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Revision Plans are More Valuable Than Students’ Drafts

Editorial: Bill Hart-Davidson (@billhd) earned his Ph.D. in 1999 in Rhetoric & Composition from Purdue University. He is a Senior Researcher at Writing in Digital Environments Research at Matrix. In 2014, he will begin a three year appointment as Associate Dean of Graduate Studies in the College of Arts & Letters. He is a co-inventor of Eli Review.

If you assign students writing in your course and you are not using revision plans, you may be missing out on the single best window you have on students’ learning. I’d go so far as to say that a revision plan is *more* valuable to me at certain points in a student’s writing process than their draft is. You don’t have to teach revision to see the value in revision plans either.

But let me explain.

One of the main reasons to assign students writing is to gain a window on how they are thinking. This is true whether you are teaching introductory composition or advanced chemistry.  In these situations, there is something *more valuable* than a student’s draft for seeing how they are thinking. It’s a revision plan.

What is a revision plan, you ask?

A revision plan is a short, reflective statement that communicates goals for making a draft better. I ask students to write them after they have received some feedback on an initial draft. They help me see two very important things:

  1. whether my priorities for improvement align with theirs
  2. whether they can formulate a plan that is workable to use the feedback they get

If either one of these things is not visible, then no amount of practice drafting is going to lead to much improvement in students’ writing.

Why assign revision plans?

The writing I assign to students is practice. It typically is meant to challenge their abilities to not only write clearly but also to think clearly. When I succeed in doing that, the writing comes back, well…messy. They make mistakes. I then make sure they get feedback to learn what these mistakes are and how best to address them.

These mistakes are not a bad outcome; it is the learning activity I designed! So naturally, what I want to know next is if the students understand what to do in order to get better. Can they make a plan and use it to improve? That’s what a revision plan tells me.

How do you fit revision plans into a busy course schedule?

For me, the whole reason to assign a draft is to get to a revision plan. It’s similar to asking students to show their work when they work a math problem. I don’t only want to know if they got the right answer to the problem. (In writing, there is often more than one acceptable answer). I want to understand how they reasoned their way through it. So, I adjust the amount of writing I see at one time—I assign a small bit rather than a huge draft—to focus on something that will really help me see where students are in their thinking and in their writing process.

Maybe I want to know if they are understanding a key reading—something they are using as a secondary source for their own writing. If so, I’ll assign a brief summary or abstract, ask students to do a quick review, and then ask the writers to explain how their summaries could be

  1. more detailed or specific
  2. more helpful to their later writing task by including information about how the source relates to other sources
  3. shorter!

Note, that as students get better at doing a) and b), feature c) becomes more of a challenge. It’s an advanced skill to be able to write with brevity, clarity, and detail. Until we have clear detail, being brief is not a good quality in a summary.

It is important to me to see not only which one of these they are working on (by reading their drafts), but also that they *know* which one they need to work on and how to improve. That’s what a revision plan tells me.

How do I make time to respond to revision plans?

Well, first of all, I don’t respond to drafts without them. So it is not an *extra* response. I read the draft and the revision plan at the same time, usually while I’m also looking at all the feedback they received. How is all of that possible? With Eli Review. You can learn more about that here. But listen, I did this on paper long before we created Eli to do this. Eli or not, using revision plans is no less valuable.

Second, responding to revision plans is much faster than responding to drafts alone. When students tell me in their revision plan what they want to work on to revise, I can see three important things.

  1. Have they selected the right issues to address and the right feedback to act on?
  2. Have they arranged these issues in the right priority order to act on them effectively?
  3. Have they shown in their reflective statement that they understand where they can improve?

If the answer is “yes” to any of these, I simply say: great! Carry on! And then I watch for the next draft and revision plan to come along. I’ve done my job, in other words, to create the learning opportunity they needed to improve.

If the answer is no, I make a comment to call their attention to a different issue or re-set their priorities. Sometimes I need to put things in a different perspective. For instance, I may need to say: “Without detailed summaries, your reader will not be able to evaluate your use of these sources as evidence for the argument you will make.”

On the whole, commenting is much easier and much faster with revision plans than without them. And best of all, I’m much more confident that the comments I do make are aligned with what students need to work on. No guessing if I am seeing their best thinking or if I am seeing something they dashed off at the last minute right before class!

Do you use revision plans? Did I convince you to try? Let me know @billhd on twitter!

Revision Plans are More Valuable Than Students’ Drafts was published to the Eli Review Blog in the categories Editorial, Pedagogy.

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