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Formo and Neary. Threshold Concepts in Assignments Sheets. TETYC May 2020. Posted 07/16/2020.

Formo, Dawn, and Kimberly Robinson Neary. “Threshold Concepts and FYC Writing Prompts: Helping Students Discover Composition’s Common Knowledge with(in) Assignment Sheets.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 47.4 (2020): 351-64. Print.

Dawn Formo and Kimberly Robinson Neary examine seventy-five assignment sheets gathered online from first-year-composition courses at thirty-two community colleges, thirty-five public universities and eight private institutions (337). They sought to address how the prompts given to students for their first writing assignments could be better used rhetorically to introduce the “threshold concepts” related to writing.

In their view, research on the rhetorical uses of assignments is sparse (336). They identify lines of research that guide teachers in writing clear assignments, that help teachers show students how to “decode” assignments, and that “moves beyond the practical pedagogy . . . into more theoretical considerations” (336-37). Their study, they write, resonates with this third approach.

Quoting Jan Meyer and Ray Land, the authors identity a threshold concept as presenting “a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something” and “a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress” (qtd. in Formo and Neary 336). As a source of such concepts for writing instruction, Formo and Neary turn to Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle’s Naming What We Know (338).

The authors begin with a grounded-theory examination of the seventy-five prompts, creating a rubric (presented as Appendix A) that suggests five salient questions involving how students are instructed on what is expected, how the assignment is “scaffold[ed],” how work will be assessed, what audience is addressed, and how format is explained (354-55). They then compared the issues relayed by these questions to the threshold concepts outlined by Adler-Kassner and Wardle, looking for correspondences (338).

Quantitative analysis of these data allowed the authors to make some observations about elements that appeared or did not appear in the prompts. Majorities of the prompts defined a “specific question or task” and included such features as formatting instructions, references to assigned texts and in-class discussions, and questions and suggestions to facilitate student responses. However, the authors identify seven features missing in the majority of the prompts. These omissions included identifying audiences for the assignment, building in peer review and revision, clarifying learning objectives, providing assessment criteria, and scaffolding response steps (339-40). The authors consider the “underrepresent[ation]” of these elements “alarming” (340).

To illustrate how incorporating these missing elements can make the assignment sheet what Meyer and Land call “a bridging device” (340) that helps students access threshold concepts in writing, Formo and Neary present two “exemplars” and critique them to suggest how their use of specific elements guides students toward the threshold concepts identified by Adler-Kassner and Wardle. Clarifying that every assignment need not contain every concept and that the study of assignment sheets in isolation does not capture how teachers contextualize the assignments when they present them in class, the authors argue for heightened awareness of the sheet as “a rhetorical tool” (341).

One exemplar asks students for a narrative about “an event from their lives that results in a revelatory moment,” while the other, in contrast, asks students to enter a scientific controversy through explicit research-based, integrative steps (341). The assignments themselves are provided as appendices.

Threshold Concept 1 illustrated in the authors’ analysis of the exemplars is “Writing is a Social and Rhetorical Activity,” which addresses concerns about the inclusion of audience in an assignment; 55% did not mention audience and only 19% provided any details about an audience (339). The second concept is “Writing Speaks to Situations through Recognizable Forms.” This focus addresses the failure of 64% of the assignments to provide models of the genre being invoked (339), emphasizing the role that familiarity with genre plays in writing decisions (342-43).

A third concept addressed is “Writing Enacts and Creates Identities and Ideologies.” The authors connect this concept to the process of peer review in assignments (343-44). Fourth, the authors examine the exemplars in light of “All Writers Have More to Learn.” The exemplars vary in their calls for multiple drafts and their use of grading criteria to help students assess their own development (344-45).

The fifth threshold concept illustrated by the exemplars is “Writing is (Also Always) a Cognitive Activity.” For the authors, at stake is the creation of “new habits of mind by developing alternative neurological pathways through approaches such as scaffolded activities or assignments” (345). They find this concept most visible in the scientific-controversy assignment, which indicates the steps students will take in building their argument, at the same time encouraging a metacognitive awareness of how the process of moving from research to argument unfolds (345-46).

These analyses lead to seven elements that they believe will contribute to assignment sheets that guide students toward threshold concepts:

  • Student Learning Outcomes . . . and Metacognition
  • Audience and Invoking Others
  • Sequenced Tasks and Making Knowledge
  • Models and Recognizable Forms
  • Peer Review and Reconstructing Meaning
  • Revision Tasks and Developing Writing and Texts
  • Assessment Criteria and Learning to Write

In each case, the writers draw examples of how these elements might be incorporated from the seventy-five assignment sheets they studied. They add an argument that reflection on the contents of the sheet itself can supply an opportunity for metacognitive growth (352).

Formo and Neary note the limitations resulting from their decision to sample assignments available online rather than asking colleagues to submit examples, which might have resulted in a collection of “best” rather than representative samples. Online sampling also limited sample size, as did the decision to focus on “first-in-the-semester assignments” (353). They advocate for a “composition studies assignment repository” (353) and indicate in a note that one such repository will debut in spring 2020 at https://fyca.colostate.edu (360n3).


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Lindenman et al. (Dis)Connects between Reflection and Revision. CCC, June 2018. Posted 07/22/2018.

