Write On! New UTM study investigates link between TA feedback and improved student writing

Mairi Cowan
Friday, January 12, 2018 - 10:45am
Blake Eligh

Can better feedback help you become a better writer? A new study from the Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre (RGSAC) at the University of Toronto Mississauga is investigating the best techniques for helping student researchers fine-tune their writing skills.

Historical studies associate professor Mairi Cowan has been awarded the first 2017-2018 UTM Faculty Writing Fellowship for her proposal to study the effect that feedback from teaching assistants has in improving writing in student research. The pilot study is a new initiative funded by the Office of the Dean to promote academic writing instruction at UTM.

Cowan’s pilot study will assess a sample of assignments submitted by hundreds of students enrolled in HIS101, an introductory course which requires students to complete a primary source research paper.  “It’s a writing-intensive course that gives students a basic introduction to history, but also provides a suite of skills they will need in upper-year courses,” Cowan says.

Teaching assistants provide extensive writing feedback and editing suggestions on the first draft of the assignment, which is then resubmitted by students along with a brief letter outlining which revision strategies they found most effective. Cowan will sample about 20 per cent of the 300 submissions looking for patterns in suggestions by the teaching assistants and how well those suggestions were implemented by the students.

“This study will provide insights into how students respond to comments on everything from grammatical errors to structural advice,” Cowan says. “I’m trying to find out what kind of feedback is most helpful to students in their writing. I also want to better support teaching assistants to help them provide more effective feedback.”

“I want to figure out what’s working for students and how they are improving,” she says. “Are there certain things students are more apt to improve? Are they better at fixing mechanical issues than an underlying argument? Does the way the teaching assistant word the feedback make a difference?”

Tyler Evans-TokarykAccording to Associate Professor and RGSAC director Tyler Evans-Tokaryk, “The short-term impact is that students will get better, more targeted feedback on the first draft of their large writing assignment for the course. We also see strong potential for findings of the research to be transferred to other courses with a similar writing assignments.”

“There’s a lot of research that demonstrates this approach works,” Evans-Tokaryk says. “We will figure out whether this kind of instruction—feedback on the draft—is having the anticipated or desired effect. If it isn’t, we will look at what adjustments might be made in training, guidance and mentoring of teaching assistants.” Evans-Tokaryk notes that about 40 teaching assistants receive training directly from RGSAC annually, while assistance from the centre’s Writing Development Initiative reaches about 6,000 students across the UTM campus.

Cowan will report the study results in April 2018, and the findings will be shared for internal training purposes at the RGSAC. “The goal is to provide students with better feedback and improve their own writing and academic careers,” says Cowan. “However, the results will also shape what I advise teaching assistants. If they become professors, they’ll be grading for decades. This will help them grade in a helpful and meaningful way to benefit students.”