Eric Mills

Extending the Reach: Providing Personalized Comments to Students

Eric Mills, Denver School of the Arts, Colorado


Mills uses Turnitin to extend classroom instruction by using its included discussion board. This makes warm-ups and class times more effective. In the feedback that he gives, Mills scaffolds and differentiates his comments depending on the time of the semester, the student, and the different focuses for instruction, giving students the personalized and individualized instruction they need to improve their learning.


Turnitin: Please state your name, your institution, and the classes you teach.

E.M.: My name is Eric Mills. I work at Denver School of the Arts, and I teach 8th grade Language Arts, 11th and 12th grade Language Arts class, African-American Literature, and Women’s Literature.

Turnitin: Brian nominated you, and he had a lot of great things to say about your use of Turnitin--specifically with discussion boards and rubrics. Please walk us through how you’re using Turnitin in your classes, including some of the key challenges that you have and the ways that you’re using Turnitin to address those challenges.

E.M.: I think probably what’s interesting about my story is that plagiarism is the least important thing I use Turnitin for. Turnitin is so helpful in terms of the discussion board and the QuickMarks. Those are probably the key areas for me. Sure, I catch a person every year cheating on a paper, but that’s never any fun and it’s highly useful to see where their sources come from.

There are all these studies about how students, in high school especially, come to school sleepy and how high school should start later in the day. I get 17 and 18 year olds coming in at 7:30 in the morning who can barely open their eyes, so you can imagine that an English classroom that is built around a seminary type discussion is not that productive at that time. So, one thing I started doing was having them post to the discussion board before class--the night before--and it’s amazing the difference you see in the student responses that come in at 10 o’clock at night when they’re more active and aware. I’ll often pull it up on the screen in class, and it jogs their memories and helps them have something to talk about.

It’s a college-level skill to have a discussion online, and that’s where education is moving—half in the classroom and half on the computer.
Eric Mills

I have students who have graduated and gone off to college who came back at winter break and visited, and one of the neat things I got to hear was, “Hey, we’re doing this same thing in class, and you really prepared us for it.” So it’s a college-level skill to have a discussion online, and that’s where education is moving— half in the classroom and half on the computer. One student in particular came back from Howard University and said that all the Turnitin stuff that we did really prepared her for being an active participant in her blended learning class at the university. So that was pretty cool.

The other thing I love is QuickMarks. I spent a lot of time building my set of QuickMarks. I built links to the online writing laboratory at the Purdue OWL site and any MLA sites that we use. What we want to emphasize is not just that you did this wrong; it’s more that: this is not quite right, here’s why it’s wrong, here’s how you should fix it, and if you still need more help click on this link. I think that’s something you just cannot do on paper, I mean, without it taking two hours to correct one paper.

Turnitin: What type of assignments do you have in your discussion boards? Do you mainly just talk about the curriculum and things that you’ve learned in class?

E.M.: We tend to be a bit advanced—the 8th graders here operate like intellectual 9th graders—so I’m lucky in that regard. But, I heard from their parents a long time ago that they wanted me to require students to read, because their kids just don’t read very much. But, if the teacher asks them or tells them they have to for a grade, they’ll do it.

One of the ways we select our books is through my asking the students to post a little “book card” that contains a summary of the text, an interesting passage they liked, and why they would recommend it. It’s quite similar to the type of reviews you find on Amazon. I tell them, “Pretend you’re writing for, and just post it here.” It lends authenticity to the assignment. With this assignment, they’re motivated students.

In order to choose the next book, I also have them comment on two other students’ posts. For example, if somebody reviews “The Hunger Games” and says that they thought that this character was not quite as fleshed out, or that Katniss perpetuates some kind of stereotype about strong women or something, and somebody else disagrees with that, they can start their own conversation there. They all have opinions about it and it’s just a type of time consuming conversation that they can’t do in the classroom. This is a way for them to continue to engage beyond the classroom. And then if a person reviewed a book that somebody else thought sounded interesting, that’s how they choose their next book. So we’re all kind of reading the same books year in and year out.

Turnitin: What has this blended learning approach enabled you to do as an instructor? What have you seen from your students as you have been approaching your instruction in this way?

E.M.: The simple answer is I’m a very disorganized person, and so having it all in one place is really key. I know as a teacher I’m supposed to have a filing cabinet full of stuff and be super organized, but if you saw my desk it’s kind of chaotic. Being able to take home only my laptop, instead of a milk crate full of papers? That’s amazing! I also think that Turnitin allows us to do everything that they tell us to do these days, everything that makes for being a great teacher. And I don’t think I’m overreaching when I say that.

Being able to take home only my laptop, instead of a milk crate full of papers? That’s amazing! I also think that Turnitin allows us to do everything that they tell us to do these days, everything that makes for being a great teacher.
Eric Mills

We’re supposed to differentiate. Some students are just not comfortable talking in class, so they’re the ones that just blow it up on the discussion board and write two to three paragraphs instead of a sentence or two. It’s also a check for understanding. I can see immediately who is understanding things and what they need to focus on and that all comes back down to having it in one central location. It’s hard to overstate how important it is in my teaching right now.

