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VanKooten, Crystal. Meta-awareness through video composition. CE, Sept. 2016. Posted 11/03/2016.

VanKooten, Crystal. “‘The video was what did it for me’: Developing Meta-Awareness about Composition across Media.” College English 79.1 (2016): 57-80. Print.

Crystal VanKooten argues for the use of video composition assignments to develop students’ metacognitive awareness of composition. For her case study, conducted at a Midwestern public research university, VanKooten worked with students in two first-year writing courses in which the instructors agreed to assign the video project. She selected six students, three from each class; she reports on three women who “related or demonstrated movement toward meta-awareness about composition” by participating in activities and discussions connected with the assignment (64).

VanKooten observed and videoed classes in each section during the assignment, conducted student interviews at the beginning of the course, after the assignment was completed, and at the end of the course, and gathered materials, including the video drafts and final products as well as various reflective documents, such as a final reflective essay in one of the classes (64-65). She reports using a “grounded theory approach” which allowed her to “derive meaning from the data itself” (65). She particularly looked for “observable” evidence of meta-awareness that would shed light on how making videos affected students’ approaches to composition (63).

Noting that the video assignment accords with composition’s tradition of embracing new learning experiences and tools as well as the field’s interest in multimodality (59), VanKooten theorizes that the video effectively raised meta-awareness in her study in part because it presented students with “obstacles”; VanKooten cites John Dewey to contend that encountering obstacles is “educative” in that obstacles lead to “action, effort, and interest” (60). She argues that these responses to the video project enhanced meta-awareness about composition, which she defined as

a student’s ability to move consistently between enacting multimodal compositional choices and articulating how and why those choices are effective or ineffective within a rhetorical context. (58)

Making a video, she states, “highlights” and “makes more obvious” important “rhetorically layered actions” that make up the composition process (59; emphasis original). These actions are “orienting and reorienting” to new processes demanded by different media; “addressing multiple audiences and purposes”; and “examining and shifting parts of a text in order to revise the whole” (61). The video project introduced obstacles into these processes, requiring effort, which engendered “a conscious knowledge of purposes and . . . evaluation of thoughts and actions,” which in turn increased meta-awareness (62).

VanKooten cites Gregory Schraw to categorize aspects of “general metacognitive awareness” as “knowledge of cognition” and “regulation of cognition.” Knowledge may be “declarative (knowing about things),” “procedural (knowing how to do things),” and “conditional,” which means the ability to judge when declarative or procedural knowledge is appropriate (62). Regulation of cognition involves “planning, monitoring, and evaluation” (62).

Finally, effort and metacognitive awareness were supplemented by increased interest, which encouraged more engagement and reflection (62-63).

VanKooten provides examples of the actions and interview responses of the three case-study students. (Lauren and Marlee allowed Van Kooten to use their real names [79n1]). Lauren found the video assignment “fun” because of the many different activities involved (qtd. in VanKooten 66), a comment that VanKooten sees as an indicator of increased interest. Lauren’s desire to communicate her support for arts funding led her to consider broader audiences and ways to use the video components to attract these additional viewers.

In VanKooten’s analysis, this communicative effort led Lauren to consider her purpose more carefully, which in turn encouraged her to examine more closely how different elements of her video contributed to the whole. In these ways, VanKooten argues, Lauren demonstrated both declarative and conditional knowledge, making decisions about “how and why” to apply her understanding of the elements of video production (67). Such evaluative actions also demonstrate “regulation of cognition,” in VanKooten’s view.

Lauren connected the video experience with written composition by noting the importance of revision, which she equated with editing her video and deemed “essential” in both media (qtd. in VanKooten 67).

Marlee also demonstrated engagement with the video process, stating that “I didn’t want to do any of my other homework” (qtd. in VanKooten 68). In VanKooten’s analysis, Marlee also responded to the opportunity to address “actual audiences beyond the classroom” with her video on a summer-camp experience (69). Members of Marlee’s peer audience found the video effects Marlee combined “cool” (69), a reaction that VanKooten believes motivated her to work on the project but that also underscored the “unique” power of video to foreground “layered modes of expression” (69).

VanKooten finds that the sensory appeal of video that Marlee encountered both in her own work and in that of her classmates also enhanced her desire to experiment with a wide range of options and to collaborate with other video authors in class workshops (69-70). Marlee’s descriptions of her engagement further illustrated what VanKooten calls “educative play” that “digital space” facilitates, demonstrating the effects of the medium on the author’s responses (70). Like Lauren, Marlee expressed awareness of the connections between her video work and a written project, for example in her understanding of the importance of “completion” as a way of unifying the message of a project and of using transitions to link parts to the whole (70).

“Logan” had more difficulty “orient[ing]” to the video medium, partly because she had not previously used a video camera (72-73). VanKooten argues that this kind of reaction is an indication of “how video composition makes strange the traditional writing space” (73). Logan writes, “Because I didn’t know what I was doing, I had to work harder” (qtd. in VanKooten 73). In particular, according to VanKooten, Logan focused on goal setting, a strategy that she ultimately extended both to written composition and to personal needs such as planning her college career (75). VanKooten finds that, like the other students, Logan developed her ability to revise to communicate with her audience, regulating her cognition by “monitor[ing] and evaluat[ing]” her process (74).

