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A scientific approach to teaching writing

I recently spoke with Michigan State University researchers Dr. Jeff Grabill, Dr. Bill Hart-Davidson, and Mike McLeod about Eli Review—an innovative technology for writing teachers built on the findings of decades of research. Eli Review takes years of hard data and applies it in a way that allows teachers to grow and make effective decisions to help students. The platform delivers powerful data control for educators so that they may adapt and make sense of learning trends and student results. For context, and the sanity of all non-academics, ‘pedagogy’ is the strategy behind and action of teaching.

Adrian: What is Eli Review?

Eli Review Team: Eli Review is a peer learning technology invented (quite unintentionally at first) in writing classrooms at Michigan State. We focus on helping peers provide high quality feedback to each other and on helping students revise their writing and thinking.

As teachers and technology makers, we are trying to eliminate the time-consuming work of sorting drafts and feedback and revisions, provide students more opportunities to practice feedback, help writers revise and improve as writers, and provide teachers and schools with the best formative assessment data available.

When we first spoke, you consistently used the terminology ‘evidence-based writing’ when describing your research ambitions. What do you mean by that?

We mean something simple and related to moves in medicine around evidence-based medical practice, and that is to take a careful look at—in our case—both the research and pedagogical literatures to understand what works in a learning environment and to focus our pedagogy on those practices. In medicine, the effort is to focus clinical practice on things that improve health. In our case, it is to develop a set of pedagogical practices that improve learning. This is not a simple process. Quite the opposite. We need to think about what counts as evidence, issues of translation from “lab” to classroom, and a whole host of issues related to teacher practice and the complexities of real classrooms (with humans in them and all the crazy things humans do). But it is possible to practice with fidelity in complex environments.

Is it true that Eli Review was something of a happy accident—that your focus was on something much less creatively disruptive and benign?

Yes. We were in the process of creating and testing a new approach to business writing. That approach was quite successful, but at first we were failing because of a lack of a learning technology (we had Google Docs, Word, and an LMS). As part of our experiment, we were testing specific pedagogical moves around feedback and revision, as we noted above. We needed a technology that would allow us to move more quickly, and we also needed to see feedback and revision. We realized we couldn’t teach what we couldn’t see and students couldn’t learn without that same formative feedback. We invented Eli to solve problems of efficiency and visibility. It worked.

Data. Research. Two terms you rarely hear linked with teaching writing. I understand that it was very important to you that the foundation of this new pedagogy be built on what the existing research says was effective. How has that translated into the success of the final product and why was it so important to you?

We think that it is a mistake to think of Eli as a technology. It is really a pedagogy. A theory for teaching and learning. It is theory made into software. We think that all technologies are really pedagogies, and of course, all pedagogies are technologies.

This is really a key point, and in many respects, a radical idea. When people look at the technologies available to them as teacher and as students, the question that needs to be asked is “what is the approach to learning here?” And people should ask what that technology/pedagogy says about the nature of learning, teacher work, and student identity.

Eli is effective—Eli works—because the underlying pedagogy is sound and well tested. Eli has to be used well, just as any pedagogy needs to be used well, and this is precisely why research and data matter so much. We made good theory based on real data into technology.

Revision. Revision. Revision. What’s the big deal?

This is one issue that is very clear in the literature. One distinction between so called expert and novice writers is revision. First, expert and effective writers revise. Writers who struggle typically don’t revise at all, and if they do, they typically fail to address concerns like argument or arrangement, focusing instead on surface-level copyediting.

If we can get students to revise at all—and get teachers to facilitate revision—then we are already making real change possible. If we can facilitate high quality revision, we can change the world with regard to learning in writing.

You explained to me that one of the major tenants of your theory is that student engagement must involve peers, not simply a teacher and a curriculum. Would you expand on that a bit?

Both teachers and students need to get better at providing feedback, but quality feedback between peers has the potential to transform our teaching for two reasons. First, peers can not only learn to provide high quality feedback, but it is sometimes more effective than teacher feedback because peers use a shared knowledge and language that is more accessible and, frankly, they sometimes listen to their peers more so than to teachers. Sometimes.

But there is a more powerful reason, and that has to do with the power of creating a feedback-rich classroom. Peter Johnston, a well-known elementary education researcher says it best. He writes that most of the feedback students receive comes from their peers, and so

“We have to remember that we are not just giving students feedback [as teachers]; we are also teaching them to provide it. In a way, we are teaching them to teach. If students can provide productive feedback, then collectively they will tend to get more feedback. And it will be more immediate feedback, because, rather than waiting for the teacher, their peers can provide it. More feedback improves learning, and immediate feedback is more effective than delayed feedback. Increasing the responsiveness of the classroom by actively teaching students how to respond to each other’s efforts magnifies the effects of our teaching.

 Interview edited for clarity and brevity.

Photo credit: Eli Review