Opening the Locked Box,

or How I Came to Love Metacognition

What goes on as my students learn? Each often seems to me a kind of locked box into which classroom experience goes, and out of which behaviors of one kind or another emerge. But how? What happens in the cognitive space where a teacher’s efforts to explain meet a learner’s efforts to comprehend? For most of us, that is a mystery, and it remains so even when we ask students themselves try to explain what’s going on. Few students, after all, are ever much encouraged to reflect on what they are learning or how, and many would resist telling us in any event, wanting, unsurprisingly, to seem as smart and as capable as possible on the fairly sensible principle that the smarter and more capable they look, the better we will think of them.

But mysteries invite solutions, and thus I’ve worked to include in my teaching a metacognitive dimension to help both teachers and students better understand not just what they are learning, but how they are learning it. For my experience is that students—as well as their teachers—rarely have very well-elaborated understandings either of how learning happens, or—just as important—of how it doesn’t happen. Moreover, I think this failure to understand much about the learning process generally leads to less effective—sometimes even altogether ineffective—teaching and learning.

Two Learning Models

To illustrate what I have come to do about these issues, I will describe in these pages the teaching and learning landscape of English 302, a recent class in which I introduced a substantial metacognitive component. But I first want to set the stage for that description by outlining two models of the learning process that loom large in my own efforts to understand better the learning dynamics of that class. The first of these is the fairly straightforward model most of my students brought to English 302, and can be called the Additive Model. From its point of view learning is essentially cumulative. Students begin a course at a particular level of knowledge, and they arrive on the first day of class both prepared to learn and expecting to do so. Teachers for their part respond by orchestrating a presentation of materials by any number of pedagogies, and through these classroom processes students gradually take in more and more knowledge as they complicate and enrich their mental stores. Piaget’s term for his version of this mode of learning is assimilative learning—a process whereby a learner’s mind develops its understandings of the world by assimilating new information to its already-in-place, ready-to-extend conceptual frameworks. This model imagines students changing—the more one knows about the chemical elements, for example, the better one is at analyzing unknown materials. But the sorts of change that occur are primarily extensions and enrichments of the basis one already has.

I imagine everyone recognizes this model, and I think much of the learning that happens everyday everywhere occurs in something like this way. Indeed, this model seems so “normal” that (in one way or another) it informs much of the day to day rhetoric of university classroom practice. And that’s important, since the ways we behave either as teachers or learners—and the way we expect others to behave as either teachers or learners—depend upon our assumptions about how learning happens, even when we have not explicitly formulated or even recognized that model. Thus in the additive model students are cast as willing participants, working in a kind of collaboration with their teachers, reading, listening or talking, reviewing what’s been made available, adding it all to what they already know. Though they are invited to ask questions about what the teacher tells them, the situation is ideally one of trust and openness, and it proceeds as if the teaching-learning transaction essentially depends upon establishing clarity of understanding. This is for the most part a friendly, rational, and non-combative interaction. It is also the imagined mode of most academic papers and lectures—the present one included.

A second learning model is what I would call the Revisionary Model, and it seems better able to describe much of what actually went on in English 302. This one is also additive, one hopes, but in a less straightforward way. Rather than filling out or extending an existing cognitive structure, revisionary teaching seeks to enlarge knowing by modifying that very structure—even at times by uprooting and replacing it altogether. Piaget had a name for his version of this one too: accommodative learning, a process in which a mind, facing information that simply will not fit into its current frame, must change in a significant way its conceptual frameworks. (Atherton, [2007] terms this "supplantive" learning) In this mode of learning, students find themselves having to develop new cognitive structures that can accommodate the new demands made upon them. Sometimes these structures are simply adjustments to earlier structures, at other times they are either significantly more capacious than those they modify, or even wholesale replacements of them.

When students arrive in college-level first-year composition, for example, many have an understanding of writing voice that is governed by small scale rules. Earlier teachers have often instructed them not to use the first person in academic prose, not to use contractions, not to use “to be” words, and to avoid the passive voice. But while there are certainly reasons one might teach students those rules early in their education, expert writers know that such rules are really only shortcuts, ways to finesse a young writer’s less fully developed ability to understand the rhetorical issues that writing raises. When the more sophisticated writing college level work demands more supple understandings of such issues, students may be asked to reconceptualize voice in a deeper and more rhetorically nuanced way. Instead of following rules, students are now asked to make judgments about audience, context and purpose, and, based on those judgments, make the most effective choice they can from among the range of voices English makes available to them. Sometimes this will mean avoiding “I” forms just like the rule they learned earlier told them, but at other times it won’t.

So far so good. But problems arise when we start imagining the actual learning dynamic that revisionary learning entails. The passive voice may not seem particularly threatening, yet even in this example, the Revisionary Model of learning has an agonistic dimension that differs in important ways from that implicit in the Additive Model. For this sort of learning often goes on in a context not of friendly and rational thinking and weighing of things, but of resistance, confusion, or even outright refusal to learn. This is because revisionary learning involves changes in the learner that do more than simply add new knowledge. In requiring a new conceptual structure, revisionary learning also asks students to abandon, or at least deeply modify, the structure they already hold. Thus it also requires both more mental work, and, even more important, more mental risk as well.

Several learning issues arise from this example, of which perhaps the first is that of “unlearning.” In the current case students will have learned a series of rules; if they are to move to a more complex rhetorical understanding of writing they will need to abandon, or, in effect, to unlearn, those rules. This is often more difficult than it may sound. Long ago Quintilian observed that “It is not easy to change understandings students already have, since no one likes the unlearning that precedes new learning.” (Institutio Oratoria, 3.6). One can imagine lots of reasons for this—beginning with the mental effort it takes to uproot ingrained habits and push them aside.

But that’s just one of the problems associated with revisionary learning. Two others loom large. First is resistance caused by affective connections to the knowledge we already have. We don’t always learn easily, and often the learning we acquire demands considerable investment of energy. We often end up, therefore, with a kind of emotional stake in many of the things we know, and giving them up means we need to give up that stake as well. Again, this stake isn’t always large, but in this particular case, as trivial as it seems, abandoning the old rule structure still turns out to be difficult for some students. Nor is this surprising. Students often find writing to be a particularly difficult and confusing terrain, and knowing how to write well thus may seem mysterious at best, impossible at worst. Although they have been trying to write well for years (my 302 students were in their 15th and 16th years of formal education), many students still struggle. Indeed, there may be no “basic skill” college students are more conflicted about than issues of writing (math is up there, too, of course). Thus anything a student has come to know that seems to have made effective writing easier can easily take on a special value.

