Students in Organic Chemistry, Economics 101 and Statistics 250 all found something new in their classes this fall–regular writing about the big ideas these courses present. They have been writing about concepts such as aromaticity and resonance, opportunity cost and trade, along with standard deviation and histograms. During the summer, instructors in these courses identified key concepts, focusing on the ones that students typically find most difficult, and M-Write staff, in consultation with the course faculty, developed writing prompts that address these concepts. Ginger Shultz from chemistry, Mitchell Dudley from economics, and Brenda Gunderson from statistics are the faculty members leading these innovations.

M-Write, a project funded by the University’s Third Century Fund, aims to transform the teaching and learning in large enrollment gateway courses so that there is more opportunity for student engagement and transformative learning. Project directors Ginger Shultz and Anne Gere have also received funding from the National Science Foundation and the Keck Foundation for closely related projects. All of these projects follow the same pattern of developing writing prompts based on key concepts to which students respond with a draft, participate in automated peer review, and write a revision to solidify their learning.

L to R: Solaire Finkenstaedt-Quinn, Dave Harlan, Anne Ruggles Gere, Raymond Pugh, Larissa Sano, Alena Moon, and Ginger Shultz

As part of the preparation for this fall’s implementation, M-Write’s new software developer, Dave Harlan, improved upon the automated peer review that is already part of Canvas, the University’s course management system, so students are able to write in response to a given prompt, upload it, and receive drafts from several other students to review and comment upon. In turn, they receive comments from other students, and these, along with what students glean from reading the drafts of others, enable them to revise their own drafts. In other words, M-Write makes it possible for students in very large gateway classes, of several hundred or even a couple thousand students, to write and receive feedback on their work.

Of course the technology is only part of the story. Every M-Write course has a cadre of advanced undergraduates who support and monitor the writing of students in the class. These Writing Fellows, as the advanced undergraduates are called, have already completed the gateway course and have been nominated by their professors. New Writing Fellows take a Sweetland course that prepares them to help students with everything from the technology of the peer review system to strategies for using feedback to revise a draft. (See the M-Write Fellows article for more information about the Writing Fellows practicum course.)

This fall’s implementation was preceded by a pilot course in Materials Science Engineering (MSE) where all the elements of M-Write were employed for the first time. That course made the limitations of Canvas’s peer review system visible and led to the development of the modified system. In addition, the MSE course provided an opportunity to learn more about how students experience M-Write. Overall, student response was very positive. Comments such as: “The writing helped me understand difficult concepts,” “I didn’t realize what I didn’t know until I started writing the prompt about phase diagrams,” and “I learned a lot from reading what other students wrote about polymers,” were typical, and they validate the M-Write premise that writing fosters learning.

During Winter Semester M-Write will add courses in biology and take on expanded versions of Economics 101 and Materials Science Engineering. Plans are in place to add additional courses in the fall and to initiate a Sweetland Seminar for Engaged Learning that will bring together experienced and new faculty interested in incorporating M-Write into their courses. For further information about M-Write, visit the M-Write section of our website.