Tag Archives: Individual Mastery Plan

Individual mastery plans: my best weird idea

As many people have pointed out, I do a lot of really weird stuff when I teach writing.

Sometimes the stuff I do becomes mainstream after a few decades: I began flipping my classroom during my first college teaching job back in 1970; I began doing backward design six years later as I wrote instructional materials General Electric’s Field Engineering School.

My best weird idea

One of my best ideas is a method of attacking the written errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling that are harder to get rid of than Lady MacBeth’s spots.

You know the ones I mean. They are intransigent errors such as:

  • Using it’s when its is called for.
  • Failing to put a comma after an introductory element in a sentence.
  • Writing unintentional fragments.
  • Using commas to splice sentences together.

They are often errors that happen because the writer was concentrating on getting ideas down, not thinking about the appearance of the text.

Or they may happen because the writer’s brain makes his fingers write the most familiar spelling of a homonym set rather than the less common spelling.

Such things are mistakes.

Let’s stop treating them as if they were tragic flaws.

Teach students to deal with them as editing issuesmistakes they can correct before anybody else sees them.

Individual Mastery Plans defined

I call my method Individual Mastery Plans. They are a bit like special education IEPs.

The IMPs identify each individual student’s habitual and serious errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling (GPS) — including homonym errors—and lay out a plan so the individual student can focus on his or her most serious habitual errors.

The goal of an IMP is for students to produce  clean first drafts, rather than error-free final drafts, because a large proportion of writing today is done with only one draft. Clean first draft is a journalist’s term for writing that’s been edited to contain very few serious GPS errors.

My procedure is to identify for each student a list of their most frequent serious errors and then turn responsibility for editing their own work for those errors over to the students. For courses of less than 12 weeks, I usually have students work on eliminating three errors. For year-long courses, I raise the number to five.

How I set up IMPs

I use Connors and Lunsford’s 1988 list of the 20 most common errors in student writing as a tool for establishing students’ baseline performance. Early in a course, as students submit written work, every time I see an occurrence of only those 20 conveniently numbered errors  I put its number in brackets after the error.

I don’t correct errors or identify them other than by the bracketed number.

I use word processing software to tell me the word count, and I use find and replace to put each bracketed number into blue type. That process tells me how many errors of a particular type were in the document.

I make sure each student has access to the Connors and Lunsford list in multiple places;  I also provide highly-specific resources  so students can turn in their text or go online directly to the exact paragraph(s) where the rule governing error [13] is discussed.

When I return written work anytime throughout the course, I require each student to graph the type and frequency of their errors. Some students really like graphing their progress.

After students have written enough to give us a picture of their most frequent errors at course entry, I negotiate an IMP with each student based on that student’s graph.

Examples of IMPs

Here’s a sample IMP for Josh who has a real problem with commas:

By Dec. 20 in your in-class writing you will have no more than two errors total of these three types per 500 words:

  • Missing comma in a series
  • Missing comma(s) with nonessential (nonrestrictive) element
  • Unnecessary comma(s) with restrictive element

Here’s a sample IMP for Caitlin who has a problem with sentence boundaries and distinguishing its from it’s.

By Dec. 20 in your in-class writing you will have no more than two errors total of these three types per 500 words:

  • Comma splice
  • Run-together sentences
  • It’s/its confusion

You’ll notice the IMPs specify a numerical error limit.  Depending on how long the course is, I set my error limit at no more than 1 or 2 IMP errors per 500 words written in class in an hour on a writing prompt the students did not know in advance.

IMPs and the grade cap

If students exceed the error limit set in their IMP, I impose a grade cap. Typically a student who exceeds the limit cannot get a grade higher than C, regardless of the quality of the writing. The grade cap policy eliminates a lot of sloppy papers.

Once the baseline is established, when I grade papers I flag only errors on a student’s IMP plan, and stop flagging when the error limit is reached.

Having fewer errors to flag when I grade papers saves me a lot of time over the course of a year. It makes no difference to Caitlin’s grade if she had 3 or 30 comma splices in 500 words, but seeing 30 comma splices flagged might well make Caitlin give up trying to master comma splices.

Value of IMPs

Setting up a system for establishing and using IMPs take a bit  of work, but it is a good investment.

IMPs make students responsible for applying their learning to their writing.

Students who historically have not been successful in a writing classroom find reassurance in having an aspect of writing that they can measure and control. Having the same number of errors to work on as the class genius has is good for a weaker students’ self-images, and mastering their IMP items is wonderful for their self-esteem.

