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3 make student thinking visible




A feature of poor formal communication, oral and multi-modal as well as written, is a lack of organization at both the whole text and the sentence level.

It is common to find one point appear, apparently at random, in a number of places in a text rather than being gathered into a single paragraph. Similarly, sentences often meander with the end bearing little obvious logical connection to the beginning. They are semantically/ grammatically compromised because the writer often starts sentences without a clear idea of how to end, let alone how the whole text will be organised. They may not have been explicitly taught how to structure responses so little wonder plagiarism is a tempting alternative. In other cases students simply think the quickest way to complete the task is to write until the word limit is achieved. This results in a jumbled flow-of-consciousness style that is next to impossible to untangle and provide meaningful feedback.

By requiring students to develop detailed outlines or concept maps to plan their responses you have something concrete to discuss. This stage ‘makes student thinking visible’, by making visible the links or associations a student is making between aspects of a topic. This is often the ‘teachable moment’, the optimum time to intervene, clarify, query or relate to evidence. Most importantly, the outline provides the structure for the final text. When a student starts a sentence they know what it is about and are far less likely to ramble. Thus planning can significantly improve the grammar at both the whole text and the sentence level. In my experience students initially resent having to do ‘extra work’ but eventually realise that outlining makes tasks easier and faster to complete.

An excellent way to develop this understanding is teaching them to use Word as an ‘ideas-processor’. Word processors are typically used as clever typewriters able to edit and make text look pretty. There are however, more powerful tools and Word’s best-kept secret is the Outline function. Accessed from the view menu, outline facilitates the simple creation of a hierarchy of points that can easily be moved around by dragging them to the desired position. Thus, students could start with a generic scaffold of a text type, eg, argument and then fill in the points for and against together with supporting evidence. Headings and subheadings can be expanded or collapsed at will revealing the structure of a text. The outline can be used for conferencing and becomes evidence of process. Paragraphs can be completed in any order and the introduction may be written last when the writer knows precisely what is being introduced. Text creation was previously constrained because the typewriter (or pen) necessitated starting at the beginning and working through to the end. Many people are still bound by this ‘typewriter thinking’. Even though they may cut, paste and edit in ways impossible before they have yet to realize the full potential of the technology and a more free-form way of working. Because it is easy to save and print at different stages, an audit trail is created that provides evidence for the virtuous and makes it more difficult for the plagiarist, hence the importance of insisting on using such planning tools.

There are other valuable programs that help students plan and can provide evidence including Inspiration (concept-mapping) and Reasonable (mapping/evaluating arguments). A recent project investigated the use of CaptureCam to enable students to record their thoughts and processes at different stages of a task. Initially developed for making short instructional multimedia clips for technical support, this easy to learn program records both what is happening on a screen and a voiceover that can be used for student/teacher comment. In the study students record their project status at defined intervals or milestones. This forms a record of their progress in the form of a digital journal. Students proved enthusiastic about using CaptureCam, particularly those who are less confident or reluctant to write. Teachers can skim a file that provides further evidence of a student’s involvement in learning. Although in the early stages of exploration this strategy shows a great deal of potential and could be useful in all areas of learning.




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All original photographs © J G Taylor, 2005

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