Lindenman, Heather, Martin Camper, Lindsay Dunne Jacoby, and Jessica Enoch. “Revision and Reflection: A Study of (Dis)Connections between Writing Knowledge and Writing Practice.” College Composition and Communication 69.4 (2018): 581-611. Print.

Heather Lindenman, Martin Camper, Lindsay Dunne Jacoby, and Jessica Enoch report a “large-scale, qualitative assessment” (583) of students’ responses to an assignment pairing reflection and revision in order to evaluate the degree to which reflection and revision inform each other in students’ writing processes.

The authors cite scholarship designating reflection and revision “threshold concepts important to effective writing” (582). Scholarship suggests that reflection should encourage better revision because it “prompts metacognition,” defined as “knowledge of one’s own thinking processes and choices” (582). Lindenman et al. note the difficulties faced by teachers who recognize the importance of revision but struggle to overcome students’ reluctance to revise beyond surface-level correction (582). The authors conclude that engagement with the reflective requirements of the assignment did not guarantee effective revision (584).

The study team consisted of six English 101 instructors and four writing program administrators (587). The program had created a final English 101 “Revision and Reflection Assignment” in which students could draw on shorter memos on the four “linked essays” they wrote for the class. These “reflection-in-action” memos, using the terminology of Kathleen Blake Yancey, informed the final assignment, which asked for a “reflection-in-presentation”: students could choose one of their earlier papers for a final revision and write an extended reflection piece discussing their revision decisions (585).

The team collected clean copies of this final assignment from twenty 101 sections taught by fifteen instructors. A random sample across the sections resulted in a study size of 152 papers (586). Microsoft Word’s “compare document” feature allowed the team to examine students’ actual revisions.

In order to assess the materials, the team created a rubric judging the revisions as either “substantive, moderate, or editorial.” A second rubric allowed them to classify the reflections as “excellent, adequate, or inadequate” (586). Using a grounded-theory approach, the team developed forty codes to describe the reflective pieces (587). The study goal was to determine how well students’ accounts of their revisions matched the revisions they actually made (588).

The article includes the complete Revision and Reflection Assignment as well as a table reporting the assessment results; other data are available online (587). The assignment called for specific features in the reflection, which the authors characterize as “narrating progress, engaging teacher commentary, and making self-directed choices” (584).

The authors report that 28% of samples demonstrated substantive revision, while 44% showed moderate revision and 28% editorial revision. The reflection portion of the assignment garnered 19% excellent responses, 55% that were adequate, and 26% that were inadequate (587).

The “Narrative of Progress” invites students to explore the skills and concepts they feel they have incorporated into their writing process over the course of the semester. Lindenman et al. note that such narratives have been critiqued for inviting students to write “ingratiat[ing]” responses that they think teachers want to hear as well as for encouraging students to emphasize “personal growth” rather than a deeper understanding of rhetorical possibilities (588).

They include an example of a student who wrote about his struggles to develop stronger theses and who, in fact, showed considerable effort to address this issue in his revision, as well as an example of a student who wrote about “her now capacious understanding of revision in her memo” but whose “revised essay does not carry out or enact this understanding” (591). The authors report finding “many instances” where students made such strong claims but did not produce revisions that “actualiz[ed] their assertions” 591. Lindenman et al. propose that such students may have increased in their awareness of concepts, but that this awareness “was not enough to help them translate their new knowledge into practice within the context of their revisions” (592).

The section of student response to teacher commentary distinguishes between students for whom teachers’ comments served as “a heuristic” that allowed the student to take on roles as “agents” and the “majority” of students, who saw the comments as “a set of directions to follow” (592). Students who made substantive revisions, according to the authors, were able to identify issues called up the teacher feedback and respond to these concerns in the light of their own goals (594). While students who made “editorial” changes actually mentioned teacher comments more often (595), the authors point to shifts to first person in the reflective memos paired with visible revisions as an indication of student ownership of the process (593).

Analysis of “self-directed metacognitive practice” similarly found that students whose strong reflective statements were supported by actual revision showed evidence of “reach[ing] beyond advice offered by teachers or peers” (598). The authors note that, in contrast, “[a]nother common issue among self-directed, nonsubstantive revisers” was the expenditure of energy in the reflections to “convince their instructors that the editorial changes they made throughout their essays were actually significant” (600; emphasis original).

Lindenman et al. posit that semester progress-narratives may be “too abstracted from the actual practice of revision” and recommend that students receive “intentional instruction” to help them see how revision and reflection inform each other (601). They report changes to their assignment to foreground “the why of revision over the what” (602; emphasis original), and to provide students with a visual means of seeing their actual work via “track changes” or “compare documents” while a revision is still in progress (602).

A third change encourages more attention to the interplay between reflection and revision; the authors propose a “hybrid threshold concept: reflective revision” (604; emphasis original).

The authors find their results applicable to portfolio grading, in which, following the advice of Edward M. White, teachers are often encouraged to give more weight to the reflections than to the actual texts of the papers. The authors argue that only by examining the two components “in light of each other” can teachers and scholars fully understand the role that reflection can play in the development of metacognitive awareness in writing (604; emphasis original).