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9 Posts authored by: Steve Bernhardt Expert

An important New York Times article circulated a couple of years ago that focused on questions of persistence in college. The lessons of the new lines of research as represented in this article are important for those of us who teach writing to first year students (and the link still works).


Many years back, Stephen Brookfield in The Skillful Teacher identified what he called “the imposter syndrome,” the belief held by many students that they don’t belong, that others are smarter or better suited to a particular school or program. I used the imposter book chapter to great effect with new grad students at New Mexico State U when I was teaching in the PhD program in Rhetoric and Professional Communication. Everyone related to the feeling that others were better prepared and more likely to be successful. Crassly, others were just naturally smarter. The reading allowed us to talk together about such concerns, to focus on what was under our own control, and to develop both the self-confidence and scholarly habits that would lead to excellent performance. I’ve seen the imposter syndrome invoked in many settings; it garners continuing attention in psychology, learning theory, and elsewhere. It’s obviously a concept with resonance.


The news as represented in the studies cited in the Times piece suggest that feelings of inadequacy strongly affect performance and persistence, and such feelings disproportionately affect lower-income students. Students may fit the institution’s admissions profile—they are smart enough and sufficiently prepared to do well. But they are often confused about how to be successful and afflicted with self-doubt.


The good news is that schools can take action to improve persistence and success for low-income students. The Times article details University of Texas programs that treat the target group of students as high achievers and leaders, providing challenging intellectual enrichment experiences. The program has had great success.


But we don’t need to think only about big programs and initiatives. The article also calls attention to the research of David Yeager. From the abstract of his article on interventions, we learn that “Seemingly ‘small’ social-psychological interventions in education—that is, brief exercises that target students' thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in and about school—can lead to large gains in student achievement and sharply reduce achievement gaps even months and years later.”


I don’t think there is a better place for such interventions—where students begin to affirm their identities as successful college students—than introductory composition. We have the interpersonal closeness, the small class setting, and the focus on writing that make our classrooms a natural fit for such brief interventions. Peer interaction and class discussion can bring out the shared feelings—the fears, uncertainties, and doubts—that affect many college students, allowing them to see that what they feel is widely shared. Yeager’s work is exciting in part because he demonstrates that very brief exercises of 25 minutes or so can have lasting effects on performance.


What might some brief writings or activities focus on? I’d suggest such topics as these:

  • Can you improve your thinking? Can you become smarter? How?
  • Talk to a successful junior or senior. What have they done to be successful at college?
  • Suppose you get a bad grade on a writing assignment. What’s your next step?
  • Write an email to a friend who is still in high school. Based on what you’ve learned since coming to college, offer your friend advice on how to be successful.
  • What are some common stereotypes that might affect how you or your classmates perform in college?
  • Are you smart? Write about a situation where you behaved in a really intelligent way.


I would not make these huge assignments, just brief writings. Depending on the class climate, students might post in the class forum or exchange writings in small groups. Yeager’s findings suggest it is simply the process of engaging in these types of thinking that leads to changes in behavior, so it is not necessary to spend a lot of time drawing out all the complications.


Some of these writings might lead to more extended pieces, perhaps drawing on primary or secondary research. If real interest surfaces, for instance, on getting smarter through brain training, there are plenty of recent articles out there in brain science that show just how malleable an organ it is. But that is not essential. What’s essential is helping students develop the self-confidence and sense of identity that lead to success in college.

Steve Bernhardt

Start with a Plan

Posted by Steve Bernhardt Expert Apr 19, 2016

Good writing begins with good planning. I like to formalize planning with a required document—a project plan. You might do something similar.


For a researched argument, I’ll have individual students complete a worksheet I call “Nutshell Your Argument.” In this one-page document, students identify the topic, the thesis, the audience, the main lines of argument, the counterarguments, and the sources of evidence. The assignment helps students get a fix on just what they are going to accomplish. They must consider the difference between topic (or subject) vs. thesis (or argumentative stance or purpose). They develop ways of thinking and talking about “lines of argument”—what that means and how to apply such thinking to their writing. They think about intended audience and the counterarguments an audience member might launch.


