Paperless Writing Course

Lecturing Fellow Michael Ennis, Thompson Writing Program, 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 Ennis’ teaching experiences during the Fellowship. Ennis 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.

As with many of the other Trillium Fellows, the most significant effort in making my class sustainable consisted of going paperless for my Fall 2011 first-year writing seminar.  Going into the semester, I had several apprehensions about doing this, some of which turned out to be no problem at all.  However, I do think certain activities were negatively impacted by the use of computers in the classroom.

My first concern was that students would find the paperless distribution of readings inconvenient and confusing, and that they would find reading pdfs on a laptop difficult, especially for highlighting and annotating.  As it turned out, I came up with a fairly streamlined system for course readings on Blackboard.  Under Course Documents I organized the readings into folders by day.  This enabled some flexibility in the reading schedule, which was quite nice.  Students knew they were responsible for reading whatever was in the folder, so I could switch them up from the syllabus to respond to questions and interests of the students.  I gave students the option to print the readings, or use their laptops in class.  Most chose the latter and claimed they preferred reading on the screen.  They claim that this did not present a hindrance to note taking, but I think that it did.  During in-class discussions, students who had printed copies seemed better able to navigate the essay and direct our attention to key passages.  This is, however, my impression, and I did not measure or test it.

While students preferred this method of distributing readings—in a survey they cited cutting textbook costs and preferring reading on a computer as key reasons—it did create some extra work for me.  There were a couple of texts that I would have liked students to read more of, but had to limit myself to a portion that remained within the bounds of fair use.  This required more prep in putting the course together: having one collection of readings makes constructing a syllabus much easier, and this method required piecing the readings together.   Overall, going paperless for the readings was a success, and I am continuing it this semester.

I did find going paperless for writing workshops more of a challenge.  Students did not mark up papers as much as we discussed them in class and were much less apt to point to specific passages in their peers’ writings.  I also felt students became more prone to surfing the web during these workshops, which is unacceptable in general, but particularly offensive when discussing another student’s work.  For that reason, this semester I have reverted to using paper for in-class writing workshops, but have requested that the presenters try to fit it on 1-2 sheets of paper.  So far, they have been much more focused and productive this semester.

I also graded on the computer.  I streamlined my commenting by using the clipboard function on Word.  By using the “Insert Comment” and “Track Changes” functions, I felt that my commenting on student writing was at least as comprehensive and less time consuming.

One concern many of my colleagues raised was preventing students from surfing the web during class discussions.  This was a bit of a problem, but I believe I minimized it simply by calling on students.  I did not do this to embarrass anyone, but just to establish early on that everyone needed to be paying attention and ready to contribute.  I also made sure to ask students to close their laptops when it wasn’t necessary to use them.  These measures worked fairly well, especially in the context of a 12-student seminar.  However, I am sure larger classes will still struggle with student surfing.

Overall, the experiment worked well, but in the future I may still use paper for writing workshops, and at some point again I will have students buy textbooks.  However, I will probably never print handouts, syllabi, and assignments again.

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.

My experience teaching a paperless writing course

Lecturing Fellow Sandra Cooke, Thompson Writing Program, 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 Cooke’s teaching experiences during the Fellowship. Cooke 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.

In the Fall 2011 semester I taught three sections of my first year writing seminar course “Ocean Acidification.”  As I reflected on the sustainability of my teaching practices during my six semesters at Duke, I realized that writing courses consume A LOT of paper – and I say this as someone who from the beginning has been paperless when it comes to submitting work, giving feedback, and grading.  But the handouts, readings, and especially drafts for class workshops resulted in my use of nearly 100 sheets of paper per student (24-36 students per semester), according to my rough estimate, even with double-sided printing.  Although I felt I had made some progress in gradually reducing this number each semester, my primary objective this semester was to eliminate ALL paper usage in order to improve the sustainability of my course delivery.  While this would involve substantially more in-class laptop usage, I figured that the energy and time saved by reduced printing and photocopying would be worth it.  A secondary objective was to be more mindful of and reduce energy usage in the classroom by turning off lights, projectors, and computers when not needed.

Two of the key paperless methods I had used in the past were (1) e-mail submission of papers and returning of grades (which would probably be too tedious for a larger class, in which case Blackboard or Sakai could be used); and (2) the “insert comment” function in Microsoft Word to give feedback, as well as typing a note to the student at the head of the paper.  I understand that some instructors may not be accustomed to these methods and would find the transition to these practices to be difficult.  As an early-career instructor, I think these practices were easy for me to adopt because I had not yet established my methods for teaching writing when I came to Duke a few years ago.  But I soon discovered additional advantages to these methods that serve as great time-savers for those of us who assign (and therefore respond to) a lot of writing!  For example, I frequently use the “compare documents” function in Word so that I can compare a student’s previous draft to the revised version and quickly see the changes they have made.  This has proved quite useful in conversations with students regarding how substantive their revisions are!  I also use the “find” feature:  for example, if a student discusses a new term or source near the end of their paper and I can’t remember if they properly introduced it earlier, I can use “find” to quickly search for that reference or key word.  Grading a Word document instead of a paper version is also nice for quickly assessing things like word count, paragraph count, and spelling or grammatical errors.

So, by using these previous paperless methods and increasing laptop usage, I succeeded in nearly eliminated all paper usage (I could not resist distributing hard copies of the syllabus on the first day and a half-page sized student information sheet).  My main concern was that using laptops instead of hard copies of student writing during seminar workshops (when the entire class reviews and discusses one piece of writing) might distract the students from the task at hand.  But distraction was apparently not a problem, as student participation during the workshops was as high as for paper workshops.  A second concern I had was that the students would find a paperless course inconvenient and would print most of the readings and other course materials so that they could highlight or annotate their hard copies.  I did not ask students to avoid printing course materials, and I did notice that some students printed a few things, but overall it appeared that students used most of the course materials electronically.

After our Trillium Sustainability Fellows meeting in December, I was inspired to play around with as a fun, informal way to assess my students’ perspectives on whether the course was taught in a sustainable manner.  I framed questions about paper usage and energy usage in terms of how these compared to the students’ other classes.  93% of the students perceived that paper usage in this course was less than paper usage in their other courses.  When asked if they thought this course used less energy than their other classes, 32% replied “yes,” 25% “no,” and 43% were “not sure.”  This semester I’ll think more carefully about strategies to reduce energy usage or at least get the students (and myself!) thinking more deliberately about energy usage in the classroom.

Overall, things worked well enough that I plan to go paperless in future semesters.  I was pleased with some unanticipated benefits of paperless teaching, including reduced prep time (no fussing with the photocopier) and improved organization (no piles of papers spread around my office at the end of the semester!).  I’d certainly welcome any questions or suggestions from other professors and instructors!

Paperless grading

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education focuses on one math faculty member’s rationale for and experience with paperless grading. This faculty uses a variety of applications to provide feedback to students, depending on the nature of the assignment and the format in which it was originally submitted, including MS Word (track changes/commenting), annotating pdfs and Jing (posting the short feedback videos to See also some comments by a different Math faculty member about her experiences with digital grading.