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5 Ways Technology Transforms Writing Instruction: From Instant Gratification to Iteration

Welcome to Write with Us Wednesdays. Classrooms all over the world use Turnitin’s offerings to improve writing, prevent plagiarism, and support academic integrity. Every Wednesday, the blog posts are for the practitioners. Check back each week for product updates, creative use cases, and tales from the field. The latest edition of Write with Us Wednesdays originally appeared on Schoology Exchange

At Turnitin, we are constantly re-envisioning the role that educational technology can play in writing instruction. Teachers tell us that their students often operate with a “one-and-done” approach to writing essays. Or, when they do revise, this revision involves a cursory grammar check rather than a profound content change. According to prior research, only 29% of students revise their essays at least once before turning them in. However, it’s a common premise that students don’t grow as writers when their first draft is also their final. Teaching students to break from routine and approach writing as a process rather than a finite task requires a fundamental change in mindset.

For a generation of students where every text message, Instagram post, and Snapchat is drafted, sent, and received within seconds, separating the writing process from the sense that one draft is sufficient is akin to a tectonic shift. When writing and posting are seen as a single act, instead of a process, it can feel instantly gratifying. So we ask, how can we use digital technologies (the sources of the aforementioned instant gratification) to engage students in the writing process while also teaching them that it is, in fact, a process? Here are five tips from the field:

#1 Bet on Low-Stakes Writing Assignments

Students don’t need to be producing term papers or magnum opi every time they sit down to write. Rather, we encourage the opposite. Students get better at writing by writing, so find ways to provide low-stakes opportunities for practice. Instead of assigning grades, which can be demotivating, give bite-sized, actionable feedback that students can apply to the next writing exercise. Take advantage of cloud-based storage and word processing programs to store all of these assignments in a single, easy-to-access location.

#2 Teach Writing Wherever, Whenever

Technology is not only an organizing force when it comes to writing instruction, but it also facilitates a student-centered approach. Thanks to the flexibility afforded by digital tools, students can select the environment and time of day best suited for their writing practice and learning needs.This flexibility shouldn’t just apply to when students are writing, but also to the school subjects during which they engage in writing assignments. We don’t see writing instruction as the sole domain of the ELA department; we encourage writing across the curriculum and suggest creating opportunities for students to practice their writing skills in social studies, science, and beyond.

#3 Let Those Peers Review Together

The iterative writing process is hardly a solitary task. Students benefit from regularly receiving feedback from both their instructors and their peers, and many online platforms support both anonymous and named peer collaboration. By engaging in peer review exercises, students learn to constructively reflect on others’ writing and take away information that is applicable to their individual learning. Additionally, the practice of reviewing and commenting on each other’s work lays the groundwork for a cognitive framework that students can employ when evaluating their own work and progress.

#4 Automate the Feedback Process

Feedback is a frequent touchstone throughout these recommendations. Findings from a survey conducted by Turnitin, indicate that 80% of students “often” or “always” expect feedback to help them receive good grades. However, providing high quality, frequent feedback can be unsustainable, especially over multiple drafts. Tools such as Revision Assistant offer a potential solution. Revision Assistant is an online program that improves student writing and engagement. Students receive automated feedback and progress measures as they respond to standards-aligned reading and writing tasks. Teachers, in turn, are given insight into how students are progressing over multiple iterations.

#5 Define Success, and Regularly Revisit This Definition

Prior to beginning writing instruction, we recommend setting actionable goals with students and aligning these goals to a rubric, so that everyone is on the same page about what incremental success looks like. We also suggest using exemplars, writing samples that help concretize rubric criteria. In addition to saving and reviewing drafts throughout a unit or course, ensure that students regularly assess their drafts in relation to the initial goal. This way, students can see their progress first hand, thus internalizing the importance of writing multiple drafts and submitting a final paper that is evidence of thoughtful iteration.