#5 The solution to improving writing skills in education

Today’s educational system is NOT structured to support writing. The result is the Writing Feedback Death Spiral. One-on-one writing tutoring is the solution. At Prompt, we’ve made it easy and cost-effective to implement one-on-one writing tutoring within the current educational structure. And, we can deliver great student writing outcomes for less than the cost of adding one teacher for a typical 600-student educational institution.

It’s now time for us to discuss the details of the solution. But first, I’m going to provide our overarching philosophy to the solution.

Prompt’s philosophy: Our feedback is what great educators provide when they have more time. We fit seamlessly into how students, educators, and educational institutions already work.

Our philosophy directly relates to the two steps needed to break the Writing Feedback Death Spiral and create a Writing Feedback Success Spiral.

Step 1: We make writing feedback a valuable experience by solving the Educator-Time Problem and delivering actionable, instructional feedback on the higher-order aspects of writing (content, structure, clarity). Our goal is for great educators to believe our writing feedback is as good, if not better, than they could do themselves (when they have enough time).

Step 2: We implement a Virtual Writing Center that enables educators and institutions to easily and cost-effectively require students to receive and act on feedback. Our goal is for any educator to be able to fit writing feedback into their class without changing what or how they’re teaching.

In the end state, Prompt will help solve writing education by allowing institutions to implement the Deliberate Practice process with Prompt as the receiving and revising loop.

Step 1: Making writing feedback a valuable experience

We know the Educator-Time Problem shows educators don’t have nearly enough time to provide a valuable feedback experience. Solving the Educator-Time Problem means having more capacity. Solving capacity requires one-on-one writing tutoring. Solving one-on-one writing tutoring requires a trusted writing feedback experience that matches pedagogy. Solving trust requires great educators, consistent quality, and feedback students find useful and timely. Let’s start by discussing what trust means; then, we’ll talk about how we build trust into Prompt’s network of Writing Coaches and Virtual Writing Center.

  • Trust means spotting the correct gaps in content and structure. We think of Writing as Structured Thinking. We expect our Writing Coaches to spot similar gaps within an essay. For example, we ask ourselves, “What didn’t we learn that we wanted to learn? Am I convinced by this argument, and how could it be strengthened? How could the structure be modified to improve clarity?” Educators and students need to agree with the gaps our coaches identify.
  • Trust means providing actionable instruction. Students need to understand the feedback and be able to apply it while revising their essays and writing future essays. There’s a fine line to walk. A coach can’t just circle a thesis statement and write “fix.” The student may not understand how to fix it. A coach also can’t write the thesis statement for the student. Instead, actionable feedback requires a significant time investment. A coach must identify and explain the problem. A coach must pose questions to help the student think about how to improve. A coach may need to model what good looks like without doing the work for the student.
  • Trust means consistency. Educators need hundreds or thousands of reviews for their classes that are delivered with consistent quality. Educators and students must trust that every review is right. Coaches cannot provide contradictory feedback between students or across a student’s drafts. Even disagreeing with few reviews will lead to distrust. Given the continuum of right answers, it can be challenging to implement consistent quality.
  • Trust means making the feedback useful and timely. Students are often writing their essays very close to the due time. Students are also unwilling or unable to invest significant time improving their writing. As discussed in the previous article, the feedback must be delivered within hours, not days. The feedback must be able to be implemented within 30 minutes of a student’s effort. The feedback must make a student feel they are making substantive improvements to their writing (i.e., they can feel their writing improved in a significant way).

To solve trust, we’ve created a time and quality-controlled network of highly-skilled Writing Coaches. We’ve found an applicant’s resume doesn’t necessarily indicate whether they’ll be a good Writing Coach. We evaluate everyone by having them do the work. The result is a 2% acceptance rate of applicants who apply to be a Prompt Writing Coach. Here’s how our process works.

  1. Screening. We have prospective coaches answer a series of questions related to an essay. We’re looking for the ability to spot the most important gaps in the essay, and we’re looking for specific traits: thoroughness, thoughtfulness, and tone. We’ve found maintaining consistent quality requires coaches who always take the time to write out their thinking and motivate students to act.
  1. Training and evaluation. Our remaining applicants go through a rigorous training consisting of learning our approach and providing feedback on essays. Our approach helps us maintain a consistent structure across all feedback our coaches provide. We then evaluate candidates on their ability to execute against our approach, spot the most important issues, and present clear, upbeat, actionable instruction to the student. For our most promising candidates, we provide them with feedback on how to improve.
  1. New coaches getting started. Our new coaches start with a single type of essay. They have all of their work reviewed by our most experienced coaches before it goes back to the student. We do this to maintain quality while also helping our new coaches continue to improve. A coach may then go through additional training and evaluation to be approved to do other types of essays.
  1. Maintaining quality. We have rigorous quality control measures in place. Our new coaches have all of their work reviewed until they “pass” each subject. All of our coaches have random quality checks done on their work. Our Writing Coaches also operate as a community. Our system enables coaches to “ask for help” when they want a second opinion from another coach.

