M-Write program expanded to intro, STEM courses

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Jeremy Mitnick/Daily
Thursday, January 12, 2017 - 6:39pm

M-Write — a program promoting conceptual learning through writing housed inside the Digital Innovation Greenhouse in the Office of Digital Education — continues to grow as it introduces writing and a peer review program to introductory-level STEM-oriented and social science courses, though this is the third semester of its use.

M-Write will be utilized in three courses during the winter 2017 semester: Economics 101, Material Science Engineering 250 and Biology 174. Economics is the largest class that will use M-Write, with over 300 students.

A computer program called M-Write II anonymously distributes prompted writings to three other members of the course for peer review. The program then returns the student commentary to the original student, who revises their work accordingly.

Anne Gere, professor of education and English and Director of the Sweetland Center for Writing, and Ginger Schultz, assistant professor of chemistry, initiated the project and said the goal is to promote deeper learning through the inclusion of a writing component.

“The big piece is that writing fosters learning and we need to take advantage of that in the courses where students are least likely to think about writing,” Gere said.

The winter 2017 semester is the third semester during which the M-Write program has been used. It was used in MSE 250 as a pilot course in the spring of 2016 and five courses in the fall of 2016. However, Gere said she began work on incorporating writing-to-learn pedagogy in more STEM courses in 2009.

According to Gere, her work was largely based on her observation of the paucity of upper-level writing courses within STEM majors and on the inspiration of Structured Study Groups that bring together upper- and lower-level undergraduates to facilitate learning and teaching.

Gere said, after receiving grants, the program was able to expand to include the computer program and will continue growing over the next five years. She added that she hopes the program becomes an integral part of courses across campus.

“The vision would be that ultimately this becomes part of a bigger initiative, so that it’s just sort of assumed that in these big courses there is going to be writing,” she said. “And because of that writing, students are going to do better, they’re going to learn better and they’re going to feel more positive about the course that they’re in.”

According to a University of Michigan press release, M-Write II received $1.89 million over five years from Transforming Learning for the Third Century Initiative.

M-Write developer David Harlan, who is collaborating with Sweetland on the project, said this program is unlike other peer review systems used on other campuses, which tend not to be user-friendly.

“Sometimes, even if they present a pretty face, they don’t necessarily track the student through the process in the specific ways that we’re looking to do,” he said. “And so one of the things we set out to do from the very beginning is to involve people who would be using the tool in its design.”

Additionally, Chris Teplovs, a leading Digital Innovation Greenhouse developer, said M-Write is also expanding with the research of post-doctoral students, who analyze the papers students have written for M-Write classes to potentially codify quality work in each subject and facilitate efficient grading. However, he said the emphasis is not on the technology, but rather the learning they hope to promote with the technology.

“The technology is integral and yet should fade away as much as possible,” Teplovs said. “So we don’t say it’s all about M-Write, we say it’s all about writing-to-learn. So it’s about the pedagogy.”

Another component of the M-Write program is the use of more advanced undergraduate students as writing fellows to aid students in the peer review and revision process and to grade the essays.

Business sophomore Cassandra Wong, a writing fellow for Economics 101 for the past two semesters, said she felt writing brought a different type of learning to the course that cannot be achieved with the typical homework for economics courses.

“I feel like with these large introductory STEM classes, writing kind of gets lost in the process of just learning the material because it’s a lot of memorization and models and graphs and whatever,” she said. “I feel like having actual writing assignments, you get to see students with their thinking process when they’re answering these prompts.”

Business sophomore Brandon Staarman, also a writing fellow for Economics 101, said M-Write provided deeper learning not only from writing itself, but also from the student commentary component.

“The peer review process is really important because not only are they receiving feedback about what they’ve written, they also get to look at three other essays that students have written,” he said. “So they can learn from each other.”

Staarman also noted how this type of writing is different from the writing students are exposed to in the first-year writing requirement.

“Writing is such an important skill that it’s important to see how you can apply it in other different areas, and also important to realize you can learn a lot through because it teaches you how to narrow down your arguments and how to be clear and concise and really get your point across,” he said.  

However, Business sophomore Mira Sanghvi, another writing fellow for Economics 101, noticed how several students in the fall reacted negatively to the program, namely because only two sections participated and all other sections did the typical homework for economics.

“They felt like they were kind of at a disadvantage; they were not as pleased with it,” she said. “But what we noticed is that their grades in the class were no different than the other sections.”  

Gere said she has also encountered faculty members who view the program positively but have doubts about incorporating it throughout all STEM classes.

“It’s a mixed picture,” she said. “I’ve not talked to any faculty who have said this is a really bad idea, but many of them say ‘it’s too much work,’ ‘I can’t figure out how I could fit it in,’ that kind of thing. But everybody says ‘we need students to do more writing, what you’re doing makes a lot of sense, I’d really like to do it.’ And then the ‘buts’ come in.”

However, Teplovs said the program is an effective way of improving both methods of teaching and learning.

“It’s understanding that teaching and learning are intrinsically linked,” he said. “And the role that M-Write plays is in facilitating the improvement of both by reflecting on the opposite. So we see improvements of prompts and the extension of that is thinking deeply about how you’re teaching what you’re teaching to get to the prompt, to get to the answer, to get to the understanding."

Correction: this article was corrected to specify Ginger Schultz' involvment in the project.