An IMP is the only method I’ve found that works for such things as eliminating homonym errors and getting students not to use possessive apostrophes when the context requires only a plural. Those are errors that publisher-created exercises can’t touch.

Other blog posts about IMPs are here and here.

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Competition adds bit of fun to eliminating errors

Although it’s only May, it is not too early to plan a major push to get rid of some persistent writing mechanics errors next school year.

Instead of the usual test-prep methods of working on grammar, punctuation, and spelling, try drilling down into the problems students actually have when they write.

Organize a contest to see which students can do the best job of eliminating habitual writing mechanics errors from their own writing. A contest can be done within a class but it’s far more interesting if the competition is between classes or between grades.

chart of top 20 errors in student writing with associated  resources

The most-common student errors and resources for mastering them.

Before the school year starts, pick a specific number of errors that all contestants will attempt to eliminate by a specific spring date. I recommend using between three and five errors as your standard across all classes and all grades. Such small numbers won’t scare students, but even small reduction in habitual serious errors have significant impact on students’ written work.

Also before school starts, identify a restricted list of specific errors to work on. I suggest the 20 errors identified by Connors and Lunsford in their “Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research” as a starting point. Depending on your students, you might need to add other items such as “A sentence begins with a capital letter” or “Texting abbreviation used instead of full spelling.” If you add items, be sure to keep the same syntax on all items.

Before announcing the contest, teachers must establish baseline performance in a 10 to 20 day period for each student in each of their classes class participating in the contest. Establishing a baseline requires multiple writing samples; a single sample won’t work. Having students write individual sentences won’t work either. Students must write at least full paragraphs so teachers can tell what errors students make when they compose.

After baseline performance has been established for each student, teachers can introduce the contest to students.

If the contest rules specify eliminating three serious, habitual errors in the year, then using the writing in which the teacher has flagged the errors from the master list that Josh made, teacher and student together identify that Josh’s three most frequent serious errors. Those three errors become the only errors that affect the writing mechanics aspect of Josh’s grade for the year.

Through the year, each time students write, teachers focus students’ attention on whether they have corrected any instances of the errors on their personal mastery plans before submitting their work. (Note, please, students don’t need to write error-free; they need only to edit their work to eliminate their habitual serious errors.)

This procedure lets diverse groups compete (sixth graders vs. sophomores, for example) without favoring one over the other. Each student is personally responsible for eliminating the same number of habitual serious errors regardless of which particular errors plague the student.

For 10-20 days after the contest end date, do to a post-test by counting the errors in all student work again.

The class that comes closest to reducing the number of errors in their written work to zero is the winner.

Connors, Robert J. and Andrea A. Lunsford. “Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research.” *College Composition and Communication* Vol. 39, No. 4 (1988), pp. 395-409. Web. JSTOR. 23 Dec. 2014. Access to the original study is restricted by paywalls but as of 23 Dec. 2014, by selecting *read online free* at JSTOR, teachers could get free [access to it](http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/357695) for 14-days. The 20 errors are listed in numerous places.

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Writing mechanics build feeling of mastery

The number of serious mechanical errors most students make routinely is small. Even students who seem to make all sorts of errors can profit from learning to focus on eliminating a handful of them.

Serious mechanical problems often result from misunderstanding some concept that underlies several rules. If they can master one grammar concept, students can often solve several mechanical errors.

If students can be induced to master a small number of serious errors and to edit their own writing to eliminate those errors, students’ work will appear more polished.

Even when eliminating habitual errors produces only modest improvement to students’ written output, the psychological benefit to students of mastering a few of their routine errors can be immense.

graph of student errors

Instead of requiring students to  master “correct punctuation” or “comma rules,” require students to master between three and five individual rules in a school year.

(For high school and college students, I use Connors and Lunsford‘s classic list of student errors for my master list; younger students may need rules such as “begin each sentence with a capital letter.”)

There’s nothing fuzzy about a rule. Someone who understands a rule can determine whether it was or was not correctly applied.

For example, if you understand the rule that an introductory element before a sentence is set off from the sentence by a comma, you can look at a sentence and tell:

  • Is there an introductory element ahead of the sentence?
  • Is the introductory element  set off from the sentence by a comma?

Because correct use of individual rules is countable, students don’t have to wonder if they are doing better. If the number of times they failed to set of an introductory element with a comma declines from five errors per 400 words to two errors per 400 words, students know they are making progress.

I usually require students to graph their errors. Students who struggle with the mechanical aspects of writing find great satisfaction in seeing the graph of errors tip toward zero.

The post based on material in The Writing Teacher’s ABCs, © 2015 Linda G. Aragoni

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