Category Archives: Handouts

Literature Survey Final Project

I used to hate “creative” school projects when I was a student, since simply writing an exam required a whole lot of less of me, but for this year’s upper division American lit survey I decided to subject my class to just such a final assignment because as an instructor, I REALLY REALLY hate grading blue books.

Inspiration for this project came while I was putting together my syllabus and designing the Prezi course map and decided I wanted to render transparent the way in which designing such a course requires making some challenging decisions about what to include and what relationships between texts, genres, authors, and historical periods to emphasize. Any such course inevitably leaves things out and requires one to smooth over nuances that a more in depth study of any particular element would reveal. So, for the final project, I asked students to design a creative presentation that would re-present the overall arcs of the course in a way that seemed important or helpful for them. I told them to think about what they would do if asked to teach this course to other people or were designing the best study guide ever for a hypothetical final exam.

Link to handout.

I was pleased enough with the results first semester to give it another go during the Spring when I had some exceptional models to offer. I would say about half of the students chose to emulate the course map by using Prezi, though with some decidedly innovative twists of their own. Other students created Pinterest Boards, Tumblrs, and standard blogs.

Here are some Prezi examples:

The last one has an audio component that is completely worth listening to all the way through for its spot-on parody of NPR interviews.

By the way, here is a great shortcode converter that makes embedding Prezi in WordPress really easy.

E for Effort

Despite what some of the trolls who come around here may think, I do not actually think everyone deserves a trophy.  I do not award A’s just for showing up to class, and I actually am a pretty tough grader.  That said, I believe that writing is a skill that requires substantial effort and practice, and I do not believe that the predominant grading paradigm does a good enough job of connecting effort and personal achievement.  As I’ve said before, students usually carry around the assumption that people get A’s on papers because they are “good writers,” and people get low C’s and D’s on papers because they are “bad writers,” while the space in between is populated by people who either believe they are good writers but the teacher just hates their style or that they are bad writers who just get lucky some times.

As Marzano, Pickering, and Pollack indicate, students attribute their success or failure at a particular task to one or some combination of four causes:  ability, effort, other people, and luck.

Three of these four beliefs ultimately inhibit achievement.  On the surface, a belief in ability seems relatively useful–if you believe you have ability, you can tackle anything.  Regardless of how much ability you think you have, however, there will inevitably be tasks for which you do not believe you have the requisite skill. […] Belief that other people are the primary cause of success also has drawbacks, particularly when an individual finds himself or herself alone.  Belief in luck has obvious disadvantages–what if your luck runs out? Belief in effort is clearly the most useful attribution.  If you believe that effort is the most important factor in achievement, you have a motivational tool that can apply to any situation.

I posted previously about a study that showed that children who are praised for ability alone are less likely to take risks and seek out challenges and more likely to collapse in the face of adversity than children who are praised for their hard work.  Marzano et. al. echo what Bronson and Merryman say about praise, but they also highlight the importance of teaching students about the relationship between personal achievement and effort.  While their techniques are aimed at (and are probably most likely to produce long term results with) young children, having students track effort and achievement in the college classroom seems like a relatively easy, efficient, and enormously beneficial way to reinforce the importance of effort.  Marzano et. al. recommend having students engage in periodic self-assessments, in which they grade themselves according to rubrics based on effort and achievement.  The effort one looks like this:

4–I worked on the task until it was completed.  I pushed myself to continue working on the task even when difficulties arose or a solution was not immediately evident.  I viewed difficulties that arose as opportunities to strengthen my understanding.

3–I worked on the task until it was completed.  I pushed myself to continue working on the task even when difficulties arose or a solution was no immediately evident.

2–I put some effort into the task, but I stopped working when difficulties arose.

1–I put very little effort into the task.

The achievement rubric (also on a 1-4 scale), looks like this:

4–I exceeded the objectives of the task or lesson.

3–I met the objectives of the task or lesson.

2–I met a few of the objectives of the task or lesson, but did not meet others.

1–I did not meet the objectives of the task or lesson.

The authors also stress the importance of having students set their own personal goals in the classroom, and even talks about a school that uses a “Personal Best” Honor Roll alongside its regular Honor Roll to recognize students who had met or exceeded their goals (established with the help of a teacher) for the semester along with the students who had earned high grades.  Next year, I plan to adapt these two methods to help my students set individual goals for the semester, predict the effort required to achieve those goals, and assess their progress throughout the semester.  Their first journal assignment for the semester will look like this:

–Being handout–

First Journal Entry

This assignment is designed to help you set goals for achievement and effort in this class.  The audience for your answers to the following questions are for you and you alone, so their is no need to try and come up with an answer you think I will like.

