Locutorium Winner 1

How Did I Do That? Fostering Metacognition through Early Drafting

By: Chris Burright

“You have exactly one week to produce and turn in a full ten-page draft.” My students shuddered as soon as the words left my mouth. Looks of fear, doubt, and panic flashed across their faces. That week must have felt worse than any in their short college careers as they grappled with their tendencies towards procrastination and with the dread of writing ten whole pages of prose containing their unformed thoughts. In the letters written to me afterwards in which students reflected upon this experience, some described the process as “useless,” “a struggle,” and “the bane of my existence.” The night the draft was due, I received justifications from each student telling me how “rough” their drafts were, how unorganized their thoughts came out, and how unprepared they were to turn in the assignment. While my students didn’t have any idea why I was putting them through this unthinkable torture, I believe this exercise was one of the most productive experiences I could have created for them in that semester. My only regret—not doing it earlier.

This process not only forced my students to produce an early draft, but it also enabled them to overcome their initial anxiety towards simply producing ten pages of writing through forcing them to externalize and understand their personal writing process in a condensed timeframe. While I am hopeful that students heed my advice to start every writing assignment early with enough time for true revision to occur and that they understand how to weave revision into their existing writing process, I’m aware of the “I’ll do it the night before” mentality that plagues university writing. If students are rushed to complete an assignment, my fear is that they will not metacognitively consider the process they used to complete that assignment. While completing and turning in work is necessary, this metacognition is perhaps the most important thing first-year students, early in their academic career, can obtain. It not only enables them to better understand how they write but also helps them to understand how they learn. I engineered the early-draft exercise precisely to give them the tools to reproduce that process throughout their experience at the university. The ability to reflect on process over product is one that I believe can best be gained from the exercise of early drafting and that is especially present and necessarily important in writing courses.

It was this metacognition on process that Sondra Perl concluded was the most important part of her important 1979 study examining the composing habits of experienced and inexperienced writers. To understand exactly what was occurring when each of the writers she studied composed, Perl created a system of “coding each composing behavior exhibited by the student and charting each behavior on a continuum” (“Composing” 320). Thirty-five years after she completed the original study, Perl wrote a reflection piece in which she revisits her findings and considers the most valuable aspects of her original research. In talking about the hours she spent listening in order to accurately codify the behaviors, Perl writes that she was required to “listen to each composing tape over and over again” (“Research”). She concludes that this process “taught me what was going on when my students were composing. A computer program analyzing a chunk of data could not have done this. It took my ear and my judgment to ascertain what was happening.” Amidst all the coding recorded, the hypotheses tested, and the conclusions drawn, the thing of biggest value Perl pulls from her original study is a teacher’s ability to understand his or her students’ individual and unique writing processes; this was what writing teachers needed most.

This insight resonates with a finding from her 1979 study in which she counsels against teachers who “err in assuming” that their students are “beginners in a tabula rasa sense” (“Composing” 334). Instead, Perl advocates that teachers identify “which characteristic components of each student’s process facilitate writing and which inhibit it before further teaching takes place .” By doing this, Perl believes teachers will be able to discover each student’s writing process and build upon it rather than putting these students in a “defeat[ed] position” by “imposing another method of writing instruction upon the students’ already internalized processes without first helping students to extricate themselves from the knots and tangles in those processes” (334). Instead of attempting to create pedagogy that seeks to teach a universal writing process, effectively erasing students’ individual compositional natures, it appears Perl is calling for a more local approach in which students and teachers work together to build upon an already existing compositional framework.

Benjamin Miller is another scholar who arrives at this same conclusion through his work involving the composing habits of graduate students publishing theses and dissertations. After analyzing hundreds of abstracts and theses and creating a codification process that analyzed the various approaches employed by the graduate students publishing these works, Miller concluded (like Perl) that there was in fact not a process that defined “once and for all, what graduate study in composition ‘is,’ let alone what it should be” (166). Instead, Miller finds value in understanding the field of academic writing as “by and large, local” and believes his research can aid programs to make “more informed local decisions about where [they] want individual graduate programs and dissertators to go next” (166). Miller’s conclusion echoes Perl’s in terms of emphasizing the importance of using the codification process itself to deepen the local understanding of individual programs or students rather than attempting to create or discover an end-all, fit-all process that works uniformly.