And I think that’s the case with lots of student learning about writing. Whether it is rules about voice or whether it is the famous five-paragraph theme, for many students these simplified structures become foundational to their sense of what has enabled them to write successfully at all. Given the mystery and negative affect that surrounds the practice of writing for many students, unlearning anything that seems to have worked is rarely going to be easy.

My example here is from writing studies, but other fields have other unlearning problems—some of them classic. Sociology professors have explained to me the difficulty their students often have in giving up the traditional notion of family structure—it is just so deeply ingrained that anything other than a mom-dad-and-kids model seems abnormal, whether in terms of differing extended family models or of split or otherwise modified adult relationships. In biology, the learning of evolutionary theory also turns out to ask unlearning; there the notion of non-teleological change is difficult in part because of the way we human beings often (some would say “always”) teleologize (as it were) our entire experience of the world. To accept even the possibility that life on earth has evolved on the principles of natural selection runs athwart much of humanity’s deeply felt sense of not just How Things Came to Be, but also of How Things Are.

Given any of those stakes, it is not difficult to see why a student might resist the change a teacher asks. Indeed, resistance may well seem a matter of good sense. After all, without very good and clear reasons for doing so, why would any student forsake understandings that have enabled him or her not only to succeed with high school writing assignments but to do so well enough to be admitted to a prestigious university? Nor is it simply a pragmatic reluctance to give up something that has been successful. For while a teacher is ostensibly offering students no more than a new and more powerful way to understand something, she is also very often asking them to give that something up before they have anything clearly in mind to replace it. Typically, revisionary learning takes much time and practice to achieve, and until it is achieved, students are being asked to proceed based on nothing more than a professor’s assurance that doing so will be good for them in the long run.

Such examples illustrate one set of ways in which unlearning can require revisionary and not just assimilative learning. But there is also to the revisionary model of learning at least one other very important interpersonal dimension that has enormous implications for teaching and learning. For given the risks and fears of the unknown into which the unlearning of the known throws you, and given the impossibility of being able to see right away that the understandings you are supposed to be developing are in fact better than the ones you already have, students may wonder on what sort of authority they are supposed to be doing all this in the first place. Am I to abandon the five paragraph theme simply because Professor X says so? That may be reason enough for some students, but for others, when the learning asked seems nothing less than an assault on the hard won and successfully deployed conceptual structures of the status quo, the learning challenge may lead not to peaceful and productive learning but to some form of resistance, either passive (smoldering frustration, refusal to engage) or active (angry comments in class or in office hours, exiting the course altogether).

But if the revisionary learning process is problematic for learners, what about teachers? Suppose I ask students to make one or another sort of deep revisionary change—what are my obligations in doing so? First of all I may not even know I'm doing so. As experts, teachers are not always able to remember how challenging such teachings may be, and (here the locked-box-ness of teaching and learning looms large) their students may be too well behaved (another thing students have learned as a strategy of dealing with teaching they don't accept or understand) to let them know. Instead they will either buckle down and learn the new concept with the appropriate unlearning (the ideal case); or they will do their best to learn the new concept but not see how it actually fits or completes what they already know, and thus not really “learn” it at all; or they may see the conflict I’ve created for them and simply pretend to learn, or engage in a kind of temporary learning that won't survive the term break at the end of the class. Some students ask teachers “what do you want?” and while I think that a perfectly reasonable question, I think it also sometimes means: “each class I take seems to ask something different from me—just tell me what it is so I can give yours to you.”[See Fish's "Is There a Text in this Class" for an excellent example of this phenomenon.]

That sort of response is possible even when teachers themselves don’t recognize that what they are teaching requires revisionary learning. But what about those occasions on which as a teacher I do know in advance that students may resist mightily what I am going to teach? What do I do then? One thing is simply to press on anyway. We are experts in our fields, we know things very, very well, and we have years of experience to back up the knowledges we impart.

But there are ethical implications in such resistings of students’ resistance. This is not just a teaching issue but a power issue, and although to a teacher it may feel right to deploy whatever powers one has (of the grade, primarily, but also suasory in whatever other ways our authority gives us) because students cannot know enough to know what’s good for them, the need to push students through their resistance still raises questions of how, ethically, to do so. And what does one do when the revisioning one is asking from students is more problematic? When one is working, for example, with the sort of material about which absolute surety is impossible?

English 302

This brings me to English 302. This was a new course for me—indeed a new course for our English Department. As a result of installing a capstone course—and thus beginning to clear the opacity surrounding our understanding of what our students could actually do as graduating seniors—the department decided that students were not writing as well when they left our program as we would like. We thus decided to experiment with a majors-only upper division class on critical reading and critical writing—an intensive class small enough to allow close attention to a lot of student work. But we are a very large department, and installing a required course with so small a class size would require some major commitments on the faculty’s part, and we weren’t sure we wanted to make those commitments without knowing first how well the proposed change might work. So I volunteered to teach a demonstration section—documenting in some way what students did, and coming to some conclusion about whether this class might in fact do what we said we needed. In the course of teaching this course a number of issues like those I outline above arose for discussion, in large part I think because I made “learning” one of the leit-motifs of the quarter.

In deciding to emphasize learning issues my theory was that students don’t always think very clearly about learning outcomes. They are of course happy to feel they have learned things, but I was convinced that they (like those of us who are their teachers) are not always good judges of when that has actually happened. In this course I wanted them to be thinking more and better about themselves as learners—I wanted to give them tools with which to evaluate better what and when they were learning. And so we talked about many of the issues I’ve outlined above, particularly the issues of prior understandings, unlearning vs. learning, resistance, temporary learning, and the strategy of not-learning at all. I don’t know, finally, what difference that made when they left the class—being clear about that would require a kind of longitudinal study I have not been able to carry out. But all the talk we had about modes of learning and the ethical issues different learning issues raised certainly encouraged meta-discourse in this class. Let me recount two of the learning-related issues that arose for us, and for me, at least, proved transformative.

First: The Exactness Problem. I had subtitled the course “What do we do when we do English?” and I wanted these juniors and seniors to be thinking and writing about what it meant to be an English major. For the first of the four formal writing projects in the course I asked students to write a summary, or précis, of a chapter from Robert Scholes’ book, The Rise and Fall of English. This book very nicely opens that question, and though its argument is certainly much more accessible than much academic prose, I imagined it would still be hard enough that it would be challenging for the class to get a part of that argument straight. And sure enough, when the first drafts came in they shared a common problem: though they all started from the assigned chapter, few gave anything like an accurate account of Scholes’ argument. Indeed, this inexactness was so striking and so widespread that in handing the papers back it was my opening talking point.