Achievement Goals–In a brief paragraph, describe what would need to happen in order for you to feel that you had experienced success in this class.  That could mean receiving a passing grade, getting an A, improving your writing according to some criteria that you define, or some other achievement measure that you come up with.

Effort Goals–In a few paragraphs, talk about what you will need to do in order to achieve those goals.  Try to be as specific as possible, though there are no strict guidelines for your answer.  You can talk about number of hours spent on each assignment, sticking to the recommended deadlines for first drafts, the number of revisions you will probably have to do to get the grade you desire, coming to office hours every other week, etc.

–End handout–

A few times during the semester (after the first paper is handed back, midterm, end of term, etc.), students would be asked to do self-assessments that refer back to these goals.

–Begin handout–

Self Assessment

The following assignment is designed to help you assess your progress in class thus far according to the objectives set by your instructor and the goals for effort and achievement that you described in your first journal entry.  For each item, circle the number next to the score that best describes your performance in class so far:

Achievement in the Course: score your performance in class based on the objectives described on the syllabus/on the assignment handouts.  You can factor in grades so far as you feel they reflect your performance at this point.

4–I have exceeded the objectives of the course.  I have kept up with the reading, turned in all assignments on a reasonable schedule, have completed at least one revision of a paper, and have been earning primarily A’s and B’s.

3–I have met the objectives of the course.  I have kept up with the reading, turned in most assignments on a reasonable schedule and have been earning primarily C’s and B’s.

2–I have met a few of the objectives of the course.  I have done some of the assigned readings, turned in some of the assignments whose deadlines have past and have earned at least a C.

1–I did not meet the objectives of the course.  I am behind on the reading and/or have not turned in any assignments.

Personal Achievement Goals: score your performance based on the “requirements for success” that you laid out in your first journal entry.  Ex.  If your goal was to get a B in the class, and you have earned B’s on all papers thus far, then you get a 3.

4–I am exceeding my personal goals for the semester.

3–I am meeting my personal goals for this semester

2–I have met some of my personal goals for this semester, but not others.

1–I have not met my personal goals for this semester.

Effort: Score your performance based on the effort goals you described on the first assignment.  If you aren’t sure how to score yourself, reference the longer descriptions that go along with each score.

4–I have exceeded my effort goals for this semester.  (I worked on each assignment until it was completed.  I pushed myself to continue working on the task even when difficulties arose, and I viewed those difficulties as opportunities to strengthen my understanding.  I sought help from my instructor or the writing center when I needed it.  I have turned in assignments according to the schedule that I, the student, established and have done the number of revisions I felt were necessary to exceed my personal achievement goals.)

3–I have met my effort goals for this semester.  (I worked on each assignment until it was completed.  I pushed myself to continue working even when difficulties arose.  I have turned in assignments according to the schedule I established and have done the number of revisions I felt were necessary to meet my personal achievement goals.)

2–I have met some of my effort goals for this semester.  (I put some effort into each assignment, but I stopped working when difficulties arose.  I have not been seeking help when I need it.  I have turned in some assignments on time, but still have some to complete.  I have not yet done the revisions I need to do in order to meet my personal achievement goals.)

1–I have not met my effort goals for this semester.  (I put little or no effort into each assignment. I have not been staying on schedule or seeking help in getting started.)

–End handout–

Grading Philosophy

Student-friendly classroom policies and assignments need not be the antithesis of academic rigor. Despite the fact that I don’t give participation grades and allow my students to revise individual assignment multiple times, my classroom is not some stereotype of a hippy-dippy New Age, feel-good utopia in which everyone gets a trophy and no one ever has to feel the pain of failure.  In fact, I think of myself as something of a hardass.  By giving students so many opportunities to redeem themselves, I feel free to set the bar high.  Just fulfilling the terms of the assignment gets you a C.

Below is the handout that I distribute at the beginning of each semester describing what each grade means and what each grade usually signals about revision.  This is a holistic system, and there are no perfect 100’s.

F—The best way to fail a paper is to ignore in whole or in part the requirements set forth on the assignment prompt.  A failing paper might contain an extremely weak, irrelevant, or inappropriate thesis (if it contains one at all).  It may fall egregiously short of the length requirement (500 or more words), have an incoherent organizational scheme, or contain enough mechanical errors to make it unreadable.  Papers that show no effort to properly cite sources will also receive failing grades (see policy statement).

