Using an Unlimited Rewrite option (and why you might never want to do so)

(Since we had some discussion during Admin Week about my unlimited rewrite approach, plus a few people asked me for more details subsequently, I thought I’d post some details and thoughts on the subject. Plus, since people are presumably still putting the finishing touches to their syllabi for the Fall semester, perhaps someone else would want to try it out. Anyhow, I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on it and any suggestions you might have for improvement/modification.)

Policy details:

The rewrite policy that I utilize has the following components:

1 – Students can rewrite any and all essays, as many times as they wish, throughout the course of the semester. They are usually limited to doing so until a week before the last day of classes.

2 – A rewrite must be submitted with all changes in a different color (usually blue), to clearly set them apart from the original text.

3 – Rewrites are returned with the same volume of feedback as earlier drafts.

4 – The rewrite grade completely replaces the original grade that the essay received, e.g. a D paper rewritten into a B will count as a B paper for the course. If a rewrite actually makes the grade worse, then I use the original grade.

5 – A late (or other) penalty that the original essay has still applies to any rewrites.

Rationale:

In my estimation, an unlimited rewrite policy is one of the perfect ways to underline and emphasize the focus on writing as a process in our courses. It provides a strong incentive for students to revise and improve their work. It also achieves something that I have been trying to increasingly introduce into my classes—an emphasis on student responsibility. I explicitly convey to my students that they will constantly be given options to improve their work, that it is up to them to use such opportunities, and that if they do avail of these options, I will always be available to provide support as needed. My rewrite policy and its specific details substantially, in my estimation and based on student feedback, help to achieve the above.

Facilitation:

Besides the policy itself, there are multiple other systems and approaches that I utilize to encourage students to avail of it and to make it dovetail neatly with the rest of my course. I currently do not require a full draft before the final draft for each paper (though students are encouraged to run one by me), but use workshops, peer editing and conferences instead. This creates more time for rewrites and ensures that complete drafts of the paper (i.e. the final draft and any subsequent rewrites) are always graded. From the time I return the first graded draft of the first paper, I set up and regularly update the Blackboard gradebook (updating individual grades every time I return a rewrite). This ensures that students are always aware of exactly where they need to improve and see the tangible results of their rewrites. I regularly remind students about the option and that they would not have this opportunity in most FYW (or other) courses at MSU. Similar to the way the rewrites work, when students choose which essays to put in the end of semester portfolio, the portfolio grade replaces the essays’ original grades. These approaches all underline the centrality of revision to the course.

Advantages:

For me: The rewrite policy leads to many students improving their writing, by incentivizing and rewarding additional effort. The option causes students (as many have admitted) to read my comments much more carefully than they would otherwise or did in other FYW courses. Both of the above elements, as well as the practice at rewriting, tend to make those who use the option better at revision, which helps their end of semester portfolios too. Though most students consider me a tough grader, they invariably always say (paraphrasing the feedback I got when we discussed it at semester’s end) that it’s justified and they can’t complain, because the detailed commentary explains exactly why they received their grades and (along with the rewrite option) provides them with all the tools for improving the grade that they need. I get virtually no complaints about grades at the end of (or, for that matter, during) the semester. When I do get emails about grades, they often include apologies from students for not using the opportunities that they had. This is a significant benefit, especially since my grade average, even after the rewrite policy, is a little lower than the departmental average. I can be as rigorous as I think appropriate, with students usually being appreciative of the opportunities they receive rather than resentful of the standards they are being held to. I have had students look relieved when receiving D grades, since they know they can change it, rather than being unhappy or complaining. Lastly, there is the pleasure of actually seeing students rewrite papers effectively to improve by a letter grade or more, which occurred multiple times this semester.

 

For students: The obvious advantage for students, of course, is that they have multiple opportunities to improve paper grades. A less obvious advantage is that those who do multiple rewrites tend to improve their writing in general and ability to respond effectively to feedback. A significant element of the policy’s benefit for students is psychological. They are given the impression, from the beginning of the semester, that this is a course where they have many opportunities to do well, where the policies are designed to simultaneously challenge and aid them, and where their instructor will put in a substantial amount of time and effort to support them. All of these would be true of my courses even without this policy, but it certainly helps convey and clarify these truths to my students, and I believe they do better work and respond more positively to the courses due to the option.

