Reflection: How?

The previous page addressed the question, “Why teach with technology”—or, more specifically, “Why teach multimodal composing, which today usually occurs on digital platforms?” This page turns to the question of “How?” That is, “How should composition instructors go about teaching multimodally, typically on digital platforms?” The first section reviews the scholarly conversation around this topic; the second section furnishes my own reflections.

Scholarly Conversation

Assuming an instructor has been convinced by some of the reasons for multimodal composition pedagogy, her next step is figuring how to actually teach her students about composing across modes. The idea of overhauling a traditional pedagogy can be daunting, and it is useful to break down the process into discrete elements. A heuristic invented by Stuart Selber for a related subject, computer literacies, also serves to explicate multimodal composition. This table is reproduced from Multiliteracies for a Digital Age:

The Conceptual Landscape of a Computer Multiliteracies Program

CategoryMetaphorSubject PositionObjective
Functional Literacycomputers as toolsstudents as users of technologyeffective employment
Critical Literacycomputers as cultural artifactsstudents as questioners of technologyinformed critique
Rhetorical Literacycomputers as hypertextual mediastudents as producers of technologyreflective praxis

How do these three literacies pertain to multimodal composing? In terms of functional literacy, if an instructor assigns students to use an unfamiliar medium for their multimodal composition, some class time must be devoted to teaching the program(s). Today we have scores of apps available for free or, for fortunately well-funded universities like Penn State, paid for by the institution. Critical literacy develops in the way instructors teach students to analyze the rhetorical situation, and rhetorical literacy emerges from assignments requiring students to compose across modes. I devote sections to critical and rhetorical literacy, as these areas have attracted the most scholarship.


Critical Literacy: Rebooting the Rhetorical Situation for the 21st Century

Updating Rhetorical Analysis

Composition instructors need to reconfigure the way we teach our field’s foundational concept, the rhetorical situation, to align with the digital era’s shifts in communicative practices. Internet networks have challenged traditional models of public discourse and persuasion, reconstructing social relations, for better or worse, as several contributors to Theorizing Digital Rhetoric note (Hinck; Jones; Pfister). Similarly, in his research on citizen science, James Wynn contends that digital technology is unleashing the diffusion of expertise. These transformations signal a breakdown in the clean binary between rhetor and audience.

A simplistic Bitzerian approach to the rhetorical situation cannot adequately account for these horizontal communicative structures. Or can it? Some scholars work to show how ancient Aristotelian paradigms can apply to online rhetoric (see Lanius and Hubbell). At the very least, it seems fair to say that scholars studying digital technologies would agree that we have to do research to see how different theoretical—and pedagogical—frameworks need to shift to account for relatively recent developments like social media and “rhetorical” algorithms.

There is no scholarly consensus on how to revise the rhetorical situation to suit current multimodal practices, which indicates the ongoing importance of critique both for scholars and students. Just as instructors interrogate the assumptions behind the models they teach, they should encourage students to do the same.

Critiquing Multimodal Rhetoric

Rhetorical critique should interrogate multimodal mediums we all frequently employ, such as smartphones, social media, and games. As contributors to the Intersectional Internet imply, critiquing how online platforms amplify offline oppressions constitutes a key step toward structural transformation. Similarly, in Finding Augusta, Heidi Rae Cooley exhorts us to pay attention to how our handheld devices enact governance through tracking. When we analyze the persuasion enacted by these apparently inanimate objects and platforms, we implicitly update the paradigmatic rhetorical situation, expanding it from triangle to network.

