It's the first week of classes, which means in all four sections I am showing the students in as concrete a way as possible what I am looking for in the work they will do in the next 15 weeks. And when I say concrete, I mean really concrete, Portland freakin' cement. Even so, I know I am not getting through to them. That's just the reality of this job.
Yesterday, for example, I led two classes through a series of exercises designed to make clear why I wanted every response they write to include three things: a cited summary of ideas in the text that is relevant to the question, some attempt to connect or distinguish these ideas with other ideas or authors in the course (or with contemporary events or their personal experience), and an evaluation of the ideas' significance or implication.
I even showed my classes sample writing prompts and had them diagram where summary was requested, a connection and an evaluation (with color-coded markers no less). I handed out a grading rubric tied to these requirements and had them assess four short responses of varying quality, and they also discussed in small groups any consensus or disagreement about the grades they came up with. Then I showed them the grades I actually gave these responses and explained with Smart Board diagrams why I gave them. In short, we tried to synchronize our understanding of the grading criteria.
Today, too, I will have them write a brief quiz about what's required in all responses, which they will administer to me and then grade using my own standards. This is all useful and worthwhile to do the first week, but I'm kidding myself if I think a significant number of them will actually do what I'm asking on the first assignment. It will take many of them two, three, maybe even four attempts before they really grasp it.
I used to get frustrated and grumble about "learning curves that needed to start bloody-well curving." Now I just accept that this is the nature of the job. Mental models change slowly and you have to stay on message until it gets through. Accepting this makes me less frustrated. I've even come to like this broken record part of teaching. There's something kind of zen about it.