Graduate Students Design Software That Takes Writing Prompts To The Student

It started with Associate Professor Bill Hart-Davidson’s Interaction Design Class when he asked his students to “change the world for the better in some way.” Group members Howard Fooksman, Laura Gonzales, and Rebecca Zantjer took this challenge to a whole new level when they began designing a web app that takes writing prompts to the student.

“We designed the thing that we want,” said Zantjer. “We are—all three of us—writing instructors so we both teach writing and are graduate students. We are both teachers and students. We have all felt that there have been moments when we have been given assignment sheets and we thought we did a really awesome job on them, but to come to find out that we did not do as well as we thought. We have also given assignments and have had students hand back papers where we were like ‘How in the world did they get this?’”

I can’t tell you how many times I have been given an assignment, and thought I was doing well no less, and get incredibly frustrated because I can’t figure out what it is telling me to do. Sometimes I am able to ask about the prompt in class, to my peer’s relief, but most of the time I misunderstand a keyword “situate” or “synthesize” and get marked down.

It is this phenomenon that the group looked into in the below video where they went outside of Wells Hall and asked students to define terms that the team pulled from writing prompts used in class.

Fooksman, Gonzales, and Zantjer designed this software to facilitate the conversation that was already happening around writing prompts. These are what Gonzales called “translation moments”. The team’s software is meant to focus on and facilitate such moments. “Translation is an everyday practice that everyone engages in. It’s not just something that people who speak more than one language engage in, but something that everyone does during class interactions,” she explained.

“What we are looking to do is create a space where the conversation that already happens around writing prompts can be facilitated and archived. Basically what we are looking to do is to create another space. Good pedagogy, good teaching requires this conversation. When a writing prompt is issued, there a conversation that goes with it. It’s not just ‘here’s the prompt go do the assignment’ it’s ‘here’s the prompt and here’s what I want out of this” and a lot of times there are these disconnects. Well what happens when the student is not there? What if they are nervous to ask questions? What if they are lost or they are late or they are just tired and they are not engaging in that conversation. As a teacher you get this email a month later when the rough draft is due that goes, ‘So, wait. What did you want me to do?’ And that’s an awful conversation to have on the student’s part because they have to admit that they are lost. For an instructor, ‘we’ve spent three weeks working on something and you’re still trying to figure it out’.  We are trying to create a space where this can happen in a visual collaborative way. Think of it as Rap Genius for writing prompts” explained Fooksman.

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Software Wireframe
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Software Wireframe

 In this space, a writing prompt can be issued to students. Then students are given time to interact with it in a collaborative way. They can leave comments and they can flag what is giving them problems. For example, you can flag terms you don’t understand. Students can redefine terms or put in their own words what they think they are being asked. They can endorse each other’s definitions. This both identities student leaders but also those students that their peers can go to for help in explaining things. They want to add a self-nomination help button for those students who are lost but too scared to raise their hands to ask questions. It encourages students to take chances on terms. This way they can set up a one-on-one with the instructor. It can also help.

Like Zantjer said, “It is no longer asking them to come to our space we are now going to theirs.”

On top of having sections asking students to “define” and “in your words terms”, there should also be a section asking students questions like “where have you heard this before?” This section would help both instructors to understand the backgrounds of their students, to see where they are coming from in relation to terms. Some students may come from a more scientific background so they will define certain terms like “synthesis” much differently than a person with a mathematical or artistic background. This can help instructors to better understand their class and adjust their prompts accordingly.

 The great part about this conversation is that it is all saved in a space where both students and teachers alike can use it to clarify things and make better prompts and other assignments in the future.

“We are not asking people to change the way they teach. We are trying to give a tool to instructors to reinforce something they are already doing. These conversations are already happening. We are just trying to have a tool that will make it easier to have these conversations and make these conversations more useful, save time, save energy, help student responses. We are not asking people to change their teaching style; we are just giving them a tool that will make what is already happening better,” said Fooksman.

The team’s program is still in its early stages. They have a prototype and are working with Mike McCloud from Eli Review. They are hoping to try out the prototype in classrooms soon and get more feedback.

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Login Screen Wireframe

If you would like to take part in their project, you can join one of their focus groups by emailing Gonzales ( or Zantjer ( Students and faculty are more than welcome.

Poetry in the Digital Age

What is the state of poetry today? Poems used to be a hugely popular form of communication and art. However, nowadays I only see poetry in the classroom or if I really look for it online. With all of the new technologies allowing people to self publish, I thought that poetry might make a bit of a comeback.