We are deliberate in creating a valuable feedback experience for students. We’ve spent years solving the problem and are continuously improving how students request and receive feedback. From the student’s perspective, the process is simple:

  1. Students write a draft. If they have questions they’re working on their draft, they can chat live with a Prompt Writing Coach through our Virtual Writing Center.
  2. Students submit a feedback request. It often requires just one click as we already have the specifics of a student’s assignment within the Virtual Writing Center.
  3. A coach provides feedback. We work to provide the same coach to a given student to maintain consistency.
  4. The student receives feedback within a few hours. Our eventual goal is to return their feedback in under an hour.
  5. The student acts on the feedback. The feedback we provide tends to be unlike anything a student has experienced previously. We focus on the higher-order aspects of writing (content, structure, clarity). We focus on the 2-3 things a student can do within 30 minutes to dramatically improve the content and structure of their essay.

Step 2: Enabling educators and institutions to require writing feedback

We know it’s hard to change behaviors. We know it’s difficult to fit within an institution’s budget. Instead, we work to fit within current behaviors; we work to fit within budgets. Our Virtual Writing Center and Writing Coaching solve writing tutoring without requiring significant behavioral change and without requiring substantive tuition or budget increases.

Solving for educators. Educators already have a curriculum and way of doing things. Depending on the class, educators may not feel improving writing skills is their responsibility. Our Virtual Writing Center makes it easy to implement feedback for any essay an educator assigns. All educators need to do is input their assignments into the Virtual Writing Center and select which ones require feedback before they’re turned in for a final grade. Then, educators can see which students received feedback and acted on the feedback. They can review the feedback as desired, or they can just review the final version while grading it against a rubric and providing their own feedback. Over time, we’ll add additional tools to make educators’ lives easier when grading and providing feedback on essays. But for now, our primary goal is to keep educators’ time commitments the same as what they’re currently spending while simultaneously improving student writing skills.

Solving for institutions. Institutions need products their educators will use. 30% of edtech licenses are never used, and most educators don’t follow “dosage” recommendations for how much time a student should use a product.1 We’ve made it simple for educators to require writing feedback within the classroom with limited change to their current behaviors and teaching methods. For institutions, we’ve made it cost-effective to require students to receive and act on writing feedback. Institutions can use our Virtual Writing Center with Prompt’s Writing Coaches or their own writing coaches (or a combination of the two). A typical 600-student institution can implement on-demand writing feedback for a majority of their students’ essays for less than the cost of hiring one additional teacher.

Institutions can use Prompt to target different outcomes. For example, high schools can provide writing feedback for students studying for AP Exams or students who score below proficient on writing skills on state standardized tests. In higher ed, colleges can target writing feedback at students in remedial English courses or who are performing poorly in other writing-intensive courses. Prompt’s Virtual Writing Center can track student data, providing educators and administrators with visibility into how students are improving over time and which students may need additional support on specific skills.

Concluding thoughts

We need to solve the root cause of the world’s struggles with writing – the Educator-Time Problem. The answer is one-on-one writing tutoring. However, one-on-one writing tutoring must be a valuable experience for students by focusing on the higher-order aspects of writing. We’ve seen other companies attempt to solve writing tutoring by focusing on surface-level issues (e.g., grammar). The result is an expensive way to slow the feedback death spiral while only moderately improving outcomes. 

Meaningful improvements to writing outcomes require a different model for writing feedback. Prompt is the only solution capable of cost-effectively providing one-on-one writing tutoring on the higher-order aspects of writing (content, structure, clarity). We are the only solution that fits in seamlessly with what educators and institutions are already doing.

Come and join us on our journey. You can learn more about working with Prompt as an educational institution or as a member of our team by going to Prompt.com or reaching out to me at brad@prompt.com. I encourage you not to be shy. I know what email anxiety is like, and I promise I read every message by assuming the writer has the best intentions. It’s the optimist in me.

1 Ed-Tech Usage Levels Are Low: What Should Schools Do?