D papers usually show a modest effort to meet the terms of the assignment but may fall short in a number of ways.  They may be up to 300 words below the length requirement or show poor attention to outside sources.  They usually have a relevant thesis, though that thesis may be weakly stated, insufficiently supported, and logically problematic.

D+ papers contain the same deficiencies as a D paper but may be relatively easy to salvage for a C.  For example, the idea may be somewhat interesting but the argument is stated weakly or ambiguously, or there may be so many mechanical errors that the sense of the paper suffers.  Major overhaul at the thesis and paragraph level can boost this to a B-.

C- papers are dangerously close to missing the point of the assignment but manage to get all the components necessary for a passing grade.  The argument is usually weak or ambiguous or merely rehashing ideas discussed in class.  A C- paper may also contain a “dead-end” idea (due to an unoriginal or unprovable thesis) that is unlikely to see improvement with mere surface revision.  Massive overhaul will probably be needed to move up a letter grade.

C papers meet the minimum requirements of the assignment but go no further.  They contain a relevant and plausible thesis, though that thesis is usually weakly supported and unoriginal.  They demonstrate a cursory effort to use outside sources but do not necessarily deal with them insightfully.  The prose is readable but may feel labored, choppy, or pedantic.  C papers have a coherent organizational scheme for the overall paper but may be somewhat awkward in the way that individual paragraphs are constructed.  Revisions at the thesis level are usually needed to see much of a change in grade.

C+ papers only meet the minimum requirements but show promise.  Usually, the idea behind the paper is interesting but the execution at the organizational or stylistic level is mediocre.  Revisions at the paragraph level along with attention to mechanics will often boost this to a B-.

B- papers go just beyond the minimum and come to a stop.  The argument may be clear, and the evidence may be solid, but the essay lacks nuance, voice, and originality.  B- papers are competently written but make the reader think “this has been said before and said better.”  Revisions to these papers usually need to include attention to the level of analysis and insight as well as a sensitivity to language that will make those insights stand out.

B papers move beyond the minimum requirements of the assignment.  They contain an insightful, plausible, and substantially supported argument.  They place their arguments in conversation with arguments from outside sources (where called for in the assignment) and deal with those sources ethically.  The writing is error-free and well organized on the paragraph level, making appropriate use of transitions and topic sentences to guide the reader from one idea to the next.  The tone of the essay demonstrates a competent effort at tailoring the argument for a specific audience.  As such, the writing demonstrates a developing sophistication, though it may not quite achieve the effortless quality of the A paper.   As with B- papers, B papers often seem a little bit obvious and may leave the reader with the sense that they’ve heard this argument made in this particular way before.

B+ papers are the most frustrating to receive back from an instructor.  They go beyond the minimum requirements of the assignment but stop just short of true greatness.  Often, a B+ grade reflects some deficiency in execution, not in big ideas or micro-level analysis.   A slightly confusing structure, a missing logical step, or some mechanical problems may need to be corrected before this can become an A.

A- papers go far beyond the minimum requirements of the assignment.  They contain a truly original, sophisticated, probative argument, approaching a problem or question in a way that sheds new light on it.  The organization is tight and consistent, such that the reader can follow the argument without sensing gaps in its logic.  Outside sources are dealt with in meaningful ways and do not seem “tacked on.”  Commentary goes well beyond the obvious and reflects truly original thinking.  The prose accurately reflects the student’s own voice and clearly engages the paper’s audience, whether the tone is formal, satirical, conversational, etc.  The “-“ in the A- doesn’t usually reflect any major deficiency, just that this essay isn’t quite in that “top 1%” category that distinguishes “A’s”.

A papers are impeccable and rare.  First drafts hardly ever receive them, and hard work is usually required to achieve this grade upon revision.  A papers contain spectacular ideas and no mechanical errors, absolutely none.

Final Grades:

Each letter grade assignment will be given a numeric value and according to the rubric on the left.  Those grades will be weighted and averaged according to the rubric on the right.