But I was not ready for what happened next. For my point seemed so obvious to me that I was taken aback when one of my students raised his hand and asked why I had asked them to do this exercise in the first place. English majors, he went on, didn’t need to write accurate summaries of this kind—wasn’t this supposed to be a class for English majors? Yes, another chimed in, why are we doing this?

This response mystified me at first, and I put the rest of the hour on hold while we talked as a class about their reasons for thinking a précis irrelevant to an English major’s life. And indeed, after half an hour’s discussion it no longer seemed so hard to explain. As the class talked, in fact, it seemed to me that I found myself facing a very clear “prior understanding” problem. For the 14 junior and senior English majors in this class simply did not think accuracy in an English paper was a value. Indeed, many saw accuracy as downright counterproductive. They weren’t English majors in order to be accurate or even “right” about the books they read, they explained. That was for other, more scientific disciplines. Rather, they were in English precisely because English papers could be imaginative and (therefore) free from worry about right and wrong. As a student in a subsequent quarter put it: “Many people are under the assumption that in the study of English there are really no right or wrong answers, as long as you can backup what you say.”

Perhaps others will not agree that this is an unfortunate extrapolation from an understanding (which I myself hold) that literary interpretation is in important ways open-ended and indeterminate. But even if we leave the task of understanding another writer’s argument aside and focus solely on the admittedly less “corrigible” writing associated with interpretation, can we truly want students to think their arguments need have no relation to truth? To right or wrong? (Ironically, Scholes takes up precisely this question in the first chapters of his book, and laments the turn some English scholars have taken towards just this position.)

Where do thoughts like that come from? Others will have other theories, but as my class discussed this two emerged. First, they talked about how often English teachers tell students not to summarize plot. Teachers have reasons for saying that, of course, none of which actually are about summarizing’s being a bad thing to be able to do. For my part, I explained that I see paraphrase in an analytic paper as a preliminary skill, something to move beyond in order to engage in the conceptually more challenging processes of analysis and interpretation, and I ask students to avoid it not because it isn’t valuable, but because some will think that paraphrase is the same thing as critical argument. But as a result of efforts (like my own) to move them beyond paraphrase, several of my students had come to believe that getting the argument or story or language right in the first place is not that important. It is, my students told me, not accuracy but originality that should be an English paper’s main virtue.

Which fed into a related problem—that of the value of originality. Beginning very early in their writing lives students hear injunctions to be original, to think of something new and different to say, and as a result “originality” can become for many a primary criterion for all written work in English. The idea of being responsible to a text, by contrast, of having to be accurate in representing what one has read, seems at best secondary. So in this class we actually had some very good conversations about why I would ask them to summarize something in the first place, and how accuracy in an English paper could be a virtue at all. That discussion had what in my view was an apparently happy ending—we did as a class come to agreement that accuracy was a value, and that it didn’t contradict other values. One could in fact be original,* imaginative and accurate at the same time, and their rewrites of this paper were indeed much more exact. [*We also gave some time to the question of "originality" and what kind of a construct that concept actually was. That may have helped some of them begin to question the concept's popular status as a more or less unquestionable good.]

But what kind of teaching was this? Whatever I thought I was doing, I had begun the assignment with what were in fact Additive Model expectations. I thought we were just starting off the course with a fairly straightforward kind of writing task, and I certainly didn’t imagine that writing a précis would be seen as something quite different from writing an “English paper.” Only when my students resisted—and really only when they were both able to recognize their resistance and to give that resistance voice—did I realize I was already rather deeply engaged in revisionary teaching, with all the emotional and cognitive implications that such teaching can entail.

Second: The Long Haul Problem. This one did not surprise me, though the extent to which it became an explicit subject for discourse in this class did. And it’s a problem most writing teachers know well. Whether it’s exactness or organizational coherence, or strength of argument —any of the large, general goals that writing courses often set—none can be mastered just by hearing about it, or even by a single successful enacting. Progress towards any of these goals tends to be slow, and usually subject to regression. We had four major writing projects in the quarter, each with opportunities for pre-writing, drafting, and redrafting, but while all this seemed necessary to me in order to provide iterations enough for deep learning to emerge, it also provided multiple occasions for frustration. Progress was slow, grades improved more slowly than some wished, and, especially once I had encouraged students to be reflective about how, whether and why they were learning, students were not shy about challenging me about them. Here their objections began with the difficulty they were having in making clear progress, and one strong tendency was to convert their frustration with the speed of their learning into questions about the need for any of this training in the first place.

For after all (and this takes us deeper yet into the Revisionary Model dilemma), it wasn’t as if they knew nothing when they entered this writing-intensive class. As juniors and seniors, all of them had in fact been writing English papers for years, and with considerable success. Their writing had gotten them into the university to begin with, had gotten them through first-year composition and, for some, through anywhere from 4 to 8 university-level English classes. Implicitly, at least, they could imagine an extensive array of authorities validating the way they were already writing: who was I to be playing whistleblower? What warrant did I have for disturbing that universe?

Rhetorically, at least, this conversation had evolved into precisely the sort of learning situation I described above about which different minds have different views, where the goals towards which I direct my every effort are themselves at least implicitly (though here quite explicitly) in some form of dispute.

Now, I did have a warrant, and I didn’t shrink from brandishing it. The department had declared its joint belief that graduating seniors were not writing very well at all. And in fact the quality of the prose these particular students were writing, even measured solely in terms of coherence, elaboration of argument and mechanics, was not unproblematic. I was quite sure that my colleagues would not have read the papers very differently than I did. So instead of doubting my goals, I reminded myself that my classes often had this sort of pattern to them: an opening irenic stretch followed by a period of turmoil and challenge, succeeded finally (usually, anyway) by a sense of arrival and harmony. So I kept on re-articulating my reasons for using the criteria I had set, students kept rewriting, and by course end I really did think their work was better. They seemed to agree. Their evaluations of the course were strongly positive, and we certainly had a good time at the local pub the next week.

But if I had achieved a certain success within the frame of the class, I was nevertheless left with a series of questions. The first concerned how many of my students actually made real, lasting progress. One who probably did was also perhaps the most motivated of the group—and, ironically, by her own description perhaps the most resistant to the whole process. (At quarter’s end she was in fact quite resistant to turning in her early draft with her final paper, since next to every one of my marginal comments in that draft she had written (in ink!) an angry counter-comment of her own.) That very resistance, however, was probably finally what made the course work for her: it enabled her to bring enormous energy to her writing, and to keep at it, even if only to spite me, until she decided that I wasn’t simply trying to create impediments for her.

