Bonanza of Correlations, Spring 2019 Edition, part 1

Advanced Academic Writing

This class is one level below transfer, which is kind of a big deal within ESL – students who pass this class are supposed to be able to hang with native-speaking teenagers in English 100 (Writing 1, English 1A, Humanities 101, or whatever your university calls it). This is the first time I’ve taught this class, and in doing my usual round of end-of-the-semester spreadsheets I’m mostly interested in what kinds of homework assignments predict overall grades, which in turn are (presumably) a good measure of English reading and writing ability. This will help me to choose assignments that are really worth doing to assign in the coming semesters and weight them appropriately.

It’s no surprise that in a writing class, writing assignments end up composing a large part of the final grade. But which writing assignments are the best predictors of the scores of all the others? To figure this out, I normalized each score (0 to 1, so some assignments don’t end up more predictive just because they were worth a lot of points), added them all up, and compared how much each individual one correlated with the total. The highest correlation is the assignment with the most predictive power for writing scores overall. This assignment turned out to be……….

A 1-point submission of a single topic sentence!

Specifically, this assignment was called “Essay 4 Rough Draft 3”, following an outline/preliminary draft and a complete rough draft the week before of a weeks-long, 6-7 page essay. All they had to do to earn this assignment’s single point was submit a topic sentence on Canvas, which would be my cue to go find their essay on Google Classroom and leave detailed feedback on the paragraph with that topic sentence. This assignment was due the weekend before the final draft was due and was the last feedback from me before I graded their final drafts.

What gave this assignment its predictive power was probably the fact that students who did it were probably the ones who were done with most paragraphs of their essays (more than a few fell behind in this process), making it a proxy for being a timely and prepared writer in general. It also probably tracked introspective writing as well, as students who submitted this sentence had to go through their essays with enough care to choose a single paragraph that they thought needed another look.

Actually, almost all the drafts of Essay 4 had more predictive power (specifically draft 3, the final draft, draft 2, and sheets that they had signed by a tutor after getting feedback from them, in that order) than any other essay did, and not just because there were more of them. I normalized all scores for each essay by combining all the previously normalized scores and averaging them, leaving one score for each (0 to 1, as usual). Essay 4’s draft 3 and final draft were still the most predictive of other essay scores.

Just to confirm that Essay 4 was indeed as powerful a predictor of final scores as I thought, I normalized each component of final grades (Participation, Short Writes, Various Online Assignments, Essay 1, Essay 2, In-class Essays, Essay 4, and Lab) and computed correlations of them all with each other. I went through this somewhat laborious extra step because I couldn’t just correlate each component with final grades – Essay 4 is 20% of final grades by itself, guaranteeing a higher correlation for it than for, say, In-class Essays at 15%. It turned out that Essay 4 correlates the highest with the other components of final grades as well, with an average of 0.70 across all components. Essay 1, by the way, is the lowest with 0.54. So there.

This tells me that:

  • It is good that Essay 4 was the largest chunk of their final grades. If anything, I should increase the % of final grade that this essay takes up and find ways to build more participation and short writing assignments around it. In case you want to know, the prompt called for them to use Duhigg’s The Power of Habit (something of a community college cliché) as a lens to analyze Newport’s Digital Minimalism.
  • It would probably pay off to talk about prewriting even more than I currently do. I encouraged them to think of the 2nd draft as the final draft and the final draft as a revision of that draft, and students who had every paragraph written before RD3 had much more flexibility in what they asked me to have another look at. There was definitely a gap in scores between those who did every draft and those who didn’t (10 points average on the final draft between those who did RD1 and those who didn’t).
  • Essay 1, currently 10% of final grades, could probably stand to be reduced even more, seeming as it does to predict comparably less of final grades.

In other Advanced Academic Writing news:

  • Other scores that were unusually highly correlated with final grades:
    • A noun clause and vocabulary quiz (0.60)
    • Poster (video, infographic, etc.) presentations (0.68)
    • Many of the Language Logs (in which they have to find and comment on interesting grammar they find somewhere on the Internet)
    • One reading assignment on Juul from Newsela.com (0.72!)
  • Scores that were negatively correlated with final grades:
    • A few group quizzes. Maybe it’s time to take my students’ advice (almost everyone hates these) and cut them, or at least make them worth a few points at most.
    • Group presentations on one of the optional reading assigments that they had the choice of citing in the aforementioned Essay 4 (-0.17). In the end, only 1 or 2 people cited these in their papers, and in the future I will probably not take the class time to review these, instead taking more time for pre-writing.
  • I have good luck with reading circles. I hear from colleagues that getting students to do their reading circle “jobs” is a chore, with not a few students simply skipping days when they are due. My last 3 reading circles assignments, the last 2 of which had them reading 2 chapters in a week, still had an average completion rate of 93%. I don’t know what this is due to (although I know that a few students complained that it was unreasonable), but I am very pleased with it.
  • It turns out that I am not all that hard of a grader. I had heard that I was (and some students were very vocal about it in anonymous surveys and evaluations), but my average final grade for every essay was about 82%. I can only assume that a few students who thought they deserved A’s got B’s instead.

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