Why Inquiry Matters: An Argument and Model for Inquiry-Based Writing Courses

Beth Godbee, Assistant Professor of English at Marquette University, and undergraduate researchers Katie Ellington and Megan Knowles argue that inquiry helps students see themselves as agents over their own writing and learning. When students become agents, they can more easily write their way beyond a semester, course, or educational experience—and into the stance of writers. Continue reading

Formative Assessment and Growth Mindset

Marci Glaus is the English Language Arts Education Consultant for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction; email Marci.Glaus @ dpi.wi.gov

I vividly remember my first English class as a first-year college student, probably because I’ve told the bizarre stories from that class so many times. Each story stems from early in the semester based on my first experience with assessment at the college level.

During the second week of classes, the professor walked into the classroom carrying a folder of our papers at arm’s length, as if it pained him to hold them near his body. While positioning himself at the front of the room, he told us our papers were “turds,” dropped them on the floor where they scattered, and then paced back and forth over them while lecturing for the 55 minute class period. Then he left. When we were sure he was gone, some of us got on our hands and knees to distribute the papers: mine had a partial shoe print on it, along with comments in the margins and a big red “C” on the last page.

While I knew that what that professor did was unprofessional, it still took a while for me to move beyond the troubling letter grade, but once I did, I was able to read the comments in the margins. Most of them made sense, and some would have been just as helpful written in another language. In my mind, this meant that I would have to talk to him about those comments. However, like roughly half of the other students who dropped his class, he was one of the last people I wanted to talk to. At that time, I did not think about all of the internal and external factors that steered me into his office to ask my questions, but I was glad that I did because in roughly ten minutes, he answered my questions, cleared up the confusion, and was actually quite lovely about it.

The last time I told this story, someone asked why I went to office hours—what had cultivated the expectation that I should ask questions about writing and physically show up to face a seemingly very unpleasant man? Why not just drop the class? That question has very little to do with skills or academics. It has mostly to do with habits or even assumptions I had developed about teaching and learning shaped before college and career readiness became a slogan.

When we hear the phrase college and career readiness, most likely the first thing that that comes to mind has something to do with academic skills students have mastered to be successful after graduating from high school. However, we all know that there is much more to life after high school than content knowledge. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction agrees (see figure 1). There are necessary habits and behaviors students must figure out in order to persist in the face of challenges. Of course content knowledge is important—we would not be able to write with authority about much without it. Even the skills for appropriate application of that knowledge is crucial, but when the opportunity to continue honing those skills and adding to that knowledge comes to a halt in the face of a challenge (or even an insult), nothing much happens, or even worse, damage is done.

Figure 1.


Many people have heard or read about growth mindset from Dweck (2003), who suggests that success is in the learning. I have heard educators talk about how to teach growth mindset to foster reflection, value hard work, and think of mistakes as opportunities to learn. When I learned about growth mindset myself, I kept coming back to the idea that it seems related to formative assessment. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (2016) defines formative assessment as “a deliberate process used by teachers and students during instruction to provide specific, actionable, and immediate feedback” (emphasis added). It is not a test, or something to put in the grade book; rather, it is the expectation that teachers and students use everyday classroom experiences based on learning goals to gather feedback for the purpose of planning what comes next in learning. Key parts of this process include making sure that students have a solid understanding of the objectives so that they can provide input about where they are with their learning and take part in plans to move forward. These established expectations fit under the idea that we are here to learn rather than simply look smart (Dweck, 2003, p. 245). Because formative assessment focuses on student growth, information that teachers gather from students reflects the assumption that a learning process does not look the same for each student, and each student will take responsibility for learning (NCTE, 2013). This also means that mistakes will be made—a hard sell to someone with a fixed mindset about intelligence, or a student focused solely on finishing an assignment to get a good grade. However, if we think about teaching and learning with the focus on formative practices where not everything is graded, then there is room to grow.

Another way to think about formative assessment and its relation to a growth mindset is a re-framing of how we think about learning gaps. I appreciate how Heritage (2010) reminds us that when we are learning, there should be a gap, otherwise, there is nothing to work toward (p. 12). In other words, we talk about teaching and learning as a process, full of actionable feedback from teachers, peers, and students themselves, all working to close that gap as evidence of learning.

Looking back on the opening story, I admit that I went right to the grade and fell into a fixed mindset where feelings of not being smart enough or good enough thrive. Had I languished there, I would not have talked with the professor like I had in the past with other teachers about gaps in learning in order to make my writing better. Those teachers helped me focus not only on writing, but on what NCTE identifies as “goals that represent valuable educational outcomes with applicability beyond the learning context” (p. 3). I firmly believe that because of those formative experiences, I learned the basis of what was needed to begin college level coursework, and the mindset to work through obstacles and learn from criticism (Dweck, 2006).

