Nedra Reynolds (Twitter, LinkedIn) directs writing across the curriculum at the University of Rhode Island and has taught a variety of writing classes, including first-year composition, argument, rhetorical theory for writing majors, teacher-training courses for English Education students, and graduate courses.
Nedra has used Eli since Fall 2012, the very first term it was available outside of Michigan. Having experimented with online writing spaces from publishers and learning management systems, she was eager to try one developed by writing and rhetoric specialists from Michigan State.
Over the past four years, she’s led faculty across the disciplines in using the peer learning app to improve feedback and revision in their courses. In 2012, a provost’s innovative technologies grant supported twelve faculty representing every college during the first year of implementation. From that initial cohort, two long-term research projects developed with the College of Pharmacy and separate one funded by an NSF grant designed to explore how students become better scientists through writing.
In a survey last Spring, Nedra observed:
After 30+ years of teaching writing, Eli Review has re-energized me. I find it works well with all levels of writers and all genres. So flexible for either in class or out of class tasks, and new users get tons of support from the Eli team.”
In this profile, we try to unpack how Eli contributes to her pedagogy, which has always emphasized writing workshops.
How important is feedback for writers to improve?
I often quote Nancie Atwell who said that writers need three things: time, ownership, and response. I tell teachers in training or new teachers that responding is our number one job as writing instructors. It’s difficult to do it well. But how we respond to students’ writing is what they really remember. That interaction with them is vital to their growth as writers. I think for many students it is the first time anyone has read their writing with any kind of deep engagement, with genuine comments or questions as a real reader. I think that’s the most important job we have.
How do you see peer feedback contributing to a writer’s improvement?
Peer feedback is learning on both ends. They’re not trying to be experts, but they’re trying to be readers. They’re improving their reading, and they’re improving their rhetorical sensibility—like what’s appropriate to say to this writer at this point. If we’re face-to-face, that might be different. If we’re online, it might be different. What could be something that’s encouraging but also constructive? I think it calls upon a lot of intellectual abilities for your peers to talk about writing. It helps build their vocabulary about talking about writing, which is really important.
Students are real readers. I talk to my students, “Can you read?” They say, “Yes.” “Do you know when you’re bored?” They say, “Yes.” “Do you know when you’re amused?” They say, “Yes.” “Do you know when you’re convinced?” “Yes.” I say, “Then you can be a peer reviewer.”
How do you get students to buy into peer feedback?
I ask them what they would like as writers, what they need for support. We try to talk about what what works and what doesn’t for them individually as writers. I say, “Do you ever reread your writing or read your writing out loud? Yes, well, that’s a form of feedback.” Donald
Murray in “Teaching the Other Self: The Writer’s First Reader” explained that we are our first readers. The writer is her own first reader.
Then, we go on to embrace more readers into that process of asking, “How does this sound? How does this work?” We talk about feedback with analogies of coaching or dramatic performances. I try to help them see that writing is something where they have to be “on,” and they have to listen to how it’s coming across.
What compelled you to try Eli and to keep using it?
I wanted to move peer response more out of the classroom because my sense was that when students were doing face-to-face feedback using paper copies–that they had to remember to bring–they didn’t spend enough time on the actual text. I could not be policing each group. I didn’t really know what they were saying to each other. I didn’t have a way of seeing that. I wanted to be able to see what they’re actually writing to each other. That’s why Eli’s review tasks are really important for me. To coach them, I needed to know what exactly they were sharing with each other.
How do you introduce your students to Eli?
I introduce it to them as a tool that’s going to be new to them, but I talk about how excited I am about it, and how much I think it does improve their writing. I tell them that I’ve used it for years and that students really like it, which they do. Then we talked about how it’s not Sakai, which is our learning management system, but it’s something to use in addition to Sakai. Then, I always just show it and model it for them and let them see what it looks like the interface looks like. I show them what I see. I don’t make it a big deal because I think they should be able to navigate a new website. They’re digital natives, right?
Has Eli stretched you as a teacher?
