loldumplings (1)

Helping Students Get Ready for an Essay: Outline Peer Review

lolcat paperOne of the biggest problems with teaching students to write a paper is that students need to learn about a million skills – usage, style, grammar, syntax.

But if the essay argument is unclear or undeveloped, or the paper “through-line” – the flow of the argument – is unclear, the whole paper is shot.

How can you harness the power of peer review to get a paper’s “through-line” set before students take a swing at a first draft?

1. Give students an outline of the paper.

2. Ask students to write a thesis, supporting point 1, and supporting point 2 section, each with one piece of textual support.

3. Put them in groups of 3 or 4. I suggest Mr. Mater’s amazing Super Grouper for randomizing.

4. Give them 20 minutes to review the 3-4 outline(s). If the logic is unclear, they must clarify. If the supporting point is invalid, they must find a better one.

6. Before sending them off, explain that the group gets the grade of the weakest outline. Teach about the value of peer-mentoring, and the idea of win-win collaboration.

7. After class, grade each outline. If the paper will be worth 100, grade the outline as a separate 10 point assignment. This will not damage anyone’s grade, but will incentivize careful peer review.

8. The next day, you can give them a chance to fix any member of their group’s outline to lift the collective grade!

Better Outlines + Peer Review = Better Papers and Better Learning!

For more on the power of offering students an outline, click here!


Teaching Writing Part 3: Best Practices for Encouraging Revisions – and Streamlining the Process

editsThis post was originally featured on Thought Partners, a blog for educators, hosted by the excellent classroom behavior management app, Class Dojo.

The most important exercises students can do as they learn to write (a close second to, well, writing lots and lots of stuff) all feature responding to feedback.

That said, here’s what most of my experiences with giving students feedback on writing used to look like:

Scenario: A student turns in an essay. Normal for a high school student, it’s full of syntax errors, it has stylistic problems, it is hard to follow, and it has some specious arguments.

Student: Mr. Wolk, why’d I get a bad grade on this essay?

Me: You didn’t get a “bad grade.” This is a work in progress, and the red marks show you where your paper needs work. The grade is an indication of how close to your goal you are.

Student Response 1: Well, I can’t read your red marks.

Student Response 2: So, all I have to do is fix the stuff in red and it’ll be an A?

Student Response 3: But why didn’t you like the paper?

Student Response 1 is a problem because I put 15 minutes into making the corrections, and that time is wasted if the student (and I, probably) can’t read my writing.

Student Response 2 is a problem because it’s not about “fixing” or “making corrections,” it’s about editing and improving. Student papers need retooling, sometimes. Or a student needs to go back to – well, not square one, necessarily, but square 2, and reformulate an argument and the proof for the argument. This will not be a 2 minute “fix,” and I don’t want him to think it is. But it will make him a better writer and a master of the material.

Student Response 3 is a problem because the students have learned that teachers grade work with a desirable grade when they “like” it. And that is a dangerous but understandable conclusion for students to draw. It is counterproductive to the meta-goal of learning how to take criticism for the benefit of the product – and it teaches that setback is bad. Unlikable. Yucky.

What students need is a clear workflow for learning the process of editing work.

The challenge:

if the essay is a major part of the curriculum, including outlines and multiple drafts, then each step is built-in and planned for. Students learn that preparation for writing, a good first try, feedback, and revision is part of the creative process.

But if this is an in-class essay, or a smaller summative assessment, or a mid-unit check-in, you may not have time (in the calendar) for an initial deadline, and a second deadline. And some students may turn in work that satisfies the requirements of the essay. Will you require rewrites for every student? Do you actually have time to grade second drafts for every student?

Finally, if time is short for you, like it is for all teachers, you find that chasing after multiple drafts of an essay in order to check to see if revisions were actually completed is frustrating — and then flipping back and forth between two documents (or two paper copies) is cumbersome.

How can we streamline the incredibly important process of students receiving, reflecting on, and responding to critique?

The Solutions:

1. Do revisions or edits in a format like Google Docs, using the Insert Comment feature. This ensures that the student can read the comment.

2. Students write essays in the left side of a two column grid. The left side is for the first draft. The right side is for the second draft.twocolumngrid

  • This allows you to see the second draft right next to the first draft. Much easier to see if revisions are made!

3. Unless you are doing a full-scale essay with built in deadlines for outlines and revisions, consider making revisions optional. Here’s how:

  • On the final comment of the essay, include an interim score. Summarize and explain the interim score.
  • Students can recover 50% of any lost credit by perfecting the second draft. (For example, a student who earns a 70% on the first draft can earn an 85 on the second. This encourages students to submit quality work up front, rather than procrastinate until the the rewrite for their best effort.
  • Any error constituting a party foul (a silly misspelling, confusing too/to/two, etc.) earns a “strike.” 3 strikes loses 10%, unrecoverable. Students are thus encouraged to proofread before turning in work, rather than relying on you to be their personal editor. Any student who wants or needs your proofreading assistance in advance can meet with you (this meeting should be required – again, you’re not their personal editor) and you will proofread the work together. This reduces “learned helplessness.”
  • Clarify when the deadline is for the second draft. I advise ONE WEEK from the receipt of the revisions.
  • If there is anything about the essay that the student is unlikely to be able to fix on his/her own (whether it’s technical, grammatical, nuanced, or value-based), require a face-to-face meeting before the student begins working on it. If you’re using a program like Schedule Once to make appointments with students, include the link to your scheduling page right in the comment!
  • Students have 1 week from the moment the paper is graded write a revision and tell you in an email (this must be required) that the paper is revised. As these papers come in, flag them and grade them in batches.
  • If you’re using a Learning Management System or Electronic Grade Book, copy and paste your final inserted comment into the grade-book. At the end of the semester, you have a great start to a content-filled narrative for the students.