NCTE’s position statement on the use of formative assessment to inform instruction in the English language arts provides further background, strategies, and further reading related to formative practices. They promote a formative assessment stance that, like Dweck, emphasizes the understanding of a learning process as the focus for success.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Heritage, M. (2010). Formative assessment: Making it happen in the classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (2016). Formative assessment. Retrieved from http://dpi.wi.gov

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Wisconsin’s graduates are college and career ready. Retrieved from http://dpi.wi.gov

From the Editor

John Pruitt, Associate Professor of English, University of Wisconsin-Rock County
[PDF version here: From the Editor]

In January I’m set to teach Contemporary Women Writers, and, as always, the anxiety of assigning the perfect texts that I and my students will eagerly pore over loomed large. In years past, I turned to the critics and award winners, mostly with success, occasionally without: of course, if my students hate a short-listed Booker Prize nominee, they obviously lack the artistic and literary disposition I demand in my classroom. Right?

It nearly happened again, this time with Rachel Kushner’s novel The Flamethrowers, a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller and Notable Book, its dust jacket covered with glowing reviews from Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, and other renowned publications. I sort of liked it—it was actually a little too pretentious, I thought, so I decided to shun the professional readers and turn to common readers for their reactions. My students, after all, are common readers themselves, so I sought out reviews from their peers.

That’s how I serendipitously discovered the BookTube Network, which I understand happens with most great discoveries: the Venus de Milo, the Uluburun shipwreck, the Galapagos Archipelago, Uranus…Thousands of videos about books and reading abide here, assuring me that even millennials continue to turn to the written word. In fact, here’s what I learned from them about The Flamethrowers:

“Much of this book just isn’t very good. It’s actually pretty bad.”

“Reading this was like sitting in the back of a cab in a strange city. You’re pretty sure you’re headed somewhere but it’s taking forever and it looks like you’re going in circles.”

“There are some good passages, but they’re hiding deep in long stretches of clunky writing where nothing, literally nothing, happens.”

“This reads like a book that I should like in a literary sense, and I’m not positive that it worked out like that. I pretty much struggled through it, and was relieved when I reached the end.”

“If you’re craving substance, engagement, something, this book will leave you wanting.”

I did think about this approach before I decided not to assign the book. After all, Amazon is replete with negative (and hilarious) reviews written by jaded adolescents forced (as they put it) to trudge through another dull classic, but I don’t teach those students. In college, they may take my literature courses simply to fulfill a Humanities requirement, but they have options in music, art, philosophy, and other disciplines as well. And, frankly, I don’t care if they can psychoanalyze Hamlet or deconstruct Joyce or queer Woolf. I don’t want to do that myself.

I care only that they continue reading for pleasure when my class finishes. That’s also why I teach primarily contemporary literature. Very few English majors cross my path in the two-year system, so current novels speaking to current events will more likely engage those who may never again enroll in literature courses.

So, while I do turn to the London Review of Books for personal reading, I turn to the young masses for classroom reading. As we know, despite how much we want them to love Dickens and Faulkner, if our students hate what we’re teaching, we all suffer.

Vol 58, No 1 (2016)

From the Editor DOWNLOAD PDF
John Pruitt 1-3
How Wisconsin Writes DOWNLOAD PDF
Marci Glaus 4-6


Learning on the Continuum: Teaching What Cannot Be Measured ABSTRACT DOWNLOAD PDF
Gretchen McClain 7-11
Combining Places: Teaching Ecocomposition in the Multilingual Classroom ABSTRACT DOWNLOAD PDF
Yasmin Marie Rioux 12-19

Special Section: Teaching in the Technical College

Introduction: Teaching in the Technical College DOWNLOAD PDF
Gregg Nelson 20-22
An Assignment to Satisfy Assessment Demands for Technical and Academic Writing ABSTRACT DOWNLOAD PDF
Bart Ganzert 23-26
Job Portfolios and English Composition: Using Resumes and Cover Letters to Teach Writing Skills ABSTRACT DOWNLOAD PDF
Emily Swanson 27-32
What I’ve Learned about Teaching Nontraditional Students ABSTRACT DOWNLOAD PDF
Kisha Turner 33-37
Going Global in the College Writing Classroom DOWNLOAD PDF
Rachel Dobrauc 38-45
Jennifer M Hewerdine 46-49
Peer Review in a Learning Community ABSTRACT DOWNLOAD PDF
Jim Beatty 50-54
Is It My Birthday? No, It’s Just Another Day of College Comp ABSTRACT DOWNLOAD PDF
Jennifer Militello 55-59

Book Reviews

Review: Cultivating Racial and Linguistic Diversity in Literacy Teacher Education: Teachers Like Me DOWNLOAD PDF
Aaliyah Baker, Nina F. Weisling 60-62
Review: Language, Society and Power: An Introduction (4th edition) DOWNLOAD PDF
Jason A. Kemp 63-67