As a reminder, we view Writing as Structured Thinking. Any reference to writing below focuses on the higher-order aspects (content, structure, clarity) as opposed to just grammar.
Writing education is a math problem. The best way to improve writing skills is through Deliberate Practice formed by receiving instructional feedback and acting on it. However, providing timely and detailed instructional feedback is often not possible because it is time-consuming.
There is a significant gap between the amount of time an educator can spend grading and providing feedback on essays, and the amount of time needed to provide detailed, instructional, actionable feedback on how a student can improve the content, structure, and clarity of their writing. We call this gap the Educator-Time Problem. Since I’m an engineer from MIT, let’s run the math.
A typical high school teacher has 150 students across their classes. Let’s say the teacher decides to assign a writing assignment. We know teachers vary quite a bit in the time they spend grading and providing feedback, but 5 minutes per student on a three-page paper is a reasonable estimate. 150 students at 5 minutes each equals about 13 hours to provide feedback for all students on a single draft of a single assignment.
At Prompt, our data suggests that providing actionable, instructional feedback for a similar assignment takes about 15 minutes for the first draft. 150 students at 15 minutes each equals about 38 hours.
However, 38 hours per essay is not enough. That’s just for the first draft. The best way to improve writing skills is through Deliberate Practice, receiving instructional feedback and acting on it. The only way to guarantee students will act on the feedback is to require them to revise their essays, with the teacher providing additional feedback. We find two rounds of revisions is ideal. In all, a teacher may see each essay three times before it’s done and spend 30 minutes or more per student. We’re now at 150 students at 30 minutes each, totaling 75 hours of work for each time a teacher assigns an essay.
In K-12, a typical teacher is with their classes about 30 hours per week and has many other responsibilities. No wonder it takes two to four weeks for the typical teacher to grade and return student essays. No wonder teachers of writing-intensive subjects have higher turnover rates.1
It’s apparent – educators don’t have enough time to support students on writing. A well-known education executive once told me, “the number one piece of feedback I get from educators is that they want more support on helping their students with writing skills.” We don’t assign enough writing practice because educators don’t have the time to grade and provide feedback. The results are less than ideal. 61% of high school teachers say their students haven’t written an essay of more than five pages.2 High school students only write about one essay per month.2 College students only write one and a half essays per month.4 And, as discussed in the last article, nearly ¾ of high school students score below proficient on writing5, about ⅓ of college students take remedial English courses6, and only 42% of employers rate new college graduates as having adequate written communication skills.7
The Root Causes
It gets worse. The current structure of writing education does NOT support Deliberate Practice, purposeful and systematic practice with the goal of improving performance. Deliberate Practice for writing requires revising based on instructional feedback.
The Educator-Time Problem causes many educators to be unable to deliver on the receiving and revising steps of Deliberate Practice. Instead, students jump from the prewriting step to turning it in. The receiving and revising steps are often left out because of three distinct issues:
- The feedback isn’t detailed enough. We often find the feedback educators provide focuses too much at the sentence-level and not enough on bigger picture content and structure. Simple comments such as “rewrite” or “this is confusing” are unhelpful as students are unsure of how to act on the comments. Providing instructional, actionable feedback takes a lot of time and is just one of many skills educators are expected to possess.
- Students don’t act on the feedback. Given time constraints, most educators don’t require students to act on the feedback and submit the revision for a grade or additional feedback. As such, students often just look at their grades, not the feedback. Even if they look at the feedback, they’ll struggle to absorb it without acting on it.
- Students don’t receive feedback fast enough. It typically takes two to four weeks for an educator to provide feedback. By that time, the writing isn’t fresh in students’ minds, and it’s more difficult to motivate them to make changes.
The Solution: One-on-one writing tutoring
There’s a simple solution to the Educator-Time Problem that’s been hard to execute until the advent of Prompt: on-demand, one-on-one feedback from great Writing Coaches. Hiring more educators is not a cost-effective solution. Peer review requires substantial changes to how educators teach, lacks rigor, and produces only modest gains. Automated writing feedback is ineffective. Writing tutoring solves the root causes in a cost-effective way that works how students, educators, and educational institutions work.
The math presents a clear case. The world’s education system is NOT structured to support writing today. Implementing one-on-one writing tutoring appears to be a clear solution to solving the Educator-Time Problem without requiring much change to the current system. However, one-on-one writing tutoring won’t work if it isn’t delivered properly. It must break the Writing Feedback Death Spiral.
1 Learning Policy Institute Teacher Turnover Report
2 A Perception Gap Over Students’ Preparation. Alvin P. Sanoff, Chronicle of Higher Education.
3 National Survey of Student Engagement
4 “Nation’s Report Card” by the National Center for Education Statistics
5 The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education
6 The National Association of Colleges and Employers
7 Salary is just one element in cost behind a teacher