VanKooten notes that many of the behaviors she recounts were not “observable” but rather were “self-reported during interviews” (76). Also, the evidence of transfer acquired¬† from the interviews could not be confirmed (77). VanKooten suggests that “[a]lternate research methods” might make student actions more visible, and encourages more self-reflective components in such assignments, including “repeatedly prompting” to raise students’ meta-awareness of their actions (77).

Although she states that a video assignment alone will not necessarily result in these benefits, VanKooten argues that writing programs should incorporate more multimodal assignments because they introduce obstacles requiring more effort and metacognitive development. She offers suggestions for instructors without access to video equipment who wish to incorporate multimodal projects in their classrooms (77).


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Sweeney, Meghan A., and Maureen McBride. “Difficulty Papers” as Insights into Students’ Reading Practices. CCC, June 2015. Posted 07/06/2015.

Sweeney, Meghan A., and Maureen McBride. “Difficulty Paper (Dis)Connections: Understanding the Threads Students Weave between Their Reading and Writing.” College Composition and Communication 66.4 (2015): 591-614. Print.

Meghan A. Sweeney and Maureen McBride, collaborating as teacher-researchers, explain the use of “difficulty papers” to investigate the problems students experience as they try to read complex materials. Designed by Carnegie Scholar Mariolina Salvatori, the difficulty-paper assignment asks students to explore in writing the components of the reading experience that interfered with their comprehension and engagement. Sweeney and McBride posit that the “mismatch” (595) between what students are told about effective writing in their writing courses and the practices of the writers of the “difficult” essays leads to struggles as the students try to navigate the complex texts.

Sweeney and McBride note a movement toward reconsidering reading as it affects writing in composition studies (391). In their book The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, Salvatori and co-author Patricia Donahue propose that uniting attention to reading and writing through students’ self-reflection on their own experiences will increase “metacognitive reading awareness” (593). Sweeney and McBride contend that such practices will give teachers insight into better methods for encouraging critical reading (593).

They used the assignment in a “new critical reading course at a midsize four-year public university,” where students also took a course in composition and one in “editing-for-style” (593). The authors share the reading-course outcomes, which centered around developing students’ abilities to interact productively with a range of texts; the course textbook, M. Neil Browne and Stuart Keeley’s Asking the Right Questions, addressed various aspects of critical thinking. The authors used “grounded-theory method” to assess 209 difficulty papers over two years. This methodology involved withholding the development of a theory until data had been collected, coded, and categorized. Reading and rereading the papers and discussing their process, Sweeney and McBride reduced the categories of student comments from fifteen to five to one: “mismatch between expectations of readers and writers” (595; emphasis original). They found that two of the readings, Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker essay “Offensive Play” and Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” yielded the “strongest examples and individually highlighted certain subcategories of difficulties” (595). The students’ difficulty papers addressed their experiences reading these texts (593-95).

In reading the Gladwell essay, which discussed brain trauma in football through analogous discussions of dogfighting, students reported that the characteristics of the essay that most impeded their understanding and engagement were Gladwell’s nonlinear organizational strategy, his failure to make his thesis explicit, and his inclusion of extensive detail. The students expected clear, visible transitions explaining the connections between paragraphs and topics ( 596-98); they expressed “anxiety” when they couldn’t immediately discern the purpose of the article (598-99); and in their words, found the supporting “statistics and facts” both “boring” and “off topic” (599-600).

Students responding to “A Modest Proposal” struggled with vocabulary, finding that having to look up words distracted them and that using context to define words was problematic (601-02). Swift’s use of satire also stymied students, who tried to draw on their own experiences to understand Swift’s purpose (602-03). The clash with the instruction they had previously received and were receiving in writing classes led to problems negotiating Swift’s organization: Students tended to read the essay as a model and tried to align it with schemas with which they were familiar, becoming frustrated as well because Swift’s punctuation practices did not match what they had come to see as correct (603-04). In analyzing their problems engaging with the text, the students revealed expectations that, in the words of one, “The story’s job is to captivate the reader, and make them interested as the story goes on” (605). Similarly, objections to the length of the piece led Sweeney and McBride to conclude that students’ classroom experiences had led them to believe that reading should be easy, and that making it easy is the writer’s task (606). Students came to the reading experience with the impression that writing and reading should function similarly, with reading not imposing any additional challenges (606, 607).

In their discussion, Sweeney and McBride highlight the difficulties students faced in trying to make “cultural connection[s]” with readings that did not immediately resonate with their worlds or selves. This difficulty persisted despite class discussion of the context and history reflected in the pieces. They emphasize again that students assess what they read in light of the instruction that they have received as writers, sometimes taking on a teacherly tone in advising the authors about their perceived weaknesses (607). An important recommendation that emerges from the study is the need for teachers to explain much more clearly why students are being asked to read a particular piece and how that reading experience will relate to their own writing (608). Teachers can also be more alert to the tensions set up by different reasons for reading: rhetorical analysis, critical analysis, or “reading-to-write,” and can clarify what to ask students to attend to (608). They contend that the insights provided by the “difficulty paper” assignment allow them to share with students more fully the complexities of the writer/reader relationship as students compose different kinds of writing (609-10); the exercise enabled them, as teachers, to recognize the need for more explicit guidance as they ask students to engage with unfamiliar, complex texts.