Assignments                                                                      Final Grade

A             95                                                                           94 – 100               A

A-           92                                                                           90-93.999           A-

B+           88                                                                           87-89.999            B+

B             85                                                                           84-86.999            B

B-            82                                                                           80-83.999            B-

C+          78                                                                           77-79.999            C+

C             75                                                                           74-76.999            C

C-           72                                                                           70-73.999            C-

D+          68                                                                           67-69.999            D+

D            65                                                                           60-66.999            D

F             55                                                                           0-59.999              F

Marking a First Draft

If you allow unlimited revisions, the first draft is the entry point into a dialogue between you and your student.  It is the beginning, not the entirety, of a conversation that may progress over several drafts across a period of weeks or months. If you are concerned that allowing multiple revisions of a single assignment will just make your grading load even worse than it already is, than hopefully thinking about it in this way will bring some relief.  If the first draft is merely the first exchange in a dialogue, then you do not need to note everything that is wrong/right with the first draft. So much of the time we spend marking a paper is spent justifying the grade itself, showing what you “counted off” for, so that the student won’t complain.  If you allow for revisions, then the first grade the student sees (I actually don’t even show them the grade they would have gotten on the first draft of the first paper) is merely a starting point.  It is a measure of the distance they have to go in order to reach their goal.  Your job is to show them how to take the first step toward that goal–not the entire route, mind you–just the first step or two.

The following is adapted from a set of talking points I used for a panel discussion on grading during orientation for TA’s.  A lot of what I’m about to say will not be news to some experienced instructors, but if you are considering implementing something like this in your curriculum, here are the mark-up techniques that make it workable.

Use technology to your advantage. Paperless grading has changed my life.  I am slow when it comes to hand-writing, so typing up comments automatically saves me a great deal of time and allows me to say more without needing to ice my hand.  Using Microsoft Word’s review features like Track Changes and Comments can make draft mark-up easier, but the real benefit is being able to save your final comments to your computer for retrieval when you receive the next draft and the next.  That way, you don’t have to bother with asking students to resubmit old drafts, and you won’t have to lug gigantic folders home for grading.  Keep in mind that if you still prefer to mark up the draft itself by hand, you can always do that too.

Triage. Like I said, if you are allowing multiple revisions, then you do not need to note everything that is wrong with the first draft.  I actually limit myself to 3 issues that need to be addressed in revision.  Sometimes, I’ll just mention one, especially is the problem is at the Conceptualization level (see below).  Students can get easily overwhelmed if they get back a paper covered in red ink and a two page narrative response, listing half a dozen issues that need to be addressed.  Give your student an achievable task, knowing that you can always address lower order issues at a later stage.  A colleague of mine talks about tackling draft problems according to a hierarchy of concerns.  Here is my adaptation of that hierarchy:


Is this a workable topic?

Does the paper have an arguable thesis?

Has the student done enough research to support that thesis?/Does the student have enough textual evidence (if no research was required)?


Does the macro-level structure make sense?  Are any paragraphs out of place or irrelevant?  Does the argument progress in a logical manner?

Does the student effectively transition between topics both within and between paragraphs?

Are individual paragraphs organized appropriately?  Do any need to be broken up or combined?

Does the paper have an effective introduction and conclusion?


Is the tone appropriate for this sort of assignment?

Does the writer convey a strong ethos?

Is there a preponderance of overly long/short sentences and/or awkward but grammatically correct constructions?

Is the paper wordy? (unnecessary modifiers, overly complex phrases)


Is the student prone to any particular grammatical error (comma placement, doesn’t know how to use a colon, etc.)?

Any words used inappropriately? (thesaurus fetishism)

Is the paper relatively free of typos?

Originality/Wow Factor

Is the paper presenting an argument that is truly original or is it likely that you have two or more papers in your stack that sound more or less like this one?

Does the paper convey an individual, mature voice?

I have actually used this checklist as a rubric.  Remember that your goal is note no more than three issues that the student can address for the next draft, but the higher up on the hierarchy that you have to start, the less you really need to talk about in comments.  If the student has selected a wildly inappropriate topic, then you are essentially going to be telling them to start over, anyway.  The only reason to say anything about research or even organization would be to simply note that those are problems they may wish to avoid when they re-write the paper.  Any problems at the conceptualization level usually indicate that major overhaul is necessary, so beating grammatical issues to death is only going to waste your time and overwhelm the student.

The reason why Originality/Wow Factor is listed last is because these are arguably the most subjective aspects of assessment.  The originality, individuality, and voice of a paper are what make the difference between a B+ and an A in my class, and not all papers are going to ultimately reach that point.  Typically, I wait to talk about those issues until the paper has reached the B level, when the writing task is being addressed effectively but there is just something missing in the way certain parts of the argument are worded or the level of insight in the conclusions the student is drawing.  Surprisingly, originality issues don’t always require major overhaul.  It is usually a matter of fine nuance, and how individual instructors assess that is always, unfortunately, going to be subjective.  That question about whether or not the student really is “saying something new” (and by new, I mean making connections that undergraduates do not typically make, not that the student is making a major scholarly breakthrough) is what I use to assess this category, but you may take a different approach.

