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Cox, Black, Heney, and Keith. Responding to Students Online. TETYC, May 2015. Posted 07/22/15.

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Cox, Stephanie, Jennifer Black, Jill Heney, and Melissa Keith. “Promoting Teacher Presence: Strategies for Effective and Efficient Feedback to Student Writing Online.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 42.4 (2015): 376-91. Web. 14 July 2015.

Stephanie Cox, Jennifer Black, Jill Heney, and Melissa Keith address the challenges of responding to student writing online. They note the special circumstances attendant on online teaching, in which students lack the cues provided by body language and verbal tone when they interpret instructor comments (376). Students in online sections, the authors write, do not have easy access to clarification and individual direction, and may not always take the initiative in following up when their needs aren’t met (377). These features of the online learning environment require teachers to develop communicative skills especially designed for online teaching.

To overcome the difficulty teachers may find in building a community among students with whom they do not interact face-to-face, the authors draw on the Community of Inquiry framework developed by D. Randy Garrison. This model emphasizes presence as a crucial rhetorical dimension in community building, distinguishing between “social presence,” “cognitive presence,” and “teacher presence” as components of a classroom in which teachers can create effective learning environments.

Social presence indicates the actions and rhetorical choices that give students a sense of “a real person online,” in the words of online specialists Rena M. Palloff and Keith Pratt (qtd. in Cox et al. 377). Moves that allow the teacher to interact socially through the response process decrease the potential for students to “experience isolation and a sense of disconnection” (377). Cognitive presence involves activities that contribute to the “creation of meaning” in the classroom as students explore concepts and ideas. both individually and as part of the community. Through teacher presence, instructors direct learning and disseminate knowledge, setting the stage for social and cognitive interaction (377).

In the authors’ view, developing effective social, cognitive, and teacher presence requires attention to the purpose of particular responses depending on the stage of the writing process, to the concrete elements of delivery, and to the effects of different choices on the instructor’s workload.

Citing Peter Elbow’s discussion of “ranking and evaluation,” the authors distinguish between feedback that assigns a number on a scale and feedback that encourages ongoing development of an idea or draft (376-79; emphasis original). Ranking during early stages may allow teachers to note completion of tasks; evaluation, conversely, involves “communication” that allows students to move forward fruitfully on a project (379).

The authors argue that instructors in digital environments should follow James E. Porter’s call for “resurrecting the neglected rhetorical canon of delivery” (379). Digital teaching materials provide opportunities like emoticons for emulating the role of the body that is important to classical theories of delivery; such tools can emphasize emotions that can be lost in online exchanges.

Finally, the authors note the tendency for responding online to grow into an overwhelming workload. “Limit[ing] their comments” is a “healthy” practice that teachers need not regret. Determining what kind of feedback is most appropriate to a given type of writing is important in setting these limits, as is making sure that students understand that different tasks will elicit different kinds of response (379-80).

The authors explore ways to address informal writing without becoming overwhelmed. They point out that teachers often don’t respond in writing to informal work in face-to-face classrooms and thus do not necessarily need to do so in online classes. They suggest that “generalized group comments” can effectively point out shared trends in students’ work, present examples, and enhance teacher presence. Such comments may be written, but can also be “audio” or “narrated screen capture” that both supply opportunities for generating social and teacher presence while advancing cognitive goals.

They recommend making individual comments on informal work publicly, posting only “one formative point per student while encouraging students to read all of the class postings and the instructor responses” (382). Students thus benefit from a broader range of instruction. Individual response is important early and in the middle of the course to create and reinforce students’ connections with the instructor; it is also important during the early development of paper ideas when some students may need “redirect[ion]” (382).

The authors also encourage “feedback-free spaces,” especially for tentative early drafting; often making such spaces visible to all students gives students a sense of audience while allowing them to share ideas and experience how the writing process often unfolds through examples of early writing “in all its imperfection” (383).

Cox et al. suggest that feedback on formal assignments should embrace Richard Straub’s “six conversational response strategies” (383), which focus on informal language, specific connections to the student’s work, and maintaining an emphasis on “help or guidance” (384). The authors discuss five response methods for formal tasks. In their view, rubrics work best when free of complicated technical language and when integrated into a larger conversation about the student’s writing (385-86). Cox et al. recommend using the available software programs for in-text comments, which students find more legible and which allow instructors to duplicate responses when appropriate (387). The authors particularly endorse “audio in-text comments,” which not only save time but also allow the students to hear the voice of an embodied person, enhancing presence (387). Similarly, they recommend generating holistic end-comments via audio, with a highlighting system to tie the comments back to specific moments in the student’s text (387-88). Synchronous conferences, facilitated by many software options including screen-capture tools, can replace face-to-face conferences, which may not work for online students. The opportunity to talk not only about writing but also about other aspects of the student’s environment further build social, cognitive, and teacher presence (388).

The authors offer tables delineating the benefits and limitations of responses both to informal and formal writing, indicating the kind of presence supported by each and options for effective delivery (384, 389).

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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