The others all described themselves as having progressed, but I think it is an open question as to how well their new sense of themselves as writers would survive the term, when pressures of various sorts would push them back towards the comfort of what they already knew. The sorts of learning I asked in that class are hard to sustain for teacher and student alike, and given the adversarial nature of teaching against the already known, I’m not sure most instructors on our campus have time enough—or mental energy enough—to be paying the kind of attention to students’ writing and reading necessary to sustaining this sort of learning. Indeed, that’s why the department was experimenting with a class like this in the first place.

What conclusions do I make? Two, at least. First, for me at least, my time in 302 convinced me that introducing a focus on  learning into the class really worked. Even in courses defined by content more than skills, I now regularly introduce concepts like prior understanding, revisionary as opposed to additive learning, and provisional learning—and I find that doing so has had the effect of what might be termed the “de-criminalizing” of resistance. For in most of my classes students are initially reluctant to talk about the ways they are not learning. Such talk generally seems to them either an act of rebellion, if they are confident in their resistance, or confession, if they resist through fear or confusion.

With resistance legitimized, however, students can see themselves as having success even as they identify the difficulties they are having and thus the extent to which they are not in fact learning the course material. So I now use the word “resistance” a great deal, asking students to write on questions like: “What do you find yourself resisting in this class/assignment/reading? Why? How? How can you and I engage that resistance and use the energy it represents to make learning better?” This tactic doesn’t always fix everything, but once those difficulties have been articulated, as a class we at least stand a better chance of addressing them effectively. Indeed, I now think that articulating the ways in which things are not making sense and then addressing them directly makes new understandings more robust, and regression to prior knowledge less likely. 

Second, the decision to engage students in metacognitive discourse is not without risk: in asking students to speak up about their difficulties and resistances I have sometimes found myself seriously challenged. For the doubts and contradictions my courses often raise for my students now often emerge in a public way, and I cannot choose but address them. This can mean conflict—though to have established a classroom discourse of learning certainly does take the edge off. It can also mean embarrassment when (as with the Exactness Problem) I do not foresee when or how such resistance will arise.

I’ve gotten better at articulating answers to questions like those that arose in 302; I’ve also learned that I don’t have to answer right away—that I can ask people to wait a day or two while I reflect on their questions. I’ve learned I need to give a little, too—indeed, sometimes a lot. Sometimes student resistance isn’t (as I would like to think it) just a step in the learning process; sometimes it’s a reasonable response to an insufficiently thought-through class or assignment, and we’ll all be better off when I have done a little more learning myself.

I began this paper with the idea of mystery, and I want to end with it as well.  I have mentioned extending my metacognitive teaching to many of my classes, and in each I’ve found new elements that demand attention. In one I received at course end in the portfolio self-reflective essay two quite different responses to my efforts: in the first a student expressed delight to have found her learning taken so seriously. In her words it was a “‘kick in the pants’ that seemed to say to me ‘hey, what are you here to do anyway?’” In a second, however, a student explained why my enthusiasm about learning theory hadn’t gotten him excited. “I’ve had to fight my own apathy all summer. [Being motivated to learn] is one thing during the year when I’m surrounded by people taking classes and working hard, but it’s tough to make myself put a really great amount of effort into anything during the summer.” So stop with the learning stuff, he concluded, sometimes some students just want to be left to do whatever it is they have always done in a classroom.  

Maybe that's the right place to end—remembering that no matter how seriously we take our work, our students have motives and goals beyond our classrooms. Helping students learn is not always a matter of the methods or the materials.

Works consulted:

Atherton, J. L. “Learning and Teaching; Resistance to Learning.” Website:

Angelo and Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques. 2nd ed. Jossey-Bass,1993

Barr and Tagg, “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education,” Change 1995, 13-25.

Bransford, Brown and Cocking. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Nat’l Academy of Sciences, 1999. (at

Gardner, Howard. The Unschooled Mind. Basic Books, 1991.

Kohl, Herb. Why I Won’t Learn From You. The New Press, 1994.

Meyers and Jones. Promoting Active Learning. Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Meyer, Jan and Ray Land. “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practicing in the Disciplines.” ETL Project Occasional Report 4, Universities of Edinburgh, Coventry and Durham, 2003.

Quintilian. Institutio Oratoria. c. CE 95.

Scholes, Robert. The Fall and Rise of English. Yale, 1999.

Summers, Nancy, and Laura Saltz. “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year” CCC, Vol 56: 2004, 124-149.

Wiggins, Grant. Educative Assessment. Jossey-Bass, 1998.


My Troubles with Perry:

Developmental Scheme or Humanities Curriculum?

William Perry Jr’s Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme has been enormously influential since its first publication in 1968. Indeed, so influential has it been that in 1998 Jossey-Bass published a new edition along with an extensive introduction by L. Lee Knefelkamp recounting the original edition’s reception and effect. Knefelkamp’s explanations for reissuing the book have to do with her sense of its continuing importance for studies in educational psychology, but Perry’s influence has recently received impetus from yet another source as well. For as the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning has grown over the past few years under the sponsorship of the Carnegie Foundation, and as various scholars from a range of disciplines have turned to the education literature in an effort to re-theorize their teaching goals and methods, Perry’s scheme has loomed large as a framework within which to work. Though understandable, I think this has not always been wise, and I’d like here to explain why.

But first, what is Perry’s scheme, and why has it seemed so useful? Essentially it is a description in nine steps, or “positions,” of a cognitive “evolution” Perry believes students undergo in their college years (p. 1). In his view students typically begin college as something like epistemological dualists, understanding the world primarily in simple contraries of right and wrong, good and bad (Position 1). Under the pressure of a college education, however, this view proves unsustainable. Though undergraduates at first resist change by embellishing their basic dualism with varying degrees of uncertainty (Positions 2-4), ultimately they find they must abandon dualism altogether and learn instead to subordinate “dualistic right-wrong functions to the status of a special case, in context” (Position 5). (11)

This new point of view, which Perry calls “contextual relativism,” is for students a major conceptual achievement, for it constitutes a paradigm shift in their understanding of the world. But having now in effect re-made the very terms in which they see reality, they find themselves deprived of the relatively simple bases for ethical decisions that their earlier dualism had supplied. If nothing is ever absolutely true, how can one decide finally what is right and wrong? This is an ethically challenging position, and according to Perry students typically then go on to develop “some form of personal Commitment (as distinct from unquestioned or unconsidered commitment to simple belief in certainty)” (Position 6). (11) Finally, having seen the necessity of making what can only be a personal commitment to a particular set of provisional and relativistic truths, students make and test possible commitments (Positions 7-8) until “[t]he student experiences the affirmation of identity among multiple responsibilities and realizes Commitment as an ongoing, unfolding activity through which he expresses his life style” (Position 9). (11) This in Perry’s view represents “maturity” and a fully adult view of life.

