Final words: students reflecting on 10 weeks of writing

A lot of my colleagues don’t bother with final exams in a writing class. The essays are the important thing, they argue, and the idea of a “test” seems out of place — there isn’t any knowledge a student can gain in a writing class that they haven’t already demonstrated in their essays, so there isn’t anything to “test” them on in the traditional sense. And I agree. But I still give a final exam, for three reasons:

  1. I feel the experience of writing a complete essay (or any piece of writing), from draft through revision, in a timed, stressed environment is a valuable lesson — in fact, I tell my students that I view the final exam as a final lesson, not a final “test.”
  2. In practice, it does become a kind of test of students’ skills, since they do have to go through the whole writing process in just two or three hours (depending on the college): the exam becomes a final chance to demonstrate just how comfortable they have become with their own process over the course of the term.
  3. Except for an initial “ice-breaker” assignment in the first week, all their out-of-class essays go through intensive workshopping, which is great and benefits the students tremendously, but this final exam is independent writing, with no other input, so it’s a good chance see what they’re capable off on their own (especially when compared with that first assignment).

What usually happens is that students wind up writing some of their best work. Sometimes that’s because a student works better under pressure and doesn’t have a couple of weeks to second-guess himself or herself. Other times it’s because they really have learned so much and gotten so comfortable with their own writing that they feel more confident. And sometimes, I suspect, it’s the nature of the final exam itself.

Every term, I ask my students to write a reflective essay. It’s a chance for them to look back over a period of time or a particular project or a series of essays and examine how things have changed. Plus, it neatly combines several forms of writing we practice in a term and a few forms we don’t, including comparison essays, illustration essays, personal essays, persuasion essays, and process essays.

The nature of that reflection is different every term, so I’m not giving anything away for future students here, but this term I asked my students to look back over the past ten weeks of my writing class and reflect on their education — and to project a little, too: “What did you learn from this class that you expect to carry forward into the rest of your education or your career?” I asked. “How will that carry forward, or how do you expect to employ it?”

And, just because I’m fair and I want my students to be honest in their writing, I also turn it around: “Or, if you learned absolutely nothing this term, what had you expected to learn, and how did you or this class fail to meet that expectation? What will be the impact of that vacancy in your experience?”

What follows — in lieu of a Writer’s Notebook this week, because these are, in fact, responses to a prompt — are a few anonymous excerpts from my students’ exam essays this term. Yes, I’m cherry-picking; not all of my students wrote brilliant essays, and not all of my students were so glowing in their reflections. But I’m a positive guy, and I like to promote the possibilities in writing, so I wanted to share some of the comments that plucked my intellectual and emotional strings.

I have not, however, chosen any comments that might give away a students’ identity. These are totally anonymous; my students are perfectly safe. And except for truncating one sentence to conceal some identifying info, and a bracketed correction of my own name, I have not edited these or altered them in any way. These are exactly as they appear on the final.

“People don’t realize when they take classes, they aren’t just learning facts from a book, they are learning skills to better themselves in every aspect of their lives.”

“I have learned a lot about different persuasion techniques, including what not to use as an argument when writing a persuasion essay. I feel this will be helpful when I write future persuasion type papers, or if I have to persuade one of my teachers to change my grade in the future.”

“I didn’t just learn from things we did in class but from things I did not do. Not being here, not focusing and not detailing my work, taught me what I needed to do to improve myself and my writing.”

“I feel much more like a writer than I did my first day of class. Dr. [Sam] has taught me that it is ok to be who I am; and that just because my life story may be different from everyone else; it’s still ok to tell it.”

“I learned that revision is more than just correcting misspelled words and misplaced commas. It is sentence structure. It can mean finding words within your sentence that will make your writing more enjoyable for the reader. I found myself at one point thinking that I needed to take an English class so that I could expand my vocabulary. That really isn’t the problem at all, I think that truly I just need to spend more time during the revision process, and look at each sentence one by one asking myself, ‘How can I make that sentence better?'”

“Taking this class has helped me actually care about writing and creating ideas, which I think is the most important thing because if you only care about a grade, then you won’t fully grasp the concepts of writing and the freedom you have to create whatever you want.”

“When I think of the word ‘fun’, writing a thousand word essay does not find its way into my thoughts, but I know that it’s necessary and must be done. When I am interested, however, I put my all into the assignment. I need to find different ways of connecting any topic back to an interest of mine. I think this will help me immensely in future writing classes.”

“I found that I need to expand and try to work on this and get used to different writing styles, not just my own. I can’t always have a little me in everything that I write.”