 

Disadvantages:

For me: The primary disadvantage for me is that this policy leads to a lot more work on my part. In this semester, across four courses, I graded over 140 rewrites. Even if it took 15 minutes of work each, that’s 35 extra hours of work. If one includes the time taken to check each email (I collected and returned all papers digitally), copy the file(s) to my hard drive, compare the rewrite to the original draft, update my physical and Blackboard grades after each rewrite, mail rewrites back, etc., it’s more like 30 minutes per paper, i.e. 70 hrs of extra work over the course of the semester. A second disadvantage is that students may blow off the first try at a paper, counting on doing a rewrite later. I rarely faced this issue in the past, but did have an exceptional number of such cases this semester. Hence (after the second paper of the semester), I informed students that any incomplete paper would incur a permanent penalty of at least a letter grade that would apply to the rewrite too. This seemed to eliminate the issue. Another disadvantage that connects to the issue of workload is students leaving the rewrites as late as they possibly can. This semester, it led to 70 rewrites being submitted on the last day possible, which meant that I had 100 rewrites to grade in the last week of classes on top of my other work. Lastly, there is the issue of students submitting rewrites that have very limited changes, but that was actually true of very few cases.

 

For students: I don’t believe there is any real disadvantage for students in the presence of an unlimited rewrite policy in comparison to its absence. The one minor disadvantage in its current implementation is that the policy places the responsibility in the students’ hands. Multiple students have commented that they planned to do rewrites and left it too late due to the lack of a time/date limit, admitting that it was a case of personal laziness and/or poor time management.

 

Effects:

On the whole, I have had dramatically positive results with this policy, which is why, even though I spend some time rethinking it at the start of (and during) every semester, I always end up reusing it. The rewrite policy helps many students to dramatically improve their writing, rewards those who are willing to put more time and effort into their work, dramatically reduces complaints from students about grades, and generally contributes positively to student attitudes to (and, for many students,  investment in) the courses. The only real downside is the substantial extra investment of time and effort required on my part, but I am working on methods to lower these.

 

Variations and scope for improvement:

In the past, I have used the above system with restrictions such as allowing only one rewrite per paper. I dropped this approach, since many students need (and do) multiple rewrites to genuinely improve their papers. Currently, as noted above, I am primarily considering tactics which will lower my workload and/or better distribute it over the course of the semester. I currently plan to allow the first half of the semester’s essays to be rewritten till midway through the semester (while the other half can be rewritten almost till the end of the semester). This restriction will ensure that students cannot simply leave rewrites of all essays till near the semester’s end, but will have to do some of them earlier. Similarly, I am working on developing and using a commentary rubric that will enable me to provide students as much feedback as my comments currently do while cutting down on the time I spend on them.

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “Using an Unlimited Rewrite option (and why you might never want to do so)

  1. Great post here Shil and thanks for detailing this out. I think your ideas about the “midway” deadline for the first-half of the semester papers would help a great deal and also might help students even further with their time management. That is, I do think the matter of “responsibility” is key here and gets right at what I see much of our (primarily freshmen-based) courses involving – in turn, I think the issue might just be “how much rope” to give. By having the “midway” deadline, you retain some of the value of hard and fast deadlines that contain within them (to my mind) crucial lessons about time management, yet still leave enough room for students to structure and navigate that time unto themselves (I think your revision regarding “incomplete” papers shows some of this). My thought, also, was to maybe only allow one rewrite for each “final draft” (again thinking about time here) but this might be too much restriction that takes away from the instructive “pressure” of the unlimited opportunity. What also comes to mind is openly discussing – and even introducing a practice or activity – about structuring and managing one’s time as a writer into the class (I believe we discussed this a bit during Admin week as well). Regardless, I absolutely agree with you about the “psychological” aspect of our courses and being able to thread this into a lesson about the process (and necessary discipline) of writing seems right on.

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Rick. Only allowing one rewrite would cut down on the workload but, in all likelihood, wouldn’t make too much of a difference, since I always have only have a small handful of students who do multiple rewrites–and they usually improve their work/grades significantly, so I’m loath to take the option away. I think retaining the psychological effects of the “unlimited” rewrite is worth the downsides.

    On that note, the more I think about it (and discussing this with others in the department and writing this up has been very helpful in making me think through this approach in detail once more), it seems to me that the psychological aspects might actually be more influential/beneficial than the material elements. This summer I’m teaching a 106 class (8 weeks) with the unlimited rewrite at any point option in place. A large number of my students have been remarkably bad at getting work done on time and, unsurprisingly, I’ve got very few rewrites thus far (only 5 in total, with 1.5 weeks left in the course, and four of them from one student!). So, materially speaking, the rewrite option just hasn’t benefited students at all, since almost none of them have used it. However, I’ve found that it has a major effect on how students view the class and their work.

    For example, I’ve had multiple students meet with me, send emails or talk to me before/after class to discuss the feedback from me and how they can improve their papers via a rewrite. I’ve heard students discussing among themselves, before and after class, how they’re happy that they have the rewrite option and plan to avail of it. I’ve had students get “D” and “F” grades and actually apologize for it, promising to do better on a rewrite. I’ve had them thank me for the option, even when they haven’t used it at all. So, oddly enough, the rewrite option is making students pay more attention to feedback, spend more time on discussing their papers, complain less about low grades (I haven’t got a single complaint and the class average is currently a D+), and generally have a better attitude to the class as a whole. And all that even though people just haven’t used the option thus far (admittedly, I’m expecting a bunch at the very last moment the coming weekend).