Minimal Markup. This is sort of redundant, but it bears repeating.  Unless your student already has a solidly conceptualized paper with a more or less appropriate organizational scheme, do not waste time marking every single grammatical error or awkward construction.  There is no point in copy editing sentences that are going to be scrapped. Use marginal comments to note places where the argument goes off the rails, when the reader is losing the thread, etc.

However, if your student is ready to begin focusing on micro-level issues, still mark copy editing problems sparingly.  Particularly if you want your student to learn something about correct usage or fluent phrasing from the experience, resist the urge to mark every error.  If you mark everything, the student has no incentive to do more than copy the corrections you’ve already made.  You just did their work for them.  Instead, note the first couple of occurrences of a particular problem and then talk about it in your final comments while directing the student to a page in your style handbook or an online resource that will help them learn semi-colon usage.  For fluency and awkwardness problems, I often recommend that the student read their paper out loud to themselves or have a friend read it out loud to them.  Places where the reader falters often signal an issue.

The advantage of this approach is that you can essentially spread out all of the commenting you would do on a single draft across multiple drafts, except with multiple revisions, the student actually has the chance to apply and learn from your suggestions. If you spend more than 15 minutes commenting on each draft, you may be doing too much.

Furthermore, once you receive a revised draft, you can simply lay it alongside the old one (electronic submissions are quite advantageous here) and see what has changed.  If the student hasn’t done what I suggested the first time, I simply refer them to the last set of comments and call it a day.

Comic via PHD Comics.

Worksheet: Editing for Readability

So, this has definitely been Usage Week here at Shitty First Drafts.  I thought I would put a cap on it by posting one of the handouts I use to teach copy editing for readability in my class.  Despite all of my ranting about Grammar Douchery this week, I do actually think that it’s important to address grammatical concepts in the classroom, but I find it works better if you talk about them in the context of readability and clarity.  The exercise below is pretty self-explanatory.  I gave this out last time I was teaching Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, but you don’t need to know the literary references in order to get the point.

A good way to use this worksheet is to put students in groups and have them revise the examples together.  Then have each group write their revisions on a blackboard so that they can see the range of workable alternative constructions.

And if you’re bored this weekend and want to play along in comments, I support that!

Editing for Readability

Though the rules of grammar may seem arbitrary, complicated, and counter-intuitive, the function of grammar and punctuation is simply to make our writing more readable.  The following sentences demonstrate a variety of problems that impair readability.  As a group, work your way through the examples and see if you can identify the problem and correct the sentence to make it more intelligible.

Possible errors (each sentence may contain more than one of these):

  • Dangling or misplaced modifiers (the modifying word or phrase seems attached to an inappropriate object).
  • Pronouns without a clear antecedent
  • Insufficient/weak punctuation (Run-on sentence, comma splice)
  • Excess or inappropriate punctuation (sentence fragment)
  • Wordiness, redundancy
  • Ambiguity

1)      Shallow.  Naïve.  Materialistic.  Words that describe Dreiser’s character.  Carrie Meeber.

2)      A sprawling city with a variety of pleasures, Carrie Meeber fell in love with the city of Chicago.

3)       Hurstwood is a man who knows what he wants which is fine food the company of wealthy men and celebrities and the love of a beautiful woman like Carrie, for him she is merely another possession worth having.

4)       Carrie doesn’t really want a husband preferring instead the material pleasures his money can provide.

5)      Hurstwood and Drouet went to the theatre, where he realized he wanted to be with Carrie forever.

6)       Another aspect is that Carrie seems more interested in what Drouet wears than other qualities.

7)       It has been said that Carrie is a an example of the New Woman, a type of modern woman who makes a living independently without the support of a husband, oftentimes entering into jobs and occupations that were previously dominated by men or considering unacceptable for women for a variety of reasons having to do with social norms and traditional morals.

8)       While looking for a job; Carrie is turned away by shop owners repeatedly.

9)      Carrie is a beautiful woman with excellent taste in clothing, who proves to be a talented actress, this is why Hurstwood falls in love with her.

10)    Ultimately, it has been observed that readers of Sister Carrie generally sympathize with the hapless Hurstwood more than they do with her, abandoning him to fend for himself at the end of the novel.