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Shifting the Focus to Critical Thinking: Formative Feedback on Student Writing

Phyllis Misite (Capella University, Virgin Islands, U.S.)
Additional Authors
Rosemarie Pelletier (Capella University, USA)
Joe Lane (Capella University, USA)
Session Information
October 14, 2015 - 3:45pm
Faculty and Professional Development & Support
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Institutional Level: 
Universities and Four Year Institutions
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Asia 5
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 4
Virtual Session

Capella University faculty volunteer to pilot Bean's (2011) approach to student feedback emphasizing critical thinking to improve success.

Extended Abstract


What if there was a way to help students become more focused and prolific with their thinking and ideas while helping faculty become both more engaged and productive by providing formative feedback? What if there was a way to provide excitement and motivation for faculty and students as they work together to stimulate active thinking and learning? The Community of Excellence (CoE) at Capella University, does exactly that.

The Community of Excellence Overview

The CoE was created at Capella University to help motivated students improve their writing through critical thinking-focused faculty feedback. The "Bean approach"(Bean 2011) is used by faculty when commenting on student writing in their online courses. Participating faculty attend peer-led sessions to share best practices and form a supportive community of practice. In addition, the CoE provides an online community space where academic coaches host motivational sessions based on the "Growth Mindset" model developed by Dr. Carol Dweck (2007) designed to help students overcome personal and academic challenges to success. Writing coaches host regular writing workshops and "drop-in" hours for personalized writing support. Students can access the CoE website to participate in workshops, network with their peers in discussion threads, ask questions, and acquire recordings of the writing studios and writing resources.


Action research is the basis for this faculty development initiative. The use of action research in this program creates a cycle of implementation and critical reflection. "[Action research] gives educators new opportunities to reflect on and assess their teaching; to explore and test new ideas, methods, and materials; to assess how effective the new approaches were; to share feedback with fellow team membersÉ" (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, n.d, ¦1). The faculty of the CoE meet biweekly to discuss the Bean theory and to share examples of their feedback to students with peers.

The Bean Theory

While the focus of this approach is on content and critical thinking provided by instructors through assessment feedback, it accomplishes other objectives. Students are provided with motivational tools such as the Growth Mindset model (Dweck 2007), along with writing resources that can assist them with their scholarly voice, APA, mechanics, etc. Faculty are trained to provide specific positive feedback along with gentle critique of areas needing improvement. Cryptic comments and line-by-line editing is discouraged since the former may confuse and hurt student morale; and the latter does not improve writing. Feedback, therefore, is specific, positive, and constructive on subject matter and critical thinking delivered by content experts (faculty) along with resources to provide students with writing mechanics and motivational support.


The CoE is a volunteer pilot program that is in its fourth quarter. After two quarters, it morphed into a Writing Across the Curriculum initiative. The University administration fully supports this proposal and is providing resources for scaling. The program has grown exponentially as motivated learners are continuously asked to join the Community and faculty are recruiting their peers to join. After faculty accept their nominations, they participate in an initial training (60-90 minutes). This is followed by biweekly sharing and feedback sessions.


Faculty who participated in this project expressed that they believe students are more successful using this practice of commenting on content before format or grammar. Faculty also stated that they obtained a personal sense of accomplishment when students were successful. Some started to look forward to grading papers because of this change in focus and priority, allowing faculty to use their expertise in subject matter as opposed to "only" grading on grammar and formatting. Participating faculty felt this change in focus the best use of their time.

The popularity of what is affectionately called creating "Bean Sprouts," is increasing exponentially. While quantitative data is a priority and analysis efforts are underway, qualitative data in the form of anecdotal feedback from faculty and students is available. This feedback is positive and indicates motivation and positive growth on both the parts of students and faculty.

Changing the way faculty approach grading written assignments provides permission to allow content to override format and gives faculty sanction to teach the content the subject matter in which they have expertise. Further, practitioners of this approach have seen good signals that the growth students achieve in their courses will be portable to subsequent courses and allow students to progress farther and faster from elevated critical thinking skills.

Current Initiatives

Initiatives include a faculty development session where principles of the "Bean approach" is introduced for commenting on student papers. Also presented is the concept of a learning community to support students in their quest to learn from each other and their desire to use mistakes as a growth opportunity. The President of the University has created a video welcome to participating students and the executive group for this project is developing a public recognition plan for faculty who have demonstrated high skill. Faculty who provide examples of their formative feedback will be recognized as active participants in the CoE. The latest initiative is to design courses to incorporate more opportunities to make use of Bean-style instructor feedback in subsequent assignments.

Benefits of Attending this Session

Those who attend this session will be introduced to the "Bean approach;" its desired outcomes; instructor and coach roles; examples of "Bean-type" comments; and faculty and learner results.

North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. (n.d). Retrieved from http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/envrnmnt/drugfree/sa3act.htm

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books. ISBN: 978-0345472328

Bean, John C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. ISBN: 978-0-470-53290-4

Lead Presenter

Dr. Phyllis Misite’s professional background includes over 30 year of teaching in the design field and holding various administrative positions in higher education. She is currently an Interim Chair of Higher Education Programs at Capella University. She also designs courses, and serves on various committees. Dr. Misite received her Ph.D. from Boston College in Curriculum, Instruction and Administration with a concentration in Higher Education Administration. Her current areas of interest include online course development, intercultural education, and faculty development.