Though Perry’s full scheme is (even in that very brief summary) rather complicated, it has often been simplified. Perry himself designed a two-page summary of the whole. My own first acquaintance with the scheme was in a similar two-page format, as an email attachment sent to the 1998 Carnegie Scholars. Taken from Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design, it had there been included as an appendix, excerpted as a whole from the 240-page book in which it first appeared. But Perry’s two-page schematic has in practice often been simplified even further, either into the three main steps that epitomize the whole (dualism, relativism, and commitment [see Bizzell, 153; cf. Cross and Steadman, 185]), or into two semi-autonomous parts, the first (steps 1-5) dealing with the epistemological bases of cognitive development, the second (steps 6-9) dealing with the dilemmas of ethical action that follow upon successful attainment of step 5’s “contextual relativism.” (Perry student Knefelkamp takes this tack—see her introduction to the new edition of Forms pp. xxxi-xxxiii.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, many teachers who have used the scheme have tended to focus on steps 1-5, emphasizing only the scheme’s outlining of the cognitive steps necessary to reaching a mature understanding of a given discipline’s “truths” or constituent principles. Issues of ethical commitment, central as they may be to Perry’s larger vision of education, have nevertheless from any single disciplinary point of view often seemed unnecessary.

So much for the scheme itself. There are a number of problems with it—some of which I remark upon below. But people continue to use it. Though more than 30 years old, Perry’s scheme can still be recognized in the work of many of those engaged in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Why?

Chief among reasons Perry’s scheme survives must be that it makes reconceptualizing one’s teaching practice in terms of learning much easier to accomplish. For in defining different places a student can be in terms of conceptual development, Perry’s scheme essentially provides a map of possible learning locations for one’s students. Students are not simply autonomous agents out there ready to soak up whatever knowledge we send their way. Rather, each is undergoing his or her own drama of learning, moving from one position or another even as they are in your class. They can be in late dualism, or early contextual relativism, for example, and knowing this we can adjust our teaching practice in ways that by taking those different positions into account can make our students’ classroom learning more effective. Having given us a better understanding of our students as learners, then, Perry’s scheme offers clear directions towards redesigning the things we do as teachers.

A second reason Perry’s scheme has been influential is more general: by inviting us to think of student learning, the scheme also invites us to reflect metacognitively about the nature of our disciplines and how we can best organize our students’ progress through them. For unprompted, many post-secondary teachers have not articulated for themselves—perhaps not even noticed—the cognitive demands of studying their discipline, even as they have demonstrated impressive mastery of its practices. Though Perry argues that any mature individual will have learned to “think about even his own thought,” not all of us have in fact ever done much of this with respect to our disciplines, and thus to have it suggested here that one can conceptualize progress in one’s discipline from dualism to contextual relativism invites one (in Carnegie President Lee Shulman’s phrase) to “go meta,” as it were, oneself.

Moreover, because Perry deals with the entire four-year scope of his students’ progress in college, his scheme also invites us to think outside the boundaries of the single discipline any one of us teaches to reflect on how student learning in any one discipline relates to their overall educations. Again, that’s something we don’t often do, and yet to anyone seriously interested in higher education, it is very obviously well worth doing. I think this has been particularly important for those of us who share Perry’s own disciplinary training in literary studies. Indeed, for humanists like myself, Perry’s scheme supplies a powerful argument for our very existence in the college curriculum. Not everyone thinks that the study of poetry is central to an education, but in Perry’s classicist-trained view those of us who work with the languages and texts of human cultures are not merely expensive luxuries embellishing the education of students in real subjects like chemistry and engineering. Rather, because our stock in trade is both the notoriously multi-meaninged (or in Perry’s term, “contextually relative”) interpreting of complex texts and a concern with those texts’ ethical implications, what we teach turns out to be absolutely central to the entire maturational process. Other disciplines may also contribute to the cognitive progress students make, but within this framework traditional literary discourse plays an important—perhaps even decisive—role.

Finally, Perry’s work has been useful in moving other teachers to take learning-based education seriously. As I’ve already suggested, post-secondary teachers have not always been very reflective about their students, and Perry’s work can be cited as warrant for such attention. His claim to having defined a “developmental process” in undergraduate learners implies a certain necessity about it, and his recourse to statistics and lists of criteria gives his work the air of science as well. When colleagues won’t take student learning seriously simply from listening to those of us who value learning-based teaching, reports of Perry’s work may do the trick for us.

Those are at least some of the ways in which Perry’s work has proved useful to scholars of teaching and learning. But there are also significant problems with his scheme. The standard critique has been that it is gender, class and race biased; done at Harvard in its all-men and mostly white days, Perry’s students were hardly “typical” of students across America even though 20% of his sample were women from Radcliffe (28 of 112). But as Knefelkamp explains (xvii-xxi), other studies controlling for these variables have now followed, and most have more or less reported the same development arc. Whether at Harvard or at Miami of Ohio, other studies have described an early stage of absolutist or dualistic thinking followed by increasingly relativistic thought.

My problems with Perry are of a different order. To begin with, it needs to be made much clearer than Perry and his followers have made it that the “development” these studies describe is not a product of what might be called normal human maturation, but of the teaching of a particular sort of curriculum. The form and tenor of Perry’s book give the entire “process” a kind of psychologistic, Piagetian logic, but this is highly misleading. To be sure, Perry does say that he doesn’t think his scheme either universal or necessary in the way that Piaget’s developmental processes are. Yet in invoking the metaphors of Piaget’s language, like the term “development” itself (along with “structure,” “assimilation,” and “accommodation”), Perry still seems to be reaching for some of Piaget’s authority. It is by no means clear, however, even for those students who might have undergone precisely the process Perry describes, that their development is in any way at all Piagetian. For that to be the case it would need to have a certain necessity about it, something that would happen as part of normal human development, and not simply to those who undergo a particular sort of epistemologically relativized college education. Piaget’s stages have to happen. These don’t.

More important, the fact that Perry sees this development as occurring in students aged 18-21, and thus, again, as a kind of continuation of the developmental sequence Piaget describes (which leaves off in mid-adolescence), is itself also contingent. In my discipline, at any rate, older students returning to school seem no less to undergo a sequential learning process of increasing contextual relativism than do younger students, and they start at more or less the same epistemologically naïve point as do the 18 year-olds. It is likely, in fact, that the change Perry describes has less to do with a particular age or developmental point than with the very unusual set of experiences that being in a college classroom entails for students of any age. To the extent it happens at all, that is, this development is far more consistently explained as the result of curriculum than of nature.

