How do I figure out what my students actually know?

“By reading a lot of their writing… having them write a TON of informal writings.”

“You see evidence of what they know in their major papers.  Something else you can do, the very first or second day of class, is to give a diagnostic essay:  have them write on a relatively informal topic to assess their writing ability (whether it relates to organization, structure, grammar, etc.).  This can help you to see where you need to focus your strengths as a teacher immediately.  As the semester progresses, you will their development (or lack thereof) in their formal papers and in-class work.  You can also give quizzes on important information (for example, MLA format) to make sure they are retaining the most pertinent information.”

“I give an in-class writing the first day.  After they’ve written for, say, thirty minutes, I stop them.  I ask them to take their papers home, and do any kind of revising, editing, rethinking they’d like; they are asked to bring them, typed, to the next class.  Those are informal writings #1 and #2.  Looking at those helps me know where they are in terms of developing an idea, and it lets me know if “revision” is new to their vocabularies.  It also reinforces the idea of revision:  they’re doing it from the first day.”

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