The nutshell provides me with an early check on assumptions about source requirements, allowing me to guide students toward academically respectable source material, and gives me a chance to intervene early in the assignment process. When we have time, each student briefs the class on his or her nutshell, offering a chance to clarify thinking through oral presentation and Q/A. I keep the presentation low stakes—everyone who does it gets credit.


With team assignments, I ask for something similar—a team project plan that presents the following:

  • Problem statement: what issues are being addressed or what problem is being solved
  • Significance or importance of project
  • Team information: contact information and team roles
  • Team rules or work expectations
  • Task breakdown
  • Schedule of work (typically as a chart or table) with project milestones
  • Anticipated hours to be spent on project (budget)
  • Cost (hours x hourly rates)


Writing a team plan accomplishes a number of goals. It forces teams to plan ahead and start to formulate individual commitments to team goals. It helps them think through how successful teams reach shared goals. It clarifies the anticipated outcomes and scopes the work to be accomplished. It ensures students know how to contact each other and helps them think about who will do what. It also underscores the adage “Time is money.” Students consider what the project is worth and what time they are willing to commit over the course of the project.


The team plan also works really well as a document design project. I ask students to use headings and to tag those headings, paragraphs or other elements in the style sheet. I encourage a visual presentation, with sections presented in tables or charts. I show students (in a mini-lesson) how to set up a document template, select or create styles, and format headers and footers. These are skills every writer needs. We post our plans to our discussion board so teams can see what other teams are up to and can “borrow” good ideas or design elements.


A formal plan can be updated for major projects in the form of a progress report. That allows teams to think through the difference between a prospective plan and a progress report, considering what to reuse and what new information should be added. The repurposed document can later be used as the backbone of the final report or an oral presentation. The final document can also chart the hours spent on the project and compare cost estimates to actuals.


We often think of planning and invention as synonymous. But a conceptual move from planning as gathering ideas to planning as project management will equip students with a valuable toolset and encourage them to see writing as a way to manage various activities, either individually or as a team member.


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Last spring, I posted a Bits blog on peer groups in the writing classroom (Peer Groups in the Technology-Enabled Writing Classroom) . I’d like to extend that post here, with a focus on collaborative writing.


My guess is that most writing teachers use peer review as a primary instructional strategy. I imagine many fewer teachers use collaborative writing or team-based assignments. I see the strategies as related, particularly in first-year composition. Though I have always taught first-year writing, my research and professional interests, from dissertation onward, have focused on scientific, technical, and medical communication. In all such contexts, documents tend to have multiple authors. These authors must plan, draft, and revise documents as a collaborative process. My work in various industries (computer, health, pharmaceutical, government) has convinced me that ability to write in teams is a critical workplace skill. And having to perform as a group member is increasingly typical of many college classes.


When I teach first-year writing, I import instructional strategies that have proven productive over the years in my tech or business writing classes. So while I begin the term with an individual writing assignment, with peer review, I then move to a second assignment, where pairs of students work together to produce a single text. Writing with a partner brings process issues into open discussion:

  • What are we trying to do?
  • What do we know or need to learn?
  • How do you want to manage this assignment?
  • What’s our timetable?
  • Should we meet and work together or pass the draft text back and forth?
  • Can we simply divide the text into parts, compose individually, and then fit them together? (Probably not, at least not without sufficient planning.)


A third assignment places students in teams of four, by combining two pairs. I am lucky to teach in spaces that support teamwork with tables and shared monitors (seeClassroom Design and The Writing on the Wall ). By this point, I’ve seen individuals and pairs perform, so when I match pairs, I can try to spread talent and motivation evenly across the teams. Students have the advantage of knowing another’s habits and talents, while the challenge of collaboration is ratcheted up.


Working with three other people is much more difficult than working with one other person. I ask for a written team plan, based on a clear task description, indicating roles and responsibilities, providing a schedule, and allocating hours among team members. Explicit planning helps me know what is going on in the teams, and it helps teams coalesce around shared goals. Teams allocate time for research, drafting, reviewing, and revising, with the goal of bringing an explicit process to their collaborative efforts.


