Advanced Spanish Writing: To print or not to print

Lecturer Melissa Simmermeyer, Romance Studies, was one of seven Duke faculty who participated in a CIT Fellowship program in Fall 2011 focusing on Sustainability in Teaching Practice. This post summarizes some of Simmermeyer’s teaching experiences during the Fellowship. Simmermeyer and the other CIT Sustainability Fellows are part of the larger group of Trillium Fellows, faculty who are committed to incorporating sustainability content into their Duke courses in alignment with Duke’s 2009 campus Climate Action Plan. For more about the Trillium Fellows, contact Charlotte Clark.

Though I resisted the idea of going entirely paperless, I was determined to reduce the amount of printing in the course, seeking in particular to eliminate printing that did not somehow support students’ acquisition/comprehension of the material or the language. Two “no-brainers” where I implemented this were the routine homework assignments (submitted as Word documents in Assignments in Blackboard) and the versions of the persuasive essay, the literary analysis, and the research paper that students submitted to me (as Word documents in File Exchange in Groups in Blackboard).

In the on-line survey I had students complete at the end of the semester, the consensus definitely was that none of them missed printing these items, that electronic submission was convenient since they had to compose them on the computer anyway, and that it was an easy and sensible way to cut back on paper, which was naturally a good idea.

In the past in Advanced Spanish Writing, and in other sections of the course, students wrote in-class essays longhand, on paper (of course!). I had the students in my section bring their laptops to the classroom and compose with the keyboard, and they turned it in as an assessment in Blackboard. Though I never really asked my students if they preferred typing to writing longhand, my impression is that they did, for several reasons. Many are more accustomed to typing than to writing as alleged “digital natives,” and composing in Word allowed them to avoid most of the obvious mistakes, since they could make use of the spell check and grammar check features.

With regard to grading the in-class essays, I hope to never have to go back to handwritten submissions. Some students’ handwriting is well-nigh illegible, and handling the papers electronically also permitted me to take advantage of various features of Word (word count, spell check, search). Though initially I worried that some students might arrive with texts already prepared and just draw them up and retouch them, my fears were soon allayed.

Some items that I still used in print form were the grammar quizzes (1 sheet two-sided, mostly fill-in-the-blank) and some in-class exercises that I wanted students to complete in pairs. Though I considered converting the grammar quizzes to electronic form, I did not think the payoff on less paper/printing would merit the amount of work involved, and I was also concerned about students’ accessing illicit sources during the quizzes. Regarding the in-class exercises, I remain convinced that two open laptops is generally a physical and psychological barrier to students’ collaborating, negotiating, and communicating naturally and effectively.

Though I did not really set any rules or guidelines regarding printing in other areas of the course, other than to encourage deliberate decision-making, based on my observations and on student reactions as revealed in the survey, I have learned some valuable take-away lessons. Except for one student, all survey respondents seemed to vastly prefer reading on paper. Most students reported finding real benefits from having the (brief) course readings (short stories and short essays) in print form. Because the texts are very dense and are not written in the students’ first language, they usually must read them several times, they read them more slowly (eye fatigue), they must look up more words (potential for losing their place), and underlining, highlighting, and annotating are strategies that aid their comprehension and that are still cumbersome in electronic venues. The kind of reading they do for the course and the expectations of the degree of comprehension of very difficult material in a second language seem to me to warrant double-sided printing (and subsequent recycling).

Most students also said they preferred to print out their peers’ essays for peer feedback sessions, citing for example, “[I should have] print[ed] out my peers’ essays and mark[ed] them up with a pen – I feel I would have been a more helpful reader if I had done this…” From this experience I conclude that there is still a generalized need for print copies of challenging readings (that require active learning on the part of the student) in the advanced second-language classroom and dorm room. First-language headlines and brief pieces are great to read online, but in the second-language classroom there are readings and then there are readings.

I feel that marking up students’ papers and commenting/giving feedback on the content was much more difficult for me in Word than it had ever been in print form. It also slowed me down. This is an area where I would like to continue to improve. I know I can learn to be more efficient.

Finally, last semester (Fall 2011) I continued to print a lot of the grade sheets (rubrics) for the students since we were using Blackboard and a separate grading program, but this semester I am happy to report that we in Advanced Spanish Writing are using the Gradebook in Sakai, which makes it easy to give detailed comments on the results of the student’s assignment along with the numerical score for the assignment. This means that we really don’t need print forms of all those rubrics. In this case printing really doesn’t support student learning better than online viewing does.

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