build on subsequently. She tried to read more “generously” even if use of disciplinary language was clumsy or imprecise. “I’ve learned that the way I read and respond to student work matters. . . . The approach I choose impacts not only my own attitudes but my perceptions of students as learners and my ongoing instructional decision-making.”
Does this mean we’re lowering our standards? No, it’s about having realistic standards given the nature of what we are asking students to do. It’s about saving ourselves a lot of unnecessary emotional angst by recognizing the writing for what it is: a reflection of students’ first encounters with and reactions to new ideas and information.
Sometimes students’ work is disappointing. If they don’t think a course is worth their time or they’re only taking it because it’s required, students often deliver work that is less than their best. Sometimes it’s just plain awful. And when it is, students don’t deserve a pass. High standards matter. We justifiably uphold them.
So, it’s another case that requires discernment. We can’t just look at student work and automatically respond. We need to view it in light of the assignment, what it asks for, how much time students had to complete it, what it tells us about their understanding, how many opportunities they’ve had to interact with the content, and what standards should apply to our assessment of it. This perspective benefits our students, but it also helps to keep us balanced as we navigate the tightrope across a teaching life.
Ballock, E. (2018). Reflections on disappointing student work. College Teaching, DOI: 10.1080/87567555.2018.1449095