Throughout this work, I stress commitment to team members. Students must notify their teams if they are going to have to miss a class. Students are coached to discuss team issues and individual performance on a regular basis. With five or six teams in the room, I can easily visit each team each period, so I know how things are going. Team members formally evaluate each other on performance, in writing and orally, at project midpoint and in a debriefing at the project closeout, where we reflect on how the teams have performed. Teams know they will share one grade.


In the final third of the course, individuals pursue independently researched projects related to their majors. They stay on their teams, so they have a forum for discussing their projects, and so they have trusted peers to review their work. The pacing of the course, from individual to pairs to four-person teams, and then back to individual performance gives a nice rhythm to the course, and it allows grades to be assigned as a combination of individual and collaborative performance.


If you are someone who values peer review, I would challenge you to extend your practice to collaborative writing. If you already use collaborative assignments and writing teams, I’d welcome your comments.

I will be visiting the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in early February to work with their writing programs. The campus is an enthusiastic adopter of Writer’s Help, currently using Version 2.0. The campus is working to realize a vision we have held for Writer’s Help since our initial discussions: Wouldn’t it be great to have one writing text that could accompany a student all the way from first-year composition through college and graduation and into the workplace? Since 2003, we’ve been developing Writer’s Help with that goal in mind.

Digital_WH.jpgAs author, something I have worked hard to do is to make the advice, models, examples, and exercises reflect the many kinds of writing found not just in first-year comp, but in all classes and in workplaces beyond college. The original author of Bedford/St. Martin’s Writer’s Reference, Diana Hacker, was great at understanding how to offer advice and examples to students in a first-year writing context, where academic essays and library research papers were the dominant genres. We worked from her strong base to address more broadly the many genres of contemporary writing in both printed and electronic modes.


When I visit La Crosse, I should have a chance to meet with instructors from various disciplines, so I am looking forward to hearing about their experiences. Do we have the right coverage and depth? Are they able to integrate the resource with their teaching goals? Is it enough to say “Use Writer’s Help when you need it” or are there more intentional strategies?


If called upon to offer advice, here is a first pass at what I would say:

  • As you create your writing assignments, look at the sections of Writer’s Help that show students how to read and interpret writing assignments. Make sure you clearly establish a purpose and audience for writing, and that you set expectations and constraints for writing in a particular genre. Make your assumptions explicit.
  • See if there are good model papers in your chosen genre. If you are asking for an annotated bibliography, or literature review, or field report, be sure to explore the models in Writer’s Help and point students in that direction.
  • Call attention to those aspects of writing you care most about (i.e., strong argumentative thesis, supporting data, inclusion of charts and graphs, documentation according to APA style). Include suggested links in your assignment.
  • Consider how to stage an assignment effectively, by requiring some in-class time for discussing topics, doing some brainstorming, and organizing ideas. Consider intervening at various stages while the papers are in development, perhaps in conference. Set aside time in class for peer review of drafts. Have a proofing and editing session for final drafts. Spend less of your time responding to final papers and more while work is in progress. Make the work more social and collaborative. Writer’s Help has good advice on all these activities.
  • Use your class management system to post drafts, gather peer or instructor feedback, and expose students to the work of others. Doing so will raise the bar for performance.


In short, think about how best to use an available resource to support your teaching strategies and learning goals. Make Writer’s Help a valued resource for being successful in your class.


Do you have tips, strategies, or assignments for using Writer’s Help in your class? Please comment below!*


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When I was first trained to teach first-year, introductory composition at the University of Michigan in the late 70s, one of the encouraged class activities asked the instructor to work at the board and lead the class in a discussion contrasting Spoken Language with Written Language. It was always a productive conversation with the class, since students could come up with important differences in sentence and discourse structure, vocabulary and usage. They could raise issues of register, formality, permanence, intimacy and immediacy, considering how language could fit a particular situation, a notion at the heart of rhetorical analysis. We would urge students to be conscious of the differences between speaking and writing, and to move toward the more formal control characteristic of academic writing and Standard English.