It was this insight that stood as the driving force behind my early-draft experiment. I wanted to put both Perl’s and Miller’s conclusions into practice on a small scale and see if I could lead my students to adequately externalize their writing process through quick drafting. Cynthia King’s research on using early drafting to help students comprehend the value of revision through reverse outlining was also helpful towards defining how I wanted to implement my own pedagogical approach. Rather than use early drafting to improve students’ “comprehensive revision skills” or “make the document structure explicit” (King 255), I intended to utilize it to foster a general metacognitive attitude within the class. I understood that the process of early drafting alone would not allow me to understand each of my students’ existing habits. Therefore, to supplement this activity, I required each of my students to write a letter to me in which they reflected upon how they produced their ten-page drafts and explained what methods of invention they used to begin composing their thoughts. It was these letters that endowed me with an extremely valuable insight into each of my students’ personal and local writing processes. This empowered me as their mentor to build upon their foundations, not tear them down.

It was in conferences with the students where I first understood the power that these letters contained in generating real metacognitive processes among students. As I met with them, I asked students to clarify their letters, giving the students yet another chance to think about how they had drafted initially. Upon hearing an explanation, I could compare how they talked about their process with how they wrote about their process and come to a more authentic conclusion about their actual writing strategies. It was then that I felt I could begin to aid students in moving past any struggles or blocks they were having in their processes, but only after being armed with this understanding. I remember one student writing to me in her letter, “In all honesty, to get my seven-page draft I just started writing.” Sarah (all original names have been replaced with pseudonyms to protect confidentiality) came to me in her conference with a worry that her paper didn’t have a strong conclusion with implications and wanted my advice on how to weave that into her existing draft. My answer to her came almost effortlessly. Because I had insight into Sarah’s writing process, I told her to simply begin writing about why her paper topic was important to her and what she wanted her audience to learn through reading her piece. I then told her to look at her ideas and to dive deeper into them, working on “piecing together loose ends and reordering things” as she had stated in her letter. After she did this, she found a strong purpose that drove and strengthened the rest of her argument in a way that sounded natural, not artificial. It wove neatly with the paper precisely because it had come from her own learning and thought process, not an instructor’s.

The experience I had with Sarah is one I believe teachers can much more easily experience by implementing the exercise of assigning students to draft early and write letters about these early drafts. The benefits of this exercise were not only present in the students’ composition of their research papers; they also carried over into the next unit where they worked in groups to create a multimodal project. As the students worked in groups, I saw the benefit of metacognitive understanding pour into their interactions with other students. The previous letters had worked in a scaffolding manner, allowing students to first externalize their writing process and then understand that they could apply that same process to a seemingly different challenge. As students who had vastly different methods of composition came together in a collaborative effort, their metacognition continued as they evaluated the composition process of others in their group, reflecting upon the elements of their peers’ processes that might be beneficial to add to their own habits.

Returning to Sarah, I witnessed her have a great effect on one of her group members through aiding him to move beyond a barrier he had experienced since writing his initial draft. Tom struggled with constantly changing his mind as his ideas developed, wanting to shift his focus frequently. His initial draft dealt with the changing definition of racism across regions of the United States. It then transformed into a look at the definition of rights and how that definition changes according to location. Finally, he shifted his writing towards a wholly different topic, examining how shyness affects study habits. Tom struggled with his focus, and I knew Sarah could help. While working in Sarah’s group, Tom struggled to weave his ideas and the conclusions of his paper into the group’s presentation and larger project. In one group session, as Tom struggled to express his project and its fit with the rest of his group’s research, Sarah told him to simply begin talking about what he found interesting in his research and wanted his readers to know about most. As Tom began to talk, I saw the concrete benefit of both having Sarah understand her writing process to share one of her techniques with a peer and the value of having Tom practice Sarah’s process to evaluate whether it could also work for him. Because I haven’t followed Tom after that semester, I don’t know for sure whether practicing Sarah’s free-talking strategy will work for him in the future, but I do know that it worked for him that day. Understanding was achieved both for him as well as among the group, and they progressed in building their project, incorporating Tom’s work seamlessly into their larger vision.

