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Seeing Patterns in Student Work

One of the aspects of expertise that fascinates me the most is the experts’ ability to look at a whole range of information and see useful patterns.* While reading the sophomore writing portfolios this week, I was constantly impressed by the way expert readers could, with incredible speed, read a student’s portfolio and say, “Well, this student has trouble framing quotations.” It was true, but it was a pattern that a novice reader might miss amidst all the details. The student had in various places also misused commas, or strung together paragraphs that didn’t seem entirely related, or had weak introductory sentences, or split infinitives, or had difficulty with tense or number agreement within sentences, or been uncomfortable choosing between primary pronouns (I/you/he/one… so many options!). And yet, an expert reader could take a broader view and say that over the course of all the papers submitted, this student had trouble framing quotations.

Musing on the facility with which these expert readers culled through details to find patterns, I realized that over the course of three years, I’ve begun to develop a similar capacity when faced with the student research experience. I could read a set of research papers and see that the student didn’t understand the concept of authoritative sources, or the conventions of scholarly disagreement, or how to deal with more than one or two secondary sources. And I know my colleagues and I often observe trends in the questions we get from students in specific classes. In fact, we often use these observations when we plan repeat support for a class or when we’re strategizing with the professors about how best to help the next batch of students.

Now I wish even more than I did before that I had time to comb back through all the notes I keep on all the appointments I have with students. I bet my instruction would improve dramatically if I had a better sense of the patterns of student confusion I see. And I bet the faculty I work with would appreciate it if I could communicate these trends to them in a less haphazard way than I am currently.

* For more on how experts differ from novices, see the chapter called “How Experts Differ from Novices” in How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Eds. John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown and Rodney R. Cocking. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999. 31-50.