In the years since, the emerging hybrid genres of electronic communication blur what once seemed fairly comfortable distinctions cast in the useful polarity of speaking vs. writing. Is email more like speaking or writing? What about messaging or Twitter? They have a certain permanence, but what about Snapchat? What about recorded conversations or online meetings or podcasts? What about video?


Differences among hybrid media genres are of pressing concern. Hillary Clinton cannot shake the accusations of mismanaging her email communications, but she can be forced to surrender all the email that was not effectively deleted. Email is a written record and therefore discoverable. Would instant messaging, or Skyping, or Snapchatting have the same qualities? Face-to-conversations still provide some measure of confidentiality, but what about phone conversations? Could she have managed her communication, keeping private or confidential or top secret communications all contained within appropriate media? What are the differences among media, the affordabilities and the risks, and how do we choose what to use? From the current vantage point, it is ironic that Nixon got into trouble by choosing to tape oral conversations, while Clinton gets into trouble by trying to hide written conversations.


Over the years, I have urged students in business communication classes to choose carefully when to write and when to speak, what to put in an email and what to convey F2F. But we now see an explosion of video coverage and reportage of supposedly spoken messages. Police are caught by lapel cameras and recorders; domestic abusers and homophobes are captured on phone cameras. Everyone is viewed by security cameras, so you can’t even rob a bank anymore without your face being shown on the news. As I write, we have a wave of resignations at the University of Missouri for things people said that were captured and repeated:  a command to bring in some “muscle” to remove video reporters from a campus demonstration site and an email to class about standing up to hatred resulted in the resignations of two professors. The president and chancellor both resigned, more for what they did not say (and do) about campus climate than for what they did say. So even being silent or too quiet can bring down top administrators.


We can’t put two columns on the board anymore, contrasting speech and writing. But we can raise awareness of what happens in a media-saturated environment, where it seems that very few communication events are not recorded in some form, and where intended audiences are often not identical with broad, unintended audiences and consequences. As we continue to move toward teaching diverse, hybrid, multimodal genres, we can engage students with thinking about when to communicate, using what technologies, always anticipating how messages will often escape our control. That is still what rhetoric is about.


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We sometimes display an encouraging if not particularly forceful approach to handbooks. We might require one, or recommend one, or recommend any of several, either at our individual course level or as a writing program policy. We tell students that “It’s there if you need it.” We might reinforce the “as you need it” model with our marginal comments on student papers, sometimes encouraging students to “Look it up in your handbook.” We then go about teaching our courses, with little structured use of the handbook either in classroom or out. Some students figure out it’s not really all that important, and what they need to know is on the Web anyway. Others buy it and wonder why, selling it back if they can at the end of the term and taking a loss.


I saw a very different approach when I visited the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign a few weeks ago and met with directors of the international writing program, a large program that delivers courses for an increasingly important population, international students, for whom English is a second language. Directors Jin Kim and Cassandra Rosado are faculty in the linguistics department. Linguistics divides teaching responsibilities with the English Department, which offers writing courses to native speakers. These program directors take the handbook seriously. As the author, I am thrilled they have chosen to use Writer’s Help, Version 1.0 and now, this fall, Version 2.0. But I am also impressed with their very methodical and intentional uses of a required handbook.


What’s different? They require students to buy the text, meaning, in this case, access to the online site, good for four years. They train their instructors in their pre-term workshops to use the chosen books effectively (and show them how easy it is to determine if students have purchased access). They’ve created an in-house Web site to support the use of Writer’s Help, with technical documentation and useful information about how to use the resource. They provide model assignments to their instructors and TAs, showing how to weave the handbook content into the syllabus and into specific assignments. They require several common assignments over the first few weeks that take students into the handbook, help them learn to search productively, and demonstrate the value of the resource.


Cassandra and Jin also take advantage of Bedford’s technical and instructional support staff to get the most out of the required text, customizing it for their specific program and their own students. They show instructors how the work of one semester and the creation of a syllabus and assignments can be carried over to the next term, and how they can use a source file for a course to build multiple sections. They have figured out ways as program administrators to create a standard syllabus, which can then be inherited by all the sections and customized at the section level by individual instructors. They seek analytics from Bedford, so they know what students are searching on, what is being emphasized in courses, and how to continue to create rich interaction among instructors, students, and the text. I used the terms methodical and intentional above. I think that captures their approach.