    In short, it’s odd. But (mostly) positive odd.

  3. I have done this for students who are struggling. I make it clear that the purpose of the class is not to get a grade but to learn how to write, and if viewed that way, this makes all kinds of sense. Last semester, there were a few students who rewrote their papers, resulting in higher grades — sometimes the penny drops along the way and they see what they should have done in the first place. The problem for the university is an old-fashioned one — there is not a curve in the grades. Far more students gets Bs or As.

    So the question is not whether this is a good idea. It is. But whether the benchmark of grades will wither. Are we willing to enter into a new method of teaching?

    As it is, the submission of the portfolio at the end of the semester creates an opening for rewriting, but I have not found that to be a particularly inspiring assignment for the students. There usually is not a great difference between the final draft submitted during the semester and the portfolio draft. Perhaps the weakness of this portfolio assignment is that students are revising their work during a stressful time of the year when their minds are elsewhere. I have tried various approaches, hoping to inspire them to deeply rewrite one or two essays, but have not been satisfied with the results. If we could strike while the iron is hot, while a student is concerned about a paper or suddenly realizes something, rewriting would be more effective.

    Once again, we should rethink the methods of university teaching. Is a final of some sort necessary? Why couldn’t we have five essays per semester, with the option of rewriting, say, two of them at any time? I hadn’t ever thought of that before, but this post has stimulated my August mind to do some new thinking.

    • Ann, I’ve been mulling over your comment and finally got around to following up, in part because I had students fill out evaluations of my summer course (my own, not the official ones) on our last day, as well as verbally discussing their thoughts on it. There was, as expected, universal support and appreciation for the rewrite option.

      On the grades issue that you mentioned above, speaking purely for myself, I haven’t noticed the rewrite option affecting my grade curve, or at least not problematically. Yes, students get higher grades than without it, but I’m consistently coming in at or slightly below the departmental average (both here in MSU and when I taught at Temple). Part of that might have to do with being a tough grader, which my students certainly think I am. So one way to minimize the effect of a rewrite option on grades would be, of course, to grade a little harder on the first try. Since students have the option to do better, tougher initial grading wouldn’t elicit any complaints, and would likely result in the same sort of grade distributions that occur now. Or at least that’s my personal experience.

      I thought your idea of doing away with the portfolio was a really interesting one, since I’ve had similar experiences with it not particularly driving students to revise. I generally find that selling the portfolio as a part of the unlimited rewrite option works a little better, but not for everyone, of course. To piggyback off your five essay suggestion (and aren’t we doing that in 105 already, with the placement paper followed by four essays?), maybe one way to approach it would be with a 4-5 essay semester, with students having the option to revise all of them once each, and the “portfolio” consisting of their choice of the best 2-3, which they are allowed (and encouraged) to revise further. I wonder what sort of effect that would have on writing, grades and revision, and how different the results (and process) would be from what we currently have.

  4. Thanks for sharing this in such detail, Shil. After reading your post and the comments left on it, I wanted to suggest another possible solution to more evenly distribute the professor’s workload while still allowing students the option of rewriting. In the past, I’ve offered students the option to rewrite one essay they were not happy with over the course of the semester. I like your idea of unlimited rewrites better, but maybe you could apply the one-week deadline I gave my students for rewrites. In other words, if a student wanted to rewrite a paper for a better grade, he or she had to submit that rewrite within one week after I’d returned the graded paper. You could still allow unlimited rewrites, but each time, the student would have to get to work on the revision right away in order to turn it in within the one-week deadline (and you could certainly adjust the time limit as you saw fit; one week is just my arbitrary time frame).

    It seems to me that this approach has several advantages. First, it distributes the work of grading rewrites more evenly throughout the entire semester. Second, it addresses the concern that Ann Evans brings up in her comment, about striking while the iron is hot. I would guess that a student who is “forced” to revise an essay while the topic, assignment, unit readings, and your feedback are still fresh in his or her mind is probably going to do a better job than one who realizes two weeks from the end of the semester that his or her class average could use a boost, and maybe that not-so-great first essay is the place to get that boost. Finally, it keeps the emphasis on students’ responsibility for their grades, but gives them a bit of a nudge that many still need in order to manage their time and assignments effectively. Knowing that they don’t have all semester–or even half a semester–to get around to doing that rewrite may help some students to conquer that “personal laziness” factor.

    • I just wanted to report that, as I’ve been tweaking the variation on the rewrite policy that I’ll use this semester, I am definitely going to use your suggestion, Tavya. I’m still leaning toward the unlimited rewrites, for all the reasons I’ve enumerated above, but I’m thinking (hoping?) that taking that tack will weed out a lot of the “I’m rewriting at the last moment” rewrites and also achieve the various benefits you mentioned.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s