(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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.