Further, the scheme is too general to capture any student’s learning within a single discipline in the first place. Certainly it helps to imagine that students see material in a dualistic frame as they begin a course, but by the logic of Perry’s scheme a student who has moved from position two to position five in her study of sociology ought not to have to repeat this very same process when taking up the study of poetry. Yet many do precisely that. Here I suggest that Bereiter and Scardamaglia’s work with the concepts of “novice” and “expert” may in fact be more informative than Perry’s. Indeed, their analysis can explain just about everything Perry’s can about the psychology of learning, and is far less problematic as a hypothesis to boot. What do we otherwise make of the fact that people seem capable of being at very different points in the scheme at the very same time?

Finally, it seems to me a problem that Perry’s work may be as much about the making of School knowledge as it is the making of Life knowledge. Perry himself cites two examples of students who finally “got” an understanding of the limits of dualistic thinking only by making connections to their extra-curricular life experience—one from his experience on a sandlot baseball team, the other from his work as a truck driver (236). Obviously, these are cases where students are not developing contextual relativism, but rather are failing to transfer their existing relativist skills to a new set of problems. Given cases like this, along with cases of students being at multiple points along the spectrum depending upon which dimension of learning one focuses upon, the whole argument that there is in general a development arc students follow from their first to their fourth year of college seems significantly weakened.

With all these problems, does Perry scheme have any value at all, then? Definitely yes, but not the one we may attribute to it. I propose the following uses:

First, we should accept the scheme for what it really is: an articulation of an over-arching goal for liberal arts education—something like the cognitive and ethical dimensions of an entire Humanities curriculum. As such it provides an interesting template that can facilitate faculty discussion of the very purpose of post-secondary education. In particular it articulates an alternative to what often seems the emergent model of education in demand by legislatures and corporate boards: an education for work, and not for the more general goal of ethical and political responsibility. In this regard Perry’s scheme invites inter- and trans-disciplinary discussion of an entire institution’s public role.

Second, one might use the scheme to test one’s sense of the outcomes to be sought in teaching one’s own discipline. To what degree does it makes sense to say that an essential aim of an education within any one discipline is the capacity to negotiate successfully the multiple discipline-specific contexts necessary to understanding and engaging in high order work? Students should know that we are asking them to become contextual relativists, and we should do all we can to help them find ways to transfer their capacities for conceptually relativistic thought to new and different knowledges and judgments. (Perhaps if we did so fewer citizens would embrace politicians who describe the world in starkly dualistic terms and who act from a similarly poverty-stricken understanding of the world’s conflicts and complexities.)

Finally, we should use Perry’s scheme to reinforce and explicate the value of Bereiter and Scardamaglia’s far less global model of novice-to-expert. Indeed, the whole relation of the novice-expert spectrum needs integration with Perry’s. Its scope is far narrower, more discipline-specific, and, in distinction to Perry, its application allows for the common observation that one can possess nuanced and contextualized understandings of some things, but only of those things about which one has considerable expertise. With respect to new realms of study, after all, many adults expert in one field tend to be raw novices. In Perry’s terms, though in one disciplinary field a person may be fully capable of contextually relative judgments, in another that person may demonstrate what are largely dualist attitudes. To have acquired the capacity for contextually relative judgments in one field, that is, by no means entails that we will be able or even willing to transfer that capacity to other fields.

Indeed, I’d ask whether whenever we find ourselves in the novice position, no matter how much we are experts elsewhere, and though as experienced contextual relativists in one or more disciplines our learning curve may well be shorter than that for others, we don’t still demonstrate a markedly simple understanding. The ability to be relativistic amidst a new discipline’s contexts would seem a function (at the least) of both particular sorts of discipline- (or skill-) specific knowledge and of a certain basic routinization of elementary thinking and practice. Though Perry’s scheme cannot finally account for this phenomenon, his terms remain powerful ways of describing it.

In sum, I don’t suggest that we throw Perry’s scheme out altogether. It does have important uses. But his work certainly needs to be taken with a major grain of salt, and we should be very wary indeed of the weight we seek to hang upon him.

Works Cited

Bereiter, Carl and Marlene Scardamalia, Surpassing Ourselves: An Inquiry into the Nature and Implications of Expertise. Open Court Press: Chicago, 1993.

Bizzell, Patricia, “William Perry and Liberal Education,” in Academic Discourse and Critical Consciousness, pp. 153-63. University of Pittsburgh Press: Pittsburgh and London, 1992.

Cross, K. P. and M. H. Steadman. Classroom Research: Implementing the Scholarship of Teaching. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 1996.

Perry, William, Jr. Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 1999 [1968,1970].

Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. Understanding By Design. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, c1998.

Some Differences between English and Chinese:
Five grammar errors native Chinese speakers can easily make when writing English

John Webster
University of Washington

Perhaps surprisingly, in some ways Chinese is very like English. It is a word order language, just as is English, and its primary word order structure is Subject Verb Object (SVO)—just as it is in English. Thus where English speakers might say “I love you,” Chinese speakers can say the same thing with “Wo (I) ai (love) ni (you).” And if we reverse the word order in Chinese, we get the same inversion of meaning we get when we reverse the word order in English: “Ni ai wo” means “You love me.” In this one regard English is easier for Chinese speakers to learn than case governed languages like Latin or Greek because their own native language has already given them an intuitive feel for the grammatical order of English.

But as helpful as things like that are, English and Chinese nevertheless have many important differences—differences considerably more basic than those between English and most other western languages (like German, French or Spanish). Below are five common features of English that are new to Chinese speakers, and because they are new, a Chinese speaker learning English both will be prone to error with them, and, because Chinese has no similar grammatical feature, will have no good intuitions to guide them and will thus also find learning to avoid such errors difficult. For this reason, tendencies towards errors with these dimensions of English grammar may take a very long time to overcome.

1. Where English has inflections for pronouns, Chinese has none.

In the example above of how Chinese and English are both word order languages, you may have noticed one small difference when I reversed the word orders: in English, though we can indeed reverse the meaning of a short SVO sentence by reversing the Subject and Object, we may also have to use a different word for the object form. Thus we don’t say “You love I.” Rather, we use the objective form of the first person pronoun “I”, which is “me,” as in “You love me.” In Chinese, by contrast, the forms of the pronouns do not change. Thus where English uses either “I,” or “me,” depending on context, Chinese uses just plain “wo.”