The sequencing I used in following the research paper with a multimodal project based off of the same content was crucial in causing students to reapply the techniques they had practiced in the early-draft exercise. However, possibly more important was the fact that it also forced students to begin considering how they form thoughts, not just how they write. To achieve this, I structured the multimodal project to allow students to take what they had written about for ten pages and translate that content into a different medium. Through this challenge, students were required to distill the key ideas from their writing and explore conveying them through other mediums. Achieving the outcomes of this unit meant that students saw their work, and process, in terms of thoughts, not words.

In this approach, I leaned on Jodi Shipka’s work with multimodal projects, though I differed from her primary focus on enabling students to understand revision. Shipka discusses how she created assignments that aided students in learning to “negotiate the range of communicative contexts they find themselves encountering both in and outside of school” (284) to foster transfer and illustrate the immense benefit of utilizing revision on a global (rather than surface) level. After receiving projects ranging from videos to websites, Shipka concluded that beyond aiding her students’ ability to navigate and interact with the numerous communicative methods in a media-based society, students also began to see revision differently due to the different nature of their work. This occurred because the act of composing with new mediums tore down the typical barriers that writing poses to composition and forced students to view the composition process as an experimentation with ideas, a literal “re-vision” (291). While Shipka’s conclusions are incredibly helpful in aiding students to understand the revision process as related primarily to ideas, not text, I saw more value in the assignment’s potential to help students shift towards a metacognitive mode when thinking about their initial composition process.

To get students to consider how they invent ideas and organize their thoughts before they write, I knew I would need to remove students from the act of writing itself; I needed to dissolve the distractions that are tied to the mechanical elements of writing that inhibit the natural flow of creativity. Multimodal assignments allow students to work with mediums they typically don’t work with , driving them to consider their project in terms of thoughts and rhetorical moves rather than in terms of sentences and phrases (as Shipka’s research notes). By shifting the paradigm of the assignment, not only do students begin to see composition as a natural process that involves the shuffling and development of thoughts and arguments, but they also  see it primarily as an idea-based exercise. In many of the student letters, they complained about the difficulty of producing words on the page. In reading through their difficulties, I realized that my students were thinking primarily of the writing required to produce their early drafts and not about the ideas behind the writing. Rather than forming well-rounded arguments and rhetorical moves that would naturally produce the ten pages the assignment required, my students were first concerned with fulfilling the length of the assignment and the mechanics of that writing. Additionally, I found that students were overly preoccupied with supplementary issues like grammar and diction and not focused enough on the core ideas hiding behind these formalities. It was in the multimodal assignment that I reversed this pattern, requiring students to first plan exactly what they would be conveying before choosing a medium to fit that content. Formal elements could only be thought about after the ideas were considered. Additionally, students began to draw upon the composition strategies they utilized in writing their research papers and see firsthand that they could use those same strategies in being creative to adapt their content to a new medium. One student who had used outlines throughout class projects and had written to me about the success she had had in using those outlines u nderstood her writing process and produced an outline that detailed the flow of her ideas. When I talked with her after this experience, she related to me that she had recognized the usefulness of this process and believed it would help in all her future classes, not simply her writing ones.

It was after conversations like this one that I understood the enormous potential that an early-draft pedagogy could have on students beyond the confines of my class and over the course of their university careers. In talking about how students can become self-directed learners (and the necessity of this occurring), Susan Ambrose says that the metacognitive skills of understanding one’s own learning process “tend to fall outside the content area of most courses, and consequently they are neglected in instruction” (191). Ambrose highlights a framework of skills students could learn to push them into a metacognitive mode of thinking, though realistically these skills could fill the content of a semester-long class and thus be hard to justify as an addendum to an already increased general curriculum at the university. Ken Bain echoes Ambrose’s call for students to think metacognitively about their learning process but adds an interesting caveat to the conversation. Bain argues that insights into our learning process are “unlikely to occur unless we find ourselves in a situation where our existing models do not work for us” (68). In other words, students need to be pushed out of their comfort zones into assignments and tasks where they cannot simply rely on their normal patterns and habits to solve problems. Bain argues that when this happens, students are forced to look “at the world from different angles” and as a result, “we have to stop and rebuild our understanding” (68).