Turnitin: Tell me how you provide rich feedback as an instructor and expand specifically on how you provide differentiated instruction.

E.M.: I have a series of Quick Marks where if it’s the first time they make this mistake, I make a more in-depth comment, but then if it’s the second or third or fourth time and they should know it now, I have a lesser comment so it’s not like the big glaring “red light” comment. It says something like “Hey, you know how to do this, but you forgot it.” So I use names like “MLA Citation 1” which is for the first time, and “MLA Citation 2” which is more of a gentle nudge and emphasizes how you should really already know this. The purpose of this is to remove the scaffolding and to let them work more on their own.

In terms of rich feedback, I put it all in the QuickMarks themselves. I actually have a really interesting story about this: I exported my QuickMarks and gave them to the social studies teacher next door. He tried using those QuickMarks for one of his essay assignments. He observed that the feedback seemed to sink in a little more, because it helped students to have almost the exact same comments when they were writing for a social studies class as when they were writing for a language arts class. Sometimes students go into a subject like science or social studies, and to a much lesser extent math, saying “I don’t have to write in a special way because this isn’t English class.” But the reality is you have to write clearly and coherently in whatever subject you’re using, so that really hit it home for them with this social studies exercise.

Turnitin: In terms of scaffolding your instruction, do you have any other examples either within QuickMarks or just in how you’re providing feedback across time or across assignments?

E.M.: Well there’s a couple of different points there. Every Wednesday, I have students write about the current text we’re studying and submit it to Turnitin at the end of class--so, it’s an immediate assignment. And every week or two, we change our focus. Maybe we’ll start on formatting and MLA formats, and then after a couple of weeks we’ll talk about properly introducing the text of study, and as the semester goes on, we get more into writing clear thesis statement, forming transitions between paragraphs, using higher level transitions, like dependent clauses and independent clauses to transition your ideas. Also, I have different sets of QuickMarks for different focuses, so every week they know what they’re going to look for. On larger papers, I comment on every single thing, and I use the rubrics, the Common Core State Standards rubrics, and then they know that they can look there for that.

If a student needs more help, we’ll go through the program together and sometimes they’ll say, “Oh, I didn’t know I could look at that spot,” or “I didn’t really know that existed.” Sometimes, there is no substitution for sitting down with your teacher and going through it line by line. And that sounds kind of old school, but we’ll just have a little writing conference if somebody needs additional help too.

Turnitin: How has using Turnitin affected your student learning outcomes?

E.M.: My students are learning that writing is a process. You cannot write an in-class essay on Wednesday and think “Now, I am done,” and you never have to think about it again. Next Wednesday we’ll load up that paper, they’ll read through my comments and practice what I said. The first thing we do before we write again is read the other paper, and read what I wrote back to them. If the entire class has made one mistake, which is really interesting to see, we’ll have an entire lesson based around that. We might use some sample papers for the PeerMark assignment. Maybe I’ll upload a paper with some mistakes--so I can see if they can catch all the mistakes. I think Turnitin has really helped me with the cyclical process of writing, instead of just turning back a paper. It’s great that it’s always there.

Turnitin: As a last question I wanted to get your thoughts about using Turnitin across the curriculum. You shared your QuickMark comment with the social studies teacher. I can imagine other teachers being skeptical of using Turnitin because they don’t teach writing. So how would you address those teachers with regards to just your own personal use of Turnitin?

E.M.: Well, it’s silly for someone to say “I’m not a writing teacher.” Writing is such a focus of every class these days. Even in math, you have to explain your answer in a short sentence or paragraph. So, you are reading something, you are teaching, and you are interpreting their writing; that is a skill you just need to have.

Just this morning I was talking to that social studies teacher who is directly next door to me. I said, “Hey, have you used Turnitin ever since that first time?” and he said “No.” So, I suggested “Why don’t we do some assignment where we both assign the same essay and they get two grades, one from me and one from you.” I’ve never done that before, but we could just see the possibilities: “They could do some of the research on the economics of the Great Depression in your class, and they could read part of “Mice and Men” in my class and so I’ll hit the literary analysis and you hit the historical analysis, and then maybe if the science teacher wanted to do the Dust Bowl or something like that from agriculture and agri-business in the 1930s, we could all just kind of collaborate on that.”

So, that is one way to bring skeptical instructors on board. We started doing that assignment with “Mice and Men” in the last week or two. The other instructors can get them into it without having them just dive in and feel like they’re going to drown. We can go slowly through it and work at it together. I can share what I do, and they can learn from that. It seems to be working so far. And I encourage everybody that I work with to use Turnitin.

[End of Recording]

The transcript has been edited for clarity