Sahar Ghanipoor Machiani

“Write or Die”: Innovative Writing Tool in CIVE 781, CTL Mini-grant Spring 2016

Instructor: Sahar Ghanipoor Machiani, Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering

Summary: ABET outcomes for Engineering courses demand that students demonstrate an ability to use modern tools to communicate with consistent, focused writing under time constraints. With this in mind, Professor Sahar Machiani implemented the “Write or Die” application into her CIVE 781 graduate level Seminar in Transportation Engineering course, hoping to promote student engagement and writing skills, and also to provide her with insight into course material not fully understood by the students. The application works by reinforcing both negatively and positively the students’ writing behavior in class. Within set time and word count limits, Machiani asked her students to focus on specific class topics and to write without stopping to avoid the app’s negative consequences, such as unpleasant sounds or even the loss of writing done so far. Positive consequences included pleasant music that stopped if the student stopped writing. Overall, Machiani found this innovation to be instrumental in evaluating students’ learning in the class, and in helping them to focus on the topics at hand.

Final report

What I Did

I incorporated the “Write or Die” free writing tool web application into my course. This application encourages writing by punishing the tendency to avoid writing. It works based on negative reinforcement which, according to its webpage, “strengthens a behavior because a negative condition is stopped or avoided as a consequence of the behavior.” A goal is set toward specific word count and time allowed for writing. Once the time starts, if writers stop writing in the box for a certain amount of time, there will be consequences such as an unpleasant sound coming out of the speaker while the box turns red gradually. The sound will stop when they continue writing. The consequence mode could also be changed to stimulus mode in which you hear some calming music (e.g. ocean sound) while writing, and when they stop, the calming sound will fade out. There is a third mode called kamikaze mode in which the work un-writes itself if they stop writing.

“Write or Die” was incorporated in my course aiming at two main goals, (1) improving students’ communication skills while helping them realize how much they have learned from the topic discussed in the class using this sort of unselfconscious writing tool, and (2) allowing me as the instructor to realize what topics needs more explanation and have not been fully understood by the students.

Students practiced “Write or Die” during the class time. They were instructed to do the writing practice in the following applications:

  1. A topic that is going to be discussed in the same session; this allows the students to think about the topic, and get ready to absorb the material better.
  2. A topic just discussed in the class; this allows students and the instructor to evaluate the quality of the learning experience and how well students understood the concepts.
  3. A potential topic for the following sessions; this allows the instructor to understand students’ current knowledge to tailor the material for a more efficient session.
How It Went

The evaluation plan of this pedagogical approach consists of two evaluation approaches, namely student survey and writing content evaluation.

Student Survey Evaluation
A survey questionnaire was designed to mainly identify students’ perception and acceptance as well as effectiveness of the pedagogical approach in students’ learning. The questionnaire consists of three parts. The first part includes two true/false questions providing information on previous use of such writing tools. The second part focuses on questions asking students about the impact of the practice on their writing skills, how it has helped them to summarize their thoughts, direct their focus on the topic, and make the connection between their mind and their actual writing outputs. At the end of the questionnaire, an open answer question is designed so that students specify their comments, experience, and suggestions. The survey questionnaire was prepared through Blackboard’s survey tool, and was administered twice, in the middle of the semester and at the end of the semester.

For both the middle of the semester and the end of the semester surveys, all the students responded to the questionnaire. None of the students have used Write or Die before. The majority of the students were indifferent about Write or Die usage helping them to remember important course content up to the middle of the semester. However, they changed their opinion to being mostly agreed toward the end of the semester. The majority also agreed that Write or Die helps them to pay more attention in the class, and contributes to their learning.

Writing Content Evaluation
The second approach for evaluation is to assess the content of students writing in Write or Die practices. In total, 8 practices were performed throughout the semester. The start of the class and end of the class Write or Die practices related to the content of the course session were evaluated based on students’ learning, meaning how much of the information provided in the writing is accurately related to the subject topic. The results of the evaluation show that students had a better learning in the class sessions associated with some Write or Die practices compared to others. This result allows the instructor to go back to the material and seek the reason for a session being less efficient compared to the others, and revise the method and/or material for a better outcome in the future. The results provide a comparative ground to evaluate how much students have learned in the class. In the majority of the cases, the end of the class learning is higher than the start of the class.

Another observation is that students had a better understanding of one subject even at the beginning of the class. This type of observation could also help with future design of the course for including some new material. Individual students could also be tracked to assess their learning difficulties.

What I Learned

The Write or Die application proved to be an instrumental tool to evaluate students learning in the class, and to help them focus on the class subject. The feedback received through the student survey showed that although this pedagogical tool may not be an encouragement for them to attend the class, as with several pedagogical approaches, it could certainly contribute to their learning. Moreover, the Write or Die practices assist the instructor with evaluating students’ learning and designing smarter material for the future course offering.

Below are some of the points to consider regarding the Write or Die application:

  • The usage of the application in topic selection for the following sessions is not completely in line with the purpose of the application. In this case, the Write or Die application mostly works as a regular writing practice to survey students’ ideas.
  • In the future, more Write or Die practices will be designed to be performed outside of the class. At home, students are able to turn up the sound feature of the application for a full-scale experience of the application’s capability.
  • Also, in the future, the practice will be further expanded to track individual student learning and focus on the cause of learning difficulties for students.