“Just like the popular phrase “you have to love yourself before you can love someone else.” It is the very same for writing, you have to love your writing before someone else can.”

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8 thoughts on “Final words: students reflecting on 10 weeks of writing

  1. This is an excellent question: “What did you learn from this class that you expect to carry forward into the rest of your education or your career? How will that carry forward, or how do you expect to employ it?” And this part is very brave! “Or, if you learned absolutely nothing this term, what had you expected to learn, and how did you or this class fail to meet that expectation? What will be the impact of that vacancy in your experience?”

    So now I just don’t know what to think – you’re either brilliant or stupid! I prefer the former…

    1. Ha! I think I’m probably a lot more of the latter than the former. But in my view, I know what I expect out of the class, and what I hope my students will get out of it. But I don’t always know exactly what my students expect. I usually ask a similar question at the beginning of term just to direct me, but at the beginning of a first-year course, most students don’t quite know what to expect yet, so these kinds of reflective questions can often tell me more about my students. The projective side, too, can tell me a LOT about students’ expectations in language they might not have thought to use.

      As for the “what if my class failed” side of things: I don’t like to assume that the curriculum we use or the ways I employ it are the end-all be-all “RIGHT” way to do things for all students, and while I work very hard to meet the needs of each student over the course of a term, I know that sooner or later, my teaching methods and a student’s learning style might miss each other. Asking questions like this helps me reduce that problem in future classes.

      For example, this term I had a student struggling long and hard with her persuasion essay. When I worked with her in her workshop group, she said she was having such a hard time with it because she struggled to come up with original topics and wished I would just tell her what to write about. I tried to explain my reasoning — that asking students to explore topics they come up with helps encourage originality and creativity while also helping ensure the student is writing about a topic that actually interests her. “If you can’t connect with your own topic, how can you expect a reader to connect with it?” She waved away the explanations, saying she knew all that but she found more creativity and connection in trying to meet the requirements of an assignment.

      So I said, “Convince me,” and I told her to write her persuasive essay about why teachers should assign essay topics.

      Her final argument has some flaws, but — setting aside the fact that I’d already won the argument because she was writing a topic she had, in fact, come up with — she was, in fact, persuasive, and I’m going to add some more restricted, assigned topics in my future classes!

      I tell my students we can learn as much from our failures as from our successes. Maybe more. And I feel it’s important to live by that, to demonstrate it in my classroom. Hence, the “bravery” of my question. 🙂

  2. I’ve been skulking around your site and wish that I could be a student in your writing class. (I’m a 61-year-young high school English teacher who wishes she could be teaching college students and wishing she could take a writing class and a photography class. In the meantime, I teach myself while trying to guide HS freshmen to write something that has a semblance of a thesis and support.)

    I look forward to reading more of your work because I like your writing style, your voice, and (so far) your thoughts.

    1. Wow! Thanks! That’s high praise indeed from a teacher!

      When I went into college, I planned to teach high school. I had a very good and influential college mentor who made me realize how much I loved college, and I decided I never wanted to leave college, so I chickened out of high school teaching. But I have ENORMOUS respect for elementary and high school teachers (my mother taught public school, as did both my in-laws), especially since you’re the ones who prepare my students for me. And for the most part, I have amazing, well-prepared students. I’m immensely grateful to their teachers. 🙂

      Thanks so much checking out the site. If you’re here and you’re interested, I’ll talk shop with you any day, fellow writer and teacher. 🙂

      1. GREAT! However, I am in awe of your skill, talent, and accomplishments (I want to be like you when I grow up kind of awe). I taught in China last summer & will return for the same gig this summer (professional development workshops for teachers of English … my focus is on writing.) I want to figure out how I can publish something about my travels / experiences there. I’m researching the market now. My strengths are less in the creative realm and more in the expository / magazine article & academic writing. I’m trying to branch out now. Does this all make sense?

      2. That makes total sense! I have a number of friends who’ve taught in China summers or winters, and they love it. I’d like to go, too, but my adherence to Tibetan Buddhism, my vocal support for Tibetan autonomy, and my reverence for the Dalai Lama would get me into too much trouble, so I haven’t gone.

        I do have a friend here in the States who’s an editor for a publisher based in China. (HAL Publishing. They’re awesome. Kinda racy though.) I don’t think they do travel writing, but my friend might know some people. I’ll ask around.

        In the meantime, you might check out TravellersPoint blogs. My third-grade babysitter (yes, you read that right) used to keep a blog there called Nomad Grandma. In case you’re looking for ideas or a place to post your writing for now. 🙂

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