So difference #1 between Chinese and English is that Chinese has only one form of any given pronoun, whether it functions as the subject or the object of a sentence, and the absence of such pronoun forms in Chinese naturally leads to a higher incidence of error when writing in English, since Chinese speakers have to build a whole new set of intuitions for when to change forms.

2. Where English has inflections for number, again, Chinese has none.

When English speakers talk about something in the plural, we use a plural form: for most English nouns that means we add either “s” or “-es.” Thus I can buy one book, or two book-s, one watch or two watch-es. Chinese by contrast has no plural endings. A Chinese speaker can specify a number, but the noun intended to be understood as plural will still retain the same form it had in the singular.

Once again, the absence of plural forms in Chinese makes it more difficult for native Chinese speakers/writers to pick up the habit of using them in English—even when they know what they are. This then becomes another error that can occur frequently in their prose.

3. English has multiple inflections for verbs. Again, Chinese has different system.

Chinese has no verbal endings—like the “-ed” and “-en” English uses to indicate the past tense, or the “-s” we use with third person present tense singular verbs, as in “she play-s.” Instead, to indicate time Chinese speakers use adverbs or adverbial particles—not different forms of the verb. In the present tense, “ai,” (to love), is the same “ai” as it is in past tense constructions. Neither does Chinese have gerundive or participial forms (the “-ing” forms of English verbs). So Chinese speakers use just the one word ai (love) per verb where English uses five: love, loved, loves, loving and to love—the infinitive form. Here again, a Chinese speaker learning English is likely to feel at sea with English verb forms because he or she will simply never have developed any intuitions about how to deploy this clutch of verbal forms.  (And the fact that many English verbs have irregular forms—like drive, drove, driven, or swim, swam, swum—doesn’t make it any easier!)

4. Chinese has no articles corresponding to the English words “a,” “an,” or “the.”

Three of the most common words in English are “a,” “an,” and “the.” But as with verb and number forms, Chinese has no direct counterparts for them. As a result, many Chinese-speaking writers of English will, again, have no inbuilt intuitions about how articles should be used and may either leave out an article altogether (thus “Officer saw man on street” instead of the standard English “The Officer saw a man on the street”) or, contrariwise, they may insert “a” when “the” is called for, or vice versa. Or they may even insert an article when English doesn’t actually use one at all.  (Chinese does have “measure words”—which have similarity to articles, but none that transfer easily to English. In fact, Chinese has many, many measure words—a phenomenon that gives Westerners studying Chinese even more trouble than our articles give them!) 

5. Finally, in spoken Chinese the same word is used for “he” and “she,” while English uses two different words (plus their inflected object forms: him, and her).

In spoken Chinese both “he” and “she” are represented by the same word “ta.” This, obviously, is very different from English, though it doesn’t mean that Chinese speakers don’t know the difference between the sexes (!). Rather it means that in Chinese you keep gender straight not by using different pronouns but simply by paying attention to context. In consequence of having no need in their native tongue to make a he/she distinction, however, as English language learners they may refer to a male with “she” or a female with “he,” or they may even switch in a given passage between “she” and “he” in reference to the same person. In fact, this bit of English is so difficult for Chinese speakers to internalize that a graduate student whose English is very good—good enough to be getting a PhD from an American University—has told me that after 5 years of graduate study she still can make this error.

Summing up: There are of course many differences between Chinese and English other than these, but the five differences described here affect virtually every sentence an English Language Learner will ever come across or be asked to write. Studies have shown that some errors are more noticed than others, and for English speaking readers, verb agreement, pronoun use, and misused articles are much more noticed than most other errors. Making things worse, native speakers often think such mistakes are simple and thus easily corrected, and so when native English speakers read a sentence that makes any of these five basic errors they may decide the writer is uneducated, perhaps even unintelligent. One professor at a major west coast research university was reported as having complained that his Chinese-speaking students wrote so badly that they submitted papers that “had no verbs!” I doubt that is even possible, let alone true, but even the occasional absence of normal verbal inflections can render those verbs that are used less recognizable to even a highly educated native English speaker.

In short, native English speakers can easily underestimate the difficulty many English Language Learners face when writing university level assignments. Over time, most Chinese learners of English will in fact master these five forms of error. But the fact is that, in spite of how awful these errors may seem to their native English speaking teachers and peers, once a reader learns to take an “other language oriented” perspective on English, most of even these seemingly egregious grammar problems will not actually interfere much with our understanding what a writer wants to communicate. Put another way, until we learn to read through these relatively trivial errors to a paper's underlying thinking, we will fail to see the textual forest for the grammatical trees.

Engnese Exercise

To test your ability to take an “other language oriented” perspective on English, see if you can understand the following paragraph of “Engnese.” It has all of the errors described above, and most native speakers of English will sense immediately that this is "accented" prose. But how “unreadable” is it? Really?

Engnese: To get some sense of what this all mean, take paragraph of English prose—either one you write or one you find in some print source—and apply in reverse rule outline above. Thus, remove all inflect form of pronoun, all plural marker, and so on. Engnese you now have give you some sense of how hard it be for Chinese speaker (and speaker of many other Asia language in particular) master oral and write English.

English: To get some sense of what this all means, take a paragraph of English prose—either one you have written yourself, or one you find in some printed source—and apply in reverse the rules outlined above. Thus, remove all the inflected forms of pronouns, all plural markers, and so on. The Engnese you now have may give you some sense of how hard it is for Chinese speakers (and speakers of many other Asian languages in particular) to master oral and written English.




On the Challenges of Working with the Writing of English Language Learners

John Webster

University of Washington


I’ve been teaching English Language Learners (ELLs) in writing classes for a very long time, and I think I’ve actually become pretty good at it.  And lately, in our Early Fall Start offering English 108: Writing Ready, I’ve been teaching especially large numbers of ELLs, and they, at least, have told me I’ve done well by them.  But though this may be true, I still must admit that every time I enter a writing class that has non-native speakers enrolled I face a moment in which I must work through two fears. 

One is about what I should be teaching versus what I seem to find myself faced with teaching.  They seem not to align.  How, I ask myself, can I possibly work on higher order critical thinking skills like inquiry, argument design, evidence assessment, and rhetorical analysis when the paper in front of me “has no verbs!”—as one frustrated dean lamented a few years ago.  I find I can get a kind of sinking feeling that I must abandon my pre-planned curriculum in order to deal with my students’ basic fluency and correctness issues.  I feel alienated from my own course design and from what I understand the purpose of my class to be.