“…despite a seemingly inevitable move towards the digital, the unknown landscape is still very much a place where poets can learn to live and thrive.”

According to the Thought Catalog’s writer Emma Cox, poetry is making a comeback. It is just doing it slowly.

Revisions Tips

Revisions: we all have to do them. Nothing is ever perfect the first time around, and our first drafts are typically in need of some tidying up. It’s in those initial drafts that our ideas as are just started to come together and review is necessary for complete development.

An article from The Write Life called “25 Editing Tips for Tightening Your Copy” lays out some awesome editing methods to ensure a cleaner, more streamlined second draft that will eventually lead you to a solid final edition. Definitely check it out before the next time you find yourself revising your work.




PW Student Spotlight: Katlyn Lindstrom

“So what PW things have you been dabbling in during your time at MSU?”

“I’ve done a lot. Actually, I wish I would have brought my resume with me so I don’t forget something.”

Like many of our fabulous P-dubs here at MSU, English and Professional Writing junior Katlyn Lindstrom is making the most of her time here at MSU both in and outside of the classroom.

“MSU for me has to do with giving students a wide variety of opportunities and a place where they can call home,” said Lindstrom.

10980714_10205755044580298_7875296784013244270_nSuch opportunities for Lindstrom currently include being the student liaison for the MSU College of Arts and Letters’ Peer Mentor and Student Ambassador programs, a member of the English recruitment taskforce, multimedia chair for Circle K, guest writer for ing Magazine, website redesign for MSU Young Authors’ Conference, editorial team member for the Red Cedar Review, and Communication Strategist for the MSU College Assistant Migrant Program (CAMP) through her WRA 202 class.

Because of Lindstrom’s extensive knowledge of the admission process and her passion for MSU and getting students excited about the opportunities available to them, she was hired to work with Quinn Moreno and Sarah Whitaker to research, design, and implement the College of Arts and Letter’s peer-mentor program and strengthening the student ambassador program.

Lindstrom explained, “I designed the application, I
10671440_10152601906537928_4300275128200512818_ndesigned the Peer Mentor contract and I have been helping with the recruitment process. I authored the content on the website for the College of Arts and Letters under ‘Advising’. Anytime you see any information about the program, I most likely wrote it…I will also be supervising the program next year and helping strengthen
the Student Ambassador program by taking what is already there and figuring out how to make it better to have student engaging with prospective students more…I will eventually be designing the handbook so I have been researching MSU brand standards…It is giving me really strong experience with finding where to go to find information and make that information accessible to people like how to tailor to a certain audience and how to collaborate with other people…It’s fun to be on the ground floor of something like that and its fun to be creating something to help make first year experiences better for College of Arts and Letters students.”

The two most professionally impacting experiences Lindstrom has had so far have involved exploring coding in both her WRA 210 course and while redesigning the Young Authors’ Conference website.

“It really gave me a lot of confidence in my abilities to make my own website and take ownership of myself and start branding myself online,” said Lindstrom about her WRA 210 course with Assistant Professor Casey McArdle, who referred her to the Young Authors’ Conference. “That was a moment of pride that he had enough faith in me to refer me even though I only had a semester’s worth of experience. [The Young Authors’ Conference] was my first experience with paid website design consulting which was really fun. I really enjoyed it and I can’t wait to do more.”

Lindstrom’s passion for website and document design is equaled by her love for writing.

“I have always wanted to be a writer,” said Lindstrom. “In February, I wrote a guest article for ing Magazine and I didn’t even think it would get published. I remember when the issue finally came out, I picked up a copy thinking I didn’t make it in but when I opened it up and it was right there on page six I freaked out and called my mom because that was the first time I had ever been published. There is really no experience like seeing your name in print. It was one of the most exciting things. At that moment I was like ‘if there was any doubt that I am a writer, this moment would remind me that yes, yes I am’ because there is no feeling as good than seeing something that I wrote there for other people to read.”

Despite everything she already has on her plate, Lindstrom still made time to study away in LA this Spring Break. During which time she was shown the ins and outs of the entertainment industry through numerous networking events (including one at DreamWorks), studio visits (including trips to mOcean and MPC), and independent explorations of the city (including a “magical trip” to Disney and Universal Studios).

Read more of Lindstrom’s inspiring story and witness her endless passion and dedication to Professional Writing and English first hand by following her blog.