Educator Spotlight: Crissy McMartin-Miller

Writing to Learn

Crissy McMartin-Miller
Associate Teaching Professor, NU Global program
Program Coordinator, International Tutoring Center
PhD from Purdue University


Can you describe your role with the NU Global program, and what the program is?

I am an associate teaching professor with NU Global, which supports undergraduate and graduate international students who have been conditionally admitted to Northeastern based on their English language proficiency.

My role in NU Global is that I teach and oversee courses in the undergraduate and graduate programs. I also serve as the program coordinator for the International Tutoring Center (ITC). The ITC is open to all international students, faculty, and staff at Northeastern, and we offer English language tutorials on any aspect of English language learning. It ranges from all aspects of writing (grammar, organization, citations, planning), pronunciation, reading, conversation, etc.

I know you teach a number of courses within NU Global (ESL writing, ESL speaking and listening, and linguistics for teachers of English as a second language). Has CATLR helped you develop them?

Definitely! I’ve attended CATLR workshops about best practices for online courses because the linguistics class I taught was totally online. That was the first online class I ever taught, which was in 2016. I learned good techniques, especially for the creation and design of a discussion board that gets a lot of action.

Have you worked with CATLR in any other way?

I attended the CATLR conference in the spring of 2017. My colleague at NU Global, Veronika Maliborska, did a presentation that addressed providing feedback in Turnitin. As a result, I modified how I provide grammatical feedback. My process is always evolving. That one had a very direct impact.

What interested you in second language writing, feedback, and assessment?

I’ve been teaching English as a second language (ESL) for 19 years. My master’s degree is in linguistics, which can be very theoretical, and I didn’t really learn how to teach until I started doing it. As a writing teacher, a lot of what we do is provide feedback. When I had the opportunity to enter a PhD program, one of the leading figures in the field of second language writing was at that institution. I decided to pursue a research avenue that really closely related to and would enhance my teaching.

What advice do you have for other educators who want to improve their feedback for multilingual learners?

Any teacher who assigns writing is–to an extent–a writing teacher. If there are papers assigned, to some extent, you’re going to have to teach writing. Sometimes there’s reluctance among faculty. They might not feel like they know how to teach writing effectively, especially among multilingual writers and international students.

First, accept that you should address writing to some extent in your class, but how you assess it (including giving feedback) should align with your purpose for the class. If it’s a class where the goal is to learn writing, then you’re probably going to spend a lot more time giving sentence-level feedback on aspects like grammar and mechanics. On the other hand, if your class is an anthropology class, the purpose is not to learn to write; it’s to write to learn. In that case, you might scale back the amount of sentence-level feedback that you give. Instead prioritize feedback on; did the student fulfill the assignment, is the paper organized well, is the message clear? You can still mark some errors but focus on just those that make the writer’s message difficult to understand or are especially frequent.

Are there any resources you suggest for those working with multilingual learners?

The Purdue OWL is an excellent resource and there is a specific faculty guide that is very approachable for non-ESL teachers. It gives a good brief overview of some of the theoretical underpinnings but also has flow charts so teachers can prioritize. Additional tips include suggestions like prioritizing feedback when marking papers to avoid overwhelming students and highlighting repeat examples of specific grammar errors.

There are resources on campus who can help with the grammatical rules of English. For students specifically, you can encourage them to visit the International Tutoring Center (ITC) or the Northeastern Writing Center, which are two distinct entities. The ITC is for international students only, but the tutors at the Writing Center are also very well equipped to help students with this.

What does it mean to you to be both an educator and a learner?

Learning is a process. I do not recommend a fixed strategy for giving feedback to students. When I learn of some new strategies, I like to experiment with them and stay open to new techniques. Being both an educator and a learner means being open minded to new ideas and to understand that I can always improve.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you’d like to mention?

Not only does prioritizing feedback benefit the student by making it more salient and approachable, but it saves you time. We could spend 30 minutes to an hour marking all the errors with very little pay off. To avoid burnout among instructors and to benefit our students, being strategic and scaling back the feedback can be liberating.