Eli allows me to reinforce criteria or expectations through the review prompts. I have to be clear about “what the teacher wants” before I can guide them through the review process. My new draft-review-revise cycle now devotes more time to review and revise and less time to drafting–which now seems like time wasted. I’m also “chunking” assignments more.
I am always looking at the site to see what I can see what I can draw for a lesson. I think it presents me with a lot of options for in-class activities that I wouldn’t have had because all you do is click that button for “conceal names for projector”and then you can say, “Let’s see what’s going on classmate 11, right? What did the draft look like? What kind of reviews did she get? What’s in the revision plan? Let’s look at all the features.” So, it gives endless, endless opportunities for in-class activities that are focused and for modeling and for discussion.
Have you had any lightbulb moments?
I am often surprised by some of the percentages when I look after a review has taken place. Let’s say for trait identification, you can tell that only 11% of drafts had some feature that they’re supposed to have. I was able to show them those percentages, and they all go, “Oh, wow!” Or, you can see that 88% of them actually had that feature, so “Ok, we’re on board.”
I think Eli gives me a good reflection of what’s going on in the class. It gives data that I wouldn’t have had. I think that the data probably is the thing that “Ah-ha, so I can use this. I can show this to them and we can talk about what it means.”
Is there is there something you would point to as your biggest success?
Well, that’s easy because I did not use revision plans initially. I thought it was a little too much to ask them to do those for awhile. I thought we’ll just do the writing task and then the review task. Why did I wait so long to add revision plans? It comes full circle with revision plans. I feel like I should have been doing that all along. It’s perfect, so that’s been wonderful, just realizing that the missing task really helps bring the whole thing together.
Commenting on revision plans allows me to reinforce the work that reviewers have already done and to encourage writers to trust those reviews or perhaps prioritize the suggestions differently. Rather than seeing a draft cold or in isolation, my feedback becomes part of an ongoing conversation about that text and its status. I realize that I am not “just another” reviewer who is important to the writer’s next move, but I want students to see that I am working with them DURING the revision process, not AFTER it’s over.
How would you explain Eli’s pedagogy to a colleague?
I would talk about feedback rich environments and the idea that we want to start from the very first training task even if it’s just introduce yourself by letting students see how they can get into conversations with other students using this particular tool.
I think in introducing Eli to a colleague I would say, “You do not have to be the only commenter on students’ writing. We should not be the only one giving feedback.” I would want to say that Eli triples, quadruples the amount of feedback that any writer in the class can get.
From what I know from what my students tell me, it’s not just the comments they receive, it’s also the idea of seeing other writers’ drafts. Now, I don’t know why that didn’t really take with them when they’re using paper copies, sitting together in a classroom for some reason. Maybe it’s the interface, maybe it’s the focused nature of the way they’re using it. We often do it in class together, and they suddenly see, “Oh, I should have done that.” Or, “That was a good decision; maybe, I’ll try that.” That’s the first thing they notice is just reading the other drafts is useful. Then responding to the prompts adds a whole other layer of usefulness or commentary.
What advice would you give to a new instructor?
The faculty I worked with on Eli who are new like they really want to see models of prompts. They want to see, “How do I set this up?” I try to let them see that there’s lots of options, and that we have to focus the options based on the assignment, the rubric, the expectations.
I think starting with a very simple task. Something like: “Hello, and here’s my idea for my next essay.” Something very informal and then two prompts: trait id and a rating scale. Kind of go in slowly before you do all the different options. A final comment maybe is all you need for something that’s a paragraph long, for example.
I think it is like scaffolding, starting small and growing. I waited on the revision plans for later, and now that I’m such a confident user I wouldn’t do without them.
- Murray, Donald M. 1982. “Teaching the Other Self: The Writer’s First Reader.” College Composition and Communication 33 (2): 140. doi:10.2307/357621.
- Atwell, Nancie. 2015. In the Middle: A Lifetime of Learning about Writing, Reading, and Adolescents. Third edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.