My second conflict comes on the heels of the first.  If I have to spend time supporting my students in their L2 language skills, what, exactly, am I actually supposed to do?!   I actually know a lot of things about the English language, but other than point out to a student where they could insert articles or which of the five forms of every English verb they should use in a certain place, I don’t actually know how to explain in a systematic way where to use "a" instead of "the," or which form of which verb would be right in a given instance. 

I have been teaching long enough that I can’t even remember how many times this sense of potential failure has washed over me.  Yet most of the time, I still work something out, and most of the time, it’s pretty effective.  I manage to do so by first reminding myself of two truths:  

1.  Most of the “error” in ELL writing is a lot like an accent in ELL speaking.  Sometimes it slows understanding a bit, on occasion it misfires big time, but very rarely does it actually prevent one from getting the writer’s drift.  Once you get accustomed to the “accent,” you can in fact “read through” most error of this sort, and look to the underlying conceptual issues and challenges that are for your ELLs, as for your native speakers, the real point of a writing class. 

2.  If we think of the language in ELL papers as a form of accented English, we are actually much closer to truth than many may think.  For much error arises in ELL papers not from laziness or poor editing skills, or even lack of time studying English.  Rather it is from the enormous difficulty ELLs face in mastering a language that in many respects differs structurally as well as phonologically from English.  Take Chinese.  It is what linguists call a “synthetic” language, while English, and all of the European languages related to it, are “analytic” languages.  That means that English, like German or Greek or Spanish, depends upon “inflections”—verb and noun endings that change with either tense or number. 

So what?  Only this:  for speakers of a synthetic language like Chinese which has no inflectional endings at all, it is very, very difficult to develop an intuitional sense of when to use “go” or when to use “goes” or “going.”  For a native English speaker that choice is so deeply ingrained that most of us never even give it a thought, but for the speaker of a synthetic language that has one and only one form for any given verb, developing intuitions for when to use which of the several forms of every verb we have in English is a problem for which nothing in their language experience provides a model.  We forgive foreign speakers who can’t pronounce properly the “th” sound in “that.”  Few other languages have it, and ELLs whose first language is French, or German, or Chinese often use a “d” or a “z” to approximate it.  For conversational purposes, it turns out that that's close enough. We native speakers can adjust our ears to what we hear, and everything is just fine--and that in spite of the fact that even after twenty years of life in the United States, many non-native English speakers still cannot say that intial “th” the way a native speaker will.  

But if the phonology of English remains forever difficult for some non-native speakers, the syntactic difficulties that show up in writing are no easier to master than are its sounds.  Indeed, often they are conceptually more obscure.  Compared to the mysteries of verb forms (or how to use the English articles “the,” “an” and “a”—another feature of English for which Chinese has no counterpart), learning to pronounce the voiced interdental fricative (as a linguist would describe the opening sound in the word “that”) is a walk in the park.  That doesn't mean students don't have to learn them; rather it just means that getting control of such matters cannot be done rapidly. In any case, it is certainly NOT a sign that your students are lazy or careless or disrespectful of your standards.

So, what can I suggest?  Four things:

1. Learn to read through error.  You are not their English language teacher, you are their English writing teacher (or their Chemistry, or History teacher).  They are going to have an accent for a while in their writing whatever you do, and thus your time will usually be better spent in helping them make their writing more understandable and more interesting—to themselves and to their readers—than in helping them eradicate all traces of their first language’s dissonances with English. 

2. Try not to correct errors on early drafts.  Even if you would like your students to make fewer errors, correcting errors on drafts really will only reinforce many of your students’ fears that their biggest writing problem is English grammar.  But that’s just not true.  Their biggest problems are pretty much the same problems all your first year students will have:  invention, argument, inquiry, evidence.  Moreover, for ELLs as well as for native speakers, corrections defeat revision.  Indeed, if you are asking for a rewrite, the surest way to get a bad sentence back from a draft, virtually unchanged, is to make a grammar correction in it. Nor should this be surprising.  As writers students often feel very unsure, even mystified, about what they are supposed to be doing, and thus when a teacher corrects something they tend to say, “Aha! something that I now know is correct!”  What sense would it now make for a student to remove from a paper the one word or sentence in a given paragraph that a teacher has certified as right?!    

3. Help students find appropriate supports in order to work on writing issues over time—such as hardcopy handbooks, or online resources, or a writing center that knows how to help students develop an error profile.  Though it sometimes seems as if there is no rhyme or reason to the errors ELLs make, in fact there usually are patterns.  Chinese speaking ELLs, for example, have great trouble with verb forms, and similar difficulties with articles and plurals (which, like verb inflections, Chinese has none of). 

4. Develop a minimal marking system to guide students in the preparation of a “presentation draft.”  After students have completed as well as possible the thinking-heavy part of writing (when my students’ brains’ working capacity has been completely devoted to planning, organizing and so on), I’ll ask students to do a last draft of the paper (or sometimes just a page of it) in which they work exclusively on upgrading their surface correctness.  All substantive change is prohibited—only words, verbs and sentence structure revisions.

My minimal marking practice is to underline in a page of the final draft the errors worth fixing.  I offer to talk with students about what has gone wrong, but I don’t fix it myself.  They can work with a writing center or with online sources, or often they can just consult their own knowledge which has not been deployed effectively (just as with native speakers, thinking hard can get in the way of grammatical correctness).  And if there are particular issues that concern many students, I may spend 10 minutes in class with two or three examples, either using sentences from the group or making them up myself.  Minimal marking, being minimal, actually takes little time, and though I do have to explain some things to students, much they do on their own, and the process has not only proven at least as effective as any other method I’ve tried, it also gives students and teacher alike the mental space necessary to concentrate as fully as possible on the intellectual issues involved in writing academic prose.  (The term "minimal marking" comes from Rich Haswell's article "Minimal Marking," College English 45, no. 6 (1983), 166-70.)

In the end, then, my judgment about ELL writing is that we have to be realistic. Perfecting one’s knowledge of a foreign language takes years, not weeks—and very few people ever actually reach “perfect.”  I am certainly convinced that I can help students make some progress towards a more fluent and well-edited style in a single quarter, but I also know that I would be fooling myself to think that their written accents will have disappeared—or even will have been more than moderately modified—by the end of finals week. Do I grade down for this? I don't give a lot of attention to copy-editing no matter who my students are. I want them to know the rhetorical price they will pay among certain audiences, but generating intelligent argument, explication, and thematic coherence are for me far more difficult, and thus far more interesting criteria with which to value anyone's work.

(For more on the differences between Chinese and English, see "Some Differences between English and Chinese:
Five grammar errors native Chinese speakers can easily make when writing English"