If we require students to pay for books and instructional resources, to my mind we have an obligation to show students the value of the resources. Toward that end, we should be methodical and intentional in our uses of course resources.


Bedford provides strong support for instructors who want to create the best value for students from Bedford products. You will find links throughout the Macmillan English Community to instructor resources.


My Bits coauthors and I always try to share best practices. Sure, we authors all love to sell books, but even more, we love to see our books used to good advantage. Check out these links if you want to keep thinking about “using the book.”


From me:

From Nancy Sommers:

From Andrea Lunsford:

I suspect we all use peer review in some form or other. If we can help students become effective peer reviewers, then we give them a skill that helps them improve their writing without a teacherly intervention. Peer review makes writing public, so students see what others are doing and learn indirectly. We also help students become valuable workplace writers, because they know how to interact with others to improve writing within an organization.


My typical pattern in my introcomp class is to have students arrive to class with a completed draft, ready for peer review. We work from stated criteria on a given assignment, so students get in the habit of asking whether a document fulfills requirements and meets the purposes of the assignment. Comments, of course, range widely and do not stick strictly to the criteria on the rubric, but that is OK. We will often work in pairs.


I have a morning class this term, and I generally set a deadline for 11:30 pm that evening to turn in revisions. What I like about the system—and what students like, too—is that peer review makes a difference, immediately. Students might get some really helpful feedback and want to act upon it. Students might decide after seeing a couple of papers from others that they need to make some major changes. Or they might realize they fulfilled part of the assignment, but forgot to attend to some criterion. Or they might realize they have pretty good work in hand and just need do some final editing before submitting. Because the assignment is due the same day, students get immediate help, and the peer comments are fresh when they revise later that day. I get better work, and I get more work out of the students.


There are different ways to do peer review, and using available technology opens up more opportunity to play with the structure in a way that benefits students most. In my class, everyone brings a laptop (and we have a few Surface tablets for those without), and sometimes I have students pull up their texts in Word, turn on Track Changes, and then we play musical chairs. Students work at the author’s laptop, inserting comments and suggesting changes. They learn to use some very useful editing tools, and each student can quickly review two or three papers, so everyone gets feedback from more than one reader. Students like this approach because they feel freer in this setting, where they are not face-to-face with the author, to offer criticism, to suggest meaningful revisions, and to ask real questions about the text and its effectiveness.


But I also like to mix up my approach to peer review. My students sit at tables where they have a large shared screen. Anyone can connect by cable or wirelessly, and students can put their work up in front of other students. So sometimes we will put up a paper, especially an early draft, in front of the whole team (4-6 students per team). They can talk as a group about the writer’s approach, the strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps review two papers in class with the group agreeing to offer individual peer reviews to others outside of class. I let the teams manage the logistics.


My team tables are permanent through the course term, so students really get to know one another and establish good working patterns. But sometimes we work across teams. I’ll have everyone post their work to Sakai, our class management system, in the Forum (or Discussion) area, as an attachment. Students can then download the attachment, comment on the text either in the text itself or in the dialog box in Sakai, and review anyone’s text. I ask everyone to give at least two reviews and get at least two. Some do more. Many, I suspect, read quite a few of their classmates’ texts, learning to see what is strong or weak, what is novel or predictable, in the work of others. A collateral benefit of this approach is that students learn to be careful when downloading, renaming, and saving files so they can work on them. They use those handy Word tools to track changes and comments, and then upload their annotated files to the Forum. Students get to see what other reviewers do, and we can have a follow-up discussion about whose review comments were most helpful and why. A very natural modeling process for peer reviews leads to stronger future reviews.

This blog was originally posted on March 3rd, 2015.


We had a faculty development workshop at UD over three days in early February, where we welcomed keynote speaker Ann Hill Duin from the University of Minnesota. Ann is in technical and professional communication and has held various administrative positions at UM, especially focused on teaching and learning with technologies. Ann’s talk was about how central connections, connectivity, and connectionist theory relate to learning.


