Who Is Doing the Work in the Teaching/Learning Dynamic?

One of the significant problems with the workshop approach to teaching writing that is grounded in student revision prompted with teacher feedback is how to shift the burden of revising and editing from the teacher to the student.

Paul Thomas
5 min readDec 8, 2020
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

The end of a course often challenges my fundamental beliefs as a teacher.

Once again, in the final days of my courses when students are allowed and encouraged to revise their major essays as often as possible, I have returned several without responding because the resubmitted essays are mostly the same as the last draft I marked or the student is merely dutifully addressing only what I have marked.

Many years ago when I was teaching high school English, my classroom was directly across the courtyard from a math teacher. We could see each other’s desks through our windows.

Part joking and part shade, that math teacher occasionally prodded me with “I wish I could teach while sitting at my desk.”

Some of the tension here is the essential nature of teaching math versus teaching writing as an English teacher, but there is also the more pronounced tension of what it means to teach. [1]

This math teacher ran a very quiet classroom with students focused on the teacher’s instruction — what I would call a teacher-centered environment. I see this often when I walk the hallways of my university where professors are apt to be lecturing from notes.

As a teacher of reading and writing, I organized my classes as workshops, a commitment to student-centered learning in which (to address the question titling this post) students were tasked with doing most of the work in the teaching/learning dynamic.

My instruction, often conducted at my desk, in fact, was individualized and in the form of providing students feedback on their essay drafts. Each of my 100+ students each year produced 30–40-plus full drafts of essays, about four essays per quarter which they were required to revise at least once.

At the college level, my first-year writing students submit and must revise at least once four major essays, and they also must conference with me at least once per essay after the first submission and before they can submit their required revision.

One of the significant problems with the workshop approach to teaching writing that is grounded in student revision prompted with teacher feedback is how to shift the burden of revising and editing from the teacher to the student.

The primary reason I reject writing rubrics, writing prompts, and template writing (five-paragraph essays) is that these approaches are centering the work of the writing in the teacher and not in the student-writer.

Requiring a four-sentence introduction is relieving (denying) students the needed experience of coming to understand paragraphing as a skill that reinforces meaning, instead of a number to fulfill, for example.

A tradition of teaching writing among English teachers that is incredibly flawed teaching and at the core of why so many teachers dread or even avoid teaching writing is meticulously marking every “error” on every student essay — a time-consuming act of futility.

In my life as a student, we received heavily marked essays (on the rare occasion that we wrote essays) in red ink and a grade — but there was no revising or rewriting. What that teacher had done is sheer martyrdom, marking for hours and hours to prove some sort of monk-like dedication to laboring as a teacher.

You can imagine (and you likely have done this) that almost all of us looked at the grade and promptly discarded the essays (never interacting in any way with all that read ink).

A more recent and slightly different version of this is the heavily marked essay that students are required to “fix”; however, in this scenario, once again, teachers are actually doing all the work and the students are simply working at the lowest levels of addressing those marks.

Teacher martyrdom and student compliance are not the only options, however. To combat these flaws with teaching students to write in a workshop setting, I have implemented the following:

  • Replacing grades with minimum requirements. In a writing-intensive course, students must submit a first full draft of each essay (with proof of their own drafting and in a final form as if they are not allowed to revise), must participate in a conference with their peers and the teacher, and must submit at least one acceptable revise essay (“acceptable” includes the student addressing all feedback and submitting a clean file copy).
  • Marking student drafts as little as possible, typically marking the first third (using highlighting and copy editing) while also prompting students to “revise/edit this throughout the essay” so that they are applying the revision instead of me prompting them to all areas needing attention. Highlighting is particularly effective for addressing surface features (grammar, mechanics, and usage) so that students begin to read their own work more carefully. I also use highlighting to address careless sentence formation (starting many sentences with “it” constructions, using “thing” or “get” verbs repeatedly) and careless paragraphing (starting consecutive or several paragraphs with the same words, phrasing).
  • Not accepting or proving feedback on drafts that students either submit with track changes, etc., still active or with most of my feedback left unrevised or unedited. When teaching high school I marked these submissions with “N/G” for “no grade,” but at the college level, I simply return the draft submitted and the last draft I marked, noting that I cannot provide further feedback until the student addresses what I have already marked before.

At the end of the course, however, many of these practices grounded in my beliefs about how to teach well so that students do the work instead of me are challenged.

Two patterns frustrate me — (1) students resubmitting and not addressing what I have already marked, and (2) that overzealous student who simply resubmits over and over while only addressing what I have marked.

Students are provided extensive support material so that they can come to revise and edit their own work; therefore, especially toward the end of the semester, I return essays without marking them yet again and nudge students to those materials, stressing that they need to do the work and not me.

While I haven’t yet found the magic formula for shifting the work from me to my students in a way that feels satisfying, I am resolute in practicing my craft as a teacher that honors the need for students to do the work of learning and to resist substituting instead what many people would perceive as teaching (marking, marking, marking essays) but is mere martyrdom that does more to inhibit than encourage student learning.


[1] As a teacher educator, I also have confronted this tension when conducting teaching observations of teacher candidates. Certification rubrics and traditional practices tend to focus on teacher candidate behaviors as proxies for student learning. Teacher candidates, then, see teaching observations as a time for them to perform. I caution my candidates, however, that I mostly observe their students for evidence of learning being fostered and not simply that the teacher is “teaching” in a way that conforms to the rubric.



Paul Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/