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Posts Tagged ‘writing

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I thoroughly enjoyed the latest Build for Tomorrow podcast episode Why People Can’t Write, and How to Fix That.

The host, Jason Feifer, started with the hook of how teachers complain that kids today cannot write properly thanks to their texting habits. Regular listeners like me might guess that Feifer would unpack this as an argument of correlation and not causation, i.e., texting is not the cause of poor writing; it is one of many possible contributing factors.

Feifer went on to interview a few language and writing experts. One in particular, Elizabeth Wardle, a professor of written communication at Miami University in Ohio, attributed the root of the rot to university writing classes in 1875 (see transcript).

Wardle went on to critique how writing was reduced to the five-paragraph structure because, as Feifer put it, this was “easy to teach, easy to grade“. Here is how Wardle phrased her argument (24 minute mark of the podcast): 

There’s well-structured problems, and there’s ill-structured problems. Well-structured problems have one right answer… Ill-structured problems do not have a right answer. Every writing problem is ill-structured. There’s a bunch of ways you can do it… But school really likes well-structured problems because they’re so much easier to assess.

This is a reminder whether we are teachers of writing or change agents: It is a mistake to oversimplify what is inherently complex.

Our real world problems tend to be ill-structured. Providing overly or well-structured crutches for our learners will not prepare them for what comes next. Such structures are also inauthentic and unmotivating. 

Embracing complexity is hard work. Anything worth doing takes hard work. Do the hard work.

Am I happy that there is a study and meta research that reports that there is no statistically significant advantage of handwriting over typing notes?

Sort of. In a previous reflection, I explained that it is what students do with recorded notes that matters more than how they take them. Their preferences also matter.

I am also glad that there is ammunition for me to fire back to anyone that claims “research says…” and does not go deeper than that.

But here are a few more factors to consider about this debate.

First, a quiz was the measure of ability to recall. A quiz and recall — the most basic tool for the most fallible aspect of learning. Consider these: Learning is not just a measure of basic recall and our brains are designed more to forget than to remember.

Second, the students in the study were not allowed to review their notes before the quiz. On one hand, this is good experimental treatment design as it excludes one confounding variable. On the other, this is inauthentic practice — the point of good note-taking is to process them further.

Finally, this type of research has been repeated enough times for a meta study. It is an indication of technological determinism, i.e., we attribute disproportionate effects of the type of technology (writing vs typing instruments). In doing so, we foolishly discount methods of teaching and strategies for learning.

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When I was curating resources last year on educational uses of artificial intelligence (AI), I discovered how some forms were used to generate writing.

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YouTuber, Tom Scott, employed writing AI (OpenAI’s GPT-3) to suggest new video ideas by offering topics and even writing scripts. The suggestions were ranged from the odd and impossible to the plausible and surprisingly on point.

This was an example of AI augmenting human creativity, but it was still very much in the realm of artificial narrow intelligence. The AI did not have the general intelligence to mimic human understanding of nuance and context.

I liked Scott’s generalisation about technology following how AI worked/failed for him. He described a technology’s evolution as a sigmoid curve. After a slow initial start, the technology might seem to suddenly be widely adopted and improved upon. It then hits a steady state.

Tom Scott: Technology evolution as a sigmoid curve. Source:

Scott wondered if AI was at the steady state. This might seem to be the case if we only consider the boxed in approach that the AI was subject to. If it had been given more data to check its own suggestions, it might have offered creative ideas that were on point.

So, no, the AI was not that the terminal steady state. It was at the slow start. It has the potential to explode. It is our responsibility to ensure that the explosions are controlled ones (like demolishing a building) instead of unhappy accidents that result from neglect (like the warehouse in Beirut).

This hit my Twitter stream yesterday.

Confusing WHO statement about ibuprofen.

The one thing I can say for sure about this WHO statement is that it is confusing. What is the meaning of “does not recommend against the use”?

A clearer and more direct statement might have been: WHO does not have enough information at the moment about using ibuprofen to treat the symptoms of COVID-19.

I would jump on this ordinarily. But I have been sensitised to writing as a form of persuasive communication because I have been grading student essays.

Most of the essays need the same medicine. No, not ibuprofen. The medicine is clear and direct writing. This doctor says take one of each tablet (clear and direct) before, during, and after writing. It will prevent headaches.

I spent much of the week providing feedback and grading assignments that included a response essay. That part of the assessment required students to read a statement, agree or disagree with it, and then defend their stance with published evidence.

With a few exceptions, the responses and level of writing worried me. I am recording some reflections while the experience is fresh so that I can take pre-emptive steps next semester. I address two categories: Structured writing and writer mindset.

The main problem seemed to be that students did not know how to structure their responses. So I am offering some writing tips for the next batch of students. (This will add to the ones I had already written for a previous version of the assignment — crafting a teaching philosophy.)

Start with a declarative statement. When asked to make a choice or a stand, state it clearly and concisely at the beginning of the essay. There is no need for personal stories or opinions, trend analyses, waxing lyrical, and grand-standing. Get to the point.

Consider a nuanced stance. A choice is not always binary. Depending on the circumstances, both options could be valid. An option could also lie somewhere in between two extremes.

Defend your position in paragraphs. Each paragraph should contain one main idea or claim. That claim should be backed up with evidence. In the context of the assignment, the evidence should come from published research. The research should be unpacked to highlight how it supports the claim.

Consider counter arguments. A mature point of view is one that recognises contrary findings and perspectives. These might provide nuance to the overall argument or be used to strengthen the original stance.

