Looking at the number of drafts submitted for project reports in the Advanced Lab

In this post I take a quick look at the number of drafts of their project papers that students submitted in my January 2012 Advanced Lab course. This course had a minimum bar for the paper grades and the students were allowed to revise and resubmit as many times as needed to get there, with an average of 3.22 drafts needed. I decided to look at these numbers for the purpose of communicating realistic expectations to students currently registered for my fall section of the course and thought I would share those numbers.

I am starting to prepare for my fall Advanced Lab course. Here is a quick overview of this course from a previous post:

This type of course, a standard course in most physics departments, is a standalone lab course without any associated lecture course. There is an amazing amount of variability from one Advanced Lab course to the next and they range in format from one experiment per week with everything already set up and cookbook procedures ready to be followed, to a single student-developed project over the entire term (or year!).

In my specific incarnation, we spend the first month doing some introductory activities to build up some foundational skills which are mostly related to data analysis and presentation. For the rest of the course pairs of students work on two month-long experimental physics projects. The students are guided to work on projects that can be viewed as being part of a larger research line, where they build on the work of previous students and future students will build on their work. Thus no two groups will ever perform identical experiments.

A major piece of the course is that they have to write a journal-style article to communicate the results of one of their projects. To help them practice revising their own writing and impress upon them that effective writing requires many revisions, I require that students earn a grade equivalent to a B on their paper according to this rubric, and are allowed to revise and resubmit as many times as needed to reach that threshold grade.

The overall grade for these papers was calculated as 25% from the first graded draft and 75% from the final draft. They were allowed to submit an initial draft, which was not graded, where I would spend a maximum of a half an hour reading over the paper and providing feedback. Students were encouraged to have a peer read through their paper and provide some feedback before submitting this initial draft. After reaching the threshold B-grade, they were allowed to resubmit one final draft. At some point in the revision process I also had a formal process where students provided each other with some peer feedback on their papers.

A quick summary of the numbers are in order. Of the twelve students, three of them gave up at some point before reaching threshold B-grade on the journal-style article. Those students were only given partial credit for the last grade that their paper received. Of the nine students whose papers reached the threshold B-grade, five of them submitted a final draft to improve their overall paper grade.

Of the 9 papers that were accepted (met the minimum grade threshold of a B), 5 of them were revised at least one additional time .

The number of drafts in this graph includes the initial ungraded draft, but does not include the final revision that 5 of 9 students submitted after their papers reached the B-grade threshold.

What is the take-home message here? Based on this system, students should expect to submit three or more drafts of a paper in order to meet the threshold grade.

This coming fall, I plan to adopt some new feedback strategies that  take the focus off grammatical correctness and similar issues in the hopes to focus more on the ideas in the papers. As part of this, I may move to a reviewer report style of feedback (for example, this is the one for AJP) and away from detailed rubrics, but I haven’t quite made up my mind on this yet. My grading philosophy in the course this fall will be that their course grade will represent the quality of the recommendation that I would give them in a reference letter based on their work in the course, and I want to do my best to make sure all of the individual components are assessed in ways that match up with this overall grading philosophy.

Reflecting on what I have read so far in John C. Bean’s “Engaging Ideas”

Ugh. I just had one of those moments where I lost a bunch of what I have written. I recovered what I could, but don’t feel like re-writing it all so instead will treat you to a fairly short post.

51dBVhWv0fLMy interest in and engagement with student writing comes mostly from my use of the journal article genre for lab reports in my Advanced Lab course. Through attending a Writing Across the Curriculum workshop last month, I was invited to participate in planning a workshop built around Bean’s book “Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking and Active Learning in the Classroom”. I have been skimming some parts of the book and reading other parts very carefully, and along the way I have been reflecting on the places where the student journal articles intersect with ideas from the book. What is proving to very interesting is the grey area where I can debate with myself (and at some point with others) about places where these intersections might exist, or perhaps should exist.

There is a lot of very practical information in this book. He has chapters on using rubrics, on handling the paper load and on writing comments on students’ papers. I haven’t read those yet, but in reading through some of the earlier chapter, I came across two things that he wrote or referenced that struck a chord with me.

…many teachers read student essays with the primary purpose of finding errors, whereas they read their own colleagues’ drafts-in-progress for ideas


…for many college writers, the freedom of an open-topic research paper is debilitating.

My approach to the student journal articles thus far has mostly been that they are an information dump meant to follow the guidelines of the genre. As you can imagine, this is a vastly different approach from Bean’s approach to student writing. I am interested to see where I will end up after finishing the book and after having a chance to interact more with the colleagues with whom I am planning this workshop (as well as the workshop attendees). Although it is possible that I will continue to feel that the majority of the book does not apply to my situation, the conflicting ideas whirling around in my brain suggest that I will experience a significant shift in how I approach student writing. I originally had a lot more to say about these things, but will leave it at that for now.