Revision Assistant Case Study: Upper St. Clair High School

Feedback that Engages Students and Encourages them to Take Ownership



Trying to Get Students to Engage with their Feedback

Upper St. Clair School District is situated within a suburb of Pittsburgh, enjoys strong graduation rates and only about 7% of their students are a part of the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. Caty Dewalt, an Honors English teacher for the 9th grade at Upper St. Clair High School and Judy Bulazo, the district’s Director of Curriculum and Professional Development, identify the student-teacher ratio as one of the more significant challenges that educators face in providing quality feedback and writing instruction. Face-to-face conferences, notes Ms. Dewalt, are effective in pushing students to do more, but serving so many students prevents her from having these one-on-one talks very often. To become good writers, students need to write copiously, yet the assignment of more tasks reduces one’s ability to give specific feedback in a timely manner.

In addition, students face difficulties in engaging with the feedback. Students at Upper St. Clair High School are in a competitive environment, and subsequently, many are concerned about losing points and want quick fixes. They value feedback only to the degree that it can help them attain the grades they want. In this sense, the students do not claim the full ownership over their writing that they should. The timing of when they receive feedback also determines its value: giving feedback too late prevents them from learning it appropriately so they can apply it in future assignments. Students need feedback throughout the writing process, and not just after a task has been completed. Feedback must also be specific, prioritized and non-judgmental. Ms. Dewalt recognizes the extreme value of knowing how to write well: “it is thinking made visible.” Ms. Bulazo concurs, and adds that it is one of the most necessary skills for the demonstration, persuasion or teaching of concepts. She remarks that, “it separates the good from the great.”

Implementation

District personnel contacted the Revision Assistant pilot team after they had read some literature regarding the program and the pilot’s need for participants. The district discussed the opportunity with teachers, who soon agreed to take part. Letters were sent home to parents to explain the new program and how it fit into the curriculum. 300 students across 10 classes worked with Revision Assistant. Educators introduced it to them by informing them of the program’s features and purpose, and that they had the unique opportunity to inform its development. Revision Assistant staff were present during its use to observe and support students and teachers.

Ms. Dewalt volunteered mostly out of curiosity. She admits she was somewhat skeptical about what the system could really do and how well it could actually work. Yet, if the tool could provide immediate feedback and encourage students to do more revision, she would consider that to be a “holy grail.” Ms. Bulazo states that the district hoped that the product would provide opportunities to assign more writing tasks, without overwhelming educators, and offer personalized, in-the-moment feedback.

Individual teachers were given the freedom to determine how to implement Revision Assistant in their classrooms. Ms. Dewalt gave her students the assignment prompts in advance, and encouraged them to do some independent research before a writing exercise. She gave her students more time to interact with the system so they could get used to it and to see how they worked with it.

Results

Many times, students would check their work with Revision Assistant in the middle of writing, make their improvements, and then continue to write more. As they wrote and revised, she walked around the room to observe and make herself available for help. Ms. Dewalt also took advantage of the data reports that Revision Assistant produced. The system provided spreadsheets of students’ strengths, weaknesses and scores. She says these data are the kind that make one a more effective teacher.

Ms. Dewalt notes that the tool changed the conversation she had with her students. Often students will perceive teachers as adversaries because teachers point out the errors in their writing. However, with Revision Assistant, the computer was the commenter. Ms. Dewalt and her students were on the same side, working together to find out why the system did not “like” a sentence or paragraph. Rather than seeing her as someone to get a grade out of, the students understood she was there to support them in making their writing better. Revision Assistant’s feedback aided students in this respect by giving them information they could use to better frame the questions they had for Ms. Dewalt.

After extended use with it, Ms. Dewalt noticed that some students began recognizing the patterns of improvement needs in their writing, even before they submitted their work into the system. Ms. Bulazo observed similar results. She states that students took more ownership over their writing. Before the use of the system, students tended to think of the teachers as the ones whose job it was to improve their writing. However, when using Revision Assistant, the students better understood that it was actually their responsibility to enhance and progress their writing.

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