Write the introduction and conclusion first. These are like the open and close brackets that encapsulate one’s thoughts. When a writer does this, the middle is like beads on a string. Sometimes the flow is simple and moves logically from one end to another. In other instances, the path might branch or is more elaborate. But in all cases, the conclusion reinforces the declarative statement.

I continue with writer mindset in part 2 tomorrow.

I think about an audience of one in two contexts.

The first is my daily musings on this platform. When people tell me they read my blog or ask me why I reflect daily, I tell them that I do not write for them; I write for me.

I think out loud, but organise my thoughts as I do. It is a habit and a discipline. It is one way I learn.

The second way I am reminded about writing for an audience of one is when I provide feedback on essays and grade papers. Students submit these papers as a requirement for course work and get a grade at the end of it.

They invest time and effort for an audience of one — me. Some do their best, some do not care. A few are skilled or learn to write for the reader, but most are not or do not.

Writing for the first audience of one is current and public. It has reach and impact that I cannot predict. I know why I keep doing it.

Writing for the second audience of one is a relic of schooling and even university education. It tends to stay in the confines of a course and makes little impact (if any). So why do we keep doing it?

Most semesters I comment on examples of awkward or otherwise poor examples of essay writing.

This semester I do not share examples of writing faux pas. Instead I share a photo I took to illustrate nuance.

The photo is a screenshot of a Pokémon Go stop that someone labelled “hook up point”.

If you are an old school local, you might understand that this place is for hanging bird cages in a community space.

However, “hook up” has a broader use. When one refers to people hooking up, they are, um, managing the birds and the bees. A hook up point would then have a bad reputation.

My message to essay and paper writers is simple: Do not write for yourself, write for your reader. If you do the former, you are satisfied with what your words mean to you. If you do on the latter, you focus on communicating with readers by embracing the nuance of meaning and taking their points of view.

I appreciate the efforts of the Greens and one of their YouTube shows, Mental Floss. The latest episode was about schooling in the USA.

Video source

Part of the video was a segment on whether students tested better if they hand-wrote notes or if they typed them.

The research they cited revealed that students who hand-wrote notes did better on a test. I recall this research making its way around the Twitterverse and the blogosphere, so it was not news.

However, you should not take the results at face value.

First there is the question of what medium the test was taken on, and if it was paper whether that favoured writers over typers. There was also no mention of the quality and design of the questions to determine if they favoured one strategy over another.

Next is the issue of pitting one medium over another without considering learner preferences and strategies. Consider what might happen if you forced a typer to write or a writer to type.

The video also highlighted how writers might process what they hear more deeply and summarise by note-taking, while typers might resort to recording or transcribing. What was not clear was whether there were typers who summarised and writers who just recorded.


Writers Typers
Recorders   X
Summarisers X  

In the 2×2 matrix of note-taking method and note medium, only two options were mentioned in the video. How is this rigorous?

If you think about it, the matrix is far more complicated. There are more contributing and influencing factors on note-writing and test-taking. Over simplifying provides easy answers. Easy answers are not nuanced and not always right. Take note of that!

It took a few semesters of sensing and planning, but I eventually implemented something that helps future faculty write better.

Every semester I provide feedback and grade electronically-processed assignments. Every semester I am reminded how brilliant graduate students do not necessarily know how to communicate properly in writing.

I have suggested to administrators that a writing course be a prerequisite to the one I am involved in. But this doing this is neither easy nor a priority.

What is a priority is graduate students reading a resource and taking an automated quiz on plagiarism. This is important and it is easy to do in an institutional learning management system (LMS). But an LMS, no matter how advanced, cannot show graduate students how to write better and provide timely feedback on authentic writing.

Knowing that institutional change takes an inordinately long time, I provided a series of tips in my blog. I reminded my classes to refer to them before writing and embedded URLs to the same in my online feedback.

I also made a concerted effort this semester to highlight the resources in class and set aside time to talk about the importance of writing ability.

The ability to write clearly, logically, and critically is vital to future academics. They might not only need to prepare teaching philosophies and curricula, they also need to write reports and apply for grants.

The future faculty I have met seem to forced to play writing gambling game. If they get a supervisor who is nurturing and cares about how they write, they hit the jackpot. If not, they struggle from course to course or they reinforce bad writing habits because no one tells them otherwise.

Studying at the doctoral level requires an immense effort and truly independent work. However, this does not mean that graduate students should do work blindly or without scaffolding.

I have already discovered how effective my simple resources are. I have not torn out as much hair this semester as previously. Many of my learners have followed basic reminders like shaping a premise and writing in paragraphs.

I did this without doing anything contrary or disruptive to the course I facilitate. If anything, the tips add value to it. This could be an example of how not asking for permission first is a good thing.

Change is not about asking for permission first. It is about asking for forgiveness later.

I only have myself to blame…

I wrote “10 tips for crafting a teaching philosophy” a year ago with the intent to share it with new batches of learners. I forgot and have to deal with poorly organised statements.

It is not that the tips would guarantee good writing. They would have simply provided a scaffold for inexperienced writers to craft a challenging piece of writing.

I am not forgetting this time around. The pain of providing repetitive feedback on disorganised essays has reminded me to create a link in the Google Site that is my workshop resource.

I have two more tips for future faculty or anyone who has to write academically.

One, avoid passive voice. This tweet might help you spot passive voice:

So write “Students perform task X” instead of writing “Task X was performed… by zombies”.

Two, when learning to prepare lesson plans, write for someone else to teach it. This means stepping outside yourself to see what someone else might not understand about your learners, intent, content, strategies, assessment, etc.

Just as you try to teach in a student-centred way, you should write in a reader-centred manner. Aim for clarity, not complexity. You must convince, not confuse.


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