The early-draft approach combined with the multimodal project has the potential to exist as the stumbling block Bain calls for. By forcing students to draft early and externalize their messy and unorganized thoughts onto a page, teachers can push students to leave the comfort zone of slow and calm composition and enable them to confront the sublime mystery that is their writing and learning processes. Then, by allowing students to translate these thoughts to a different medium, instructors can push students into a stumbling-block experience as they reflect metacognitively about the underlying rhetoric behind their writing. As stated before, the early draft alone is not enough to enable students to readily think about this process. Letters written about the process in tandem with the draft force students to materialize their thoughts on how exactly they produced their writing and record that process more concretely in their minds. Yes, this process greatly helps the teacher in understanding each student’s writing process and building upon it (as Perl would advocate); however, this process achieves something even greater in helping students to think metacognitively not only about how they write but more importantly about how they learn. Just as the earlier letters had acted as a scaffold to enable students to apply the metacognitive reflection of their writing process to their multimodal assignments, I wanted to find another scaffold to enable students to apply what they learned from this entire process to the entirety of their future college careers.

After having students produce an early draft, transform that into a polished ten-page research paper, and then translate that paper into a multimodal presentation, I required them to write one more letter to me in which they reflected upon that entire process. “This class has helped me become a better writer on many levels, and these two projects were a big part of that,” wrote Jackson. In his letter, he told me of how the process of writing an early draft and then adapting those ideas to his multimodal project had influenced “the way that I will write papers in the future.” However, what I believe Jackson was really telling me was that this process had changed the way he will approach new learning tasks and cognitive struggles in his academic future. Jackson informed me that the multimodal assignment had “pushed me and made me reflect on all that we have learned over the semester.” Jackson had finally learned how he writes, and more importantly how he learns, and indicated that he planned to utilize that knowledge in the future.

In a time when writing programs and classes are struggling to justify their continued existence at the university, I believe the fact that writing has the largest potential to aid students in becoming metacognitive about their learning process stands as the strongest evidence for their continued survival. While the possibility for students to gain these same metacognitive skills in other courses exists, writing courses stand as an almost perfect forum for this to occur naturally simply because process is highlighted much more than content because of the nature of the class and curriculum. Instead of needing to balance the requirement to teach students important elements of the discipline with the desire to help them begin thinking about their learning processes (such as would be required in other fields of study), writing courses are unique in being able to combine these objectives effortlessly through teaching a process as its content. However, this only occurs if instructors structure exercises (like the early draft) that foster this metacognitive awareness. Sondra Perl’s conclusion that teachers’ learning students’ unique writing processes is the most important takeaway from her study is certainly correct, though this implication can mean so much more to the university than what she outlined in her research. Through a carefully designed pedagogy, replete with activities such as having students draft early or causing them to mold their ideas from one medium to another, writing courses can create an ideal environment for students to employ a hands-on approach to discovering and understanding their own writing and learning processes. University writing programs and courses are specially positioned to not only produce better, self -aware writers but to produce better, more self-aware learners. “To know yourself is enlightenment,” counsels the Tao Te Chang (Laozi 66), and I believe the surest way to allow university students to best attain this self-knowledge early on is through the scaffolding process outlined above, uniquely included in a first-year writing course.

Works Cited

Ambrose, Susan, et al. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Bain, Ken. What the Best College Students Do. Harvard UP, 2012.

King, Cynthia. “Reverse Outlining: A Method for Effective Revision of Document Structure.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, vol. 55, no. 3, 2012, pp. 254–61.

Laozi. Tao Te Ching. Translated by David Hinton, Counterpoint, 2015.

Miller, Benjamin. “Mapping the Methods of Composition/Rhetoric Dissertations: A ‘Landscape Plotted and Pieced.’” College Composition and Communication, vol. 66, no. 1, 2014, pp. 145–76.

Perl, Sondra. “The Composing Processes of Unskilled College Writers.” Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 13, no. 4, 1979, pp. 317–36.

—.  “Research as a Recursive Process: Reconsidering ‘The Composing Processes of Unskilled College Writers’ 35 Years Later.” Composition Forum, vol. 29, 2014, n. pag.

Shipka, Jody. “A Multimodal Task-Based Framework for Composing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 57, no. 2, 2005, pp. 277–306.