Additional Notes:

  • For high achieving students who are aiming for an A in the class, a B+ interim grade is often sufficient to entice them to do a second draft.
  • Students who bomb their first draft should earn a much lower grade than you would otherwise have given them, since you will want them to do a second draft. In other words, don’t reward a mediocre paper with a mediocre grade. Give a grade low enough to send the message that the paper is not acceptable – and that the benefit of a second draft is, indeed, required.
  • Give an A- to a highly achieving student who performs just under his/her capacity, who you would like to focus on other class goals (say, in the weeks before a major project). These students may opt not to do a second draft, and the A- sends the message: “Feel free to raise your grade, but it won’t hurt you if you need to start studying for the AP test.”
  • Use ClassDojo to record information about students who bomb their first drafts but do not bother to submit a second draft – or students who are required to meet with you who simply turn in a second draft, (thereby making the same mistakes they made the first time). These students (and their parents) will benefit from this type of very thoughtful “student-ethic” feedback.

    I invite readers to visit part one and two of this three part series on teaching writing.

writers block

Teaching Writing Part 2: Offering Students an Outline

This post was originally featured on Thought Partners,a blog for educators, hosted by the excellent classroom behavior management app, Class Dojo.


Top 2 Things I Don’t Have Time For: 1) Inventing Rocket Boots. 2) Teaching Organization Properly.

Maybe you’re lucky, and you have a curriculum that includes teaching students how to organize thoughts, how to ensure that they’ve backed up their ideas — most likely, it’s all part of a unit on how to write an outline.

And maybe you also have a golden Lamborghini and a pair of boots that can fly. And a machine that can make any kind of food you want.

Students often do not know how to organize their thoughts or write an outline. And so, I would receive an essay from students I had no idea how to grade. Namely, an competent writer would look at the prompt and say, “I will need to compose a thesis, come up with three good supporting points, find evidence to back up the points, lay it out in an organized way, and end with a conclusion tying the thesis to some further ideas or questions.”

But what I get often reads more like Kafka’s stream-of-consciousness diary entries. Each idea meanders around, maybe offers a thesis, maybe not. Maybe ideas are developed, maybe they leave the reader wondering if life is nothing but absurdity and darkness.

Now, I am not an English Teacher. I teach a series of humanities electives that borrow from psychology, sociology, and literature. They require cross disciplinary thinking, and any essay students will write for me will require some creative thinking, some mastery of content, and some organizational finessing. This is not: “Compare Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democracy.”

But I have a background in English Lit. And the English Teacher in me says, “Well, if you can’t follow the student’s thinking, and the ideas are not developed, then that should be reflected in the grade.”

But what about the ideas? The thinking? The mastery? The content at the center of the topic which the student never gets around to because he or she is paddling around, lost, stuck, in circles at the edge of the pond? This is an essay, yes. But it’s also a test. And the main goal of this particular unit was not necessarily to teach writing.

One year, a student with some learning differences bombed an essay test she should have thrived on. She touched on zero of the brilliant ideas she’d fronted in class discussion. At a conference, her mother said, well, was there an outline I could give her to make sure she touched on all the main ideas?


The next time we had an essay exam, I gave her an outline in advance, and she thrived.

But what about the other students? Should they learn how to write an outline? Sure. But what about this week, when it’s time for the essay exam for the end of the unit? A third of them don’t know how to organize their thinking.

Should I have them write and submit outlines which I will review and give pointers on? Should they submit a revision of the outline? I will give a third round of revisions, and then they will write the exam!

No! Who has time for this? The essay exam is this week!

QOL refers to "Quality of Life" - a tool I created for analyzing people's well being. For more, visit

QOL refers to “Quality of Life” – a tool I created for analyzing people’s well being. For more, visit

Here’s what I started doing.

  • For every essay, I include an outline. The thesis is highlighted in purple. It provides very explicit places to write supporting ideas, textual evidence, a restatement of the thesis, and questions for further thought.
  • If I will include additional requirements (like quoting a support-statement from an in class film or partner work) I build spaces for this into the outline.
  • In their actual exam, their thesis is purple. Their support statements are green. Their textual evidence is orange. Their additional requirements are blue. It’s easy to find these “points of assessment” as I read.
  • And when I grade their essays, I know I am grading not only their fledgling writing skills, but more importantly, their mastery of the material, their creativity, and their critical thinking.

Some day, will I begin to differentiate between students who receive an outline and those who must write their own outline?


But the essay exam is this Friday. Onward, we write. With outlines.

* * *

I’d love to invite you to check out Teaching Writing Part One: On Giving Feedback

and Teaching Writing Part Three: The Best Way to Encourage Revisions