An activity she suggested is likely to have high value in one or more of the classes you teach. She suggested having students draw a personal learning network (PLN), a diagram of where a person’s learning connects to resources, groups, situations, individuals, experiences. She helpful suggested two tools: and Both are free and simple apps that support drawing networks—nodes and connectors.


My colleague, biochemist Hal White, and I started drawing Hal’s PLN—connections to research labs and fellow scientists, to people at the National Science Foundation, to journals and books, to editorial and review roles he plays, to online communities to which he belongs, to conferences and symposia. The act of drawing triggered engaging conversation about where and when and from whom we learn. We started talking about Hal’s students and what their PLNs might look like.


Hal’s Personal Learning Network


Hal has always been a big mind-mapper, having students draw connected understandings of some specific biochemical phenomena, some cellular or molecular process, or some complex system, like blood chemistry. He uses mind maps to figure out what his students know, where their concepts are faulty, and what he should be teaching. He also uses mind maps as semester exams because he can see what students understand.


I used a similar approach in a “rhetoric of the professions” course, having students create a knowledge network on the first day of class. I collected their work, put it away until the end of term, and then had them re-do their network diagram to show what they had learned about rhetoric and what they understood to be the important connections and relationships. It was a fine way to see (some portion) of what students had learned. It also helps students reflect upon and consolidate what they know into an organized space.


My thinking here is influenced by a recent Bits posts by Traci Gardner’s on digital identity mapping. Read her post—it’s all about having students map themselves, with a focus on how they live digital, connected lives. Traci’s approach provides a nice alternative to literacy narratives, a genre covered in Writer’s Help.


It’s not hard to think about how a class or sequence of classes ought to extend a student’s PLN, or their digital identities, or their understanding of blood chemistry. In all cases, students ought to be better learners, better researchers, with more connected and complex networks for learning what they need to know. They ought also to be more self-aware of what they do when they need to learn something. That’s one outcome worth measuring.

Steve Bernhardt

Look it up!

Posted by Steve Bernhardt Expert Apr 7, 2015


This blog was originally posted on January 27th, 2015.


Working on some medical texts last week, I was continually impressed with the ease of looking up unfamiliar words. Pretty much without fail, if I right-clicked on a medical term, Adobe Acrobat would drop a box with the last choice being Look up “xxx”:

From that choice, I could click through to a screen like this one:

Pretty handy! Two clicks from term to definition and pronunciation. The entry continues with alternate forms, etymology, a British dictionary entry (Collins), and a medical dictionary entry (American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary).

Maybe a Latinate compound like immunogenic is too simple, since a reader can practically figure it out from the two root words. However, as I kept using the Look Up feature, it was rarely stumped. Here are the main entries, for dacarbazine and lysine:

Wow, an Unabridged Random House Dictionary entry on decarbazine, complete with a clear pronunciation and the chemical formula. And a Random House Dictionary entry on lysine., according to information on their Web site, is part of a Nasdaq-listed company (IACI), located in Oakland, CA. Their site is literate, sprinkled with interesting quotes about words, and it portrays the work environment of a lively Bay Area culture, with their mission being to “to delight and inspire anyone using the English language by being the most innovative and comprehensive digital source for everything related to words. We provide resources that help people accurately define, pronounce, and apply words in the moment.” They manage to do so supported by fairly non-intrusive on-screen ads.


That provides these resources for free with such easy access “in the moment” makes a superb resource for writers who wish to help themselves. The threshold is now so low for looking up words in the dictionary that individual inertia is no longer a concern.

Similar look-up functions exist with a right-click in Microsoft Word, though not quite as slick as those in Acrobat:

The MS Word allows a Bing search on the term, along with access to several Microsoft proprietary tools, like Encarta. But what you don’t get is immediate access to two of the English language’s best dictionaries,Random House and American Heritage. Too bad, because this is where “in the moment” help is really helpful.


As we work with students to help them become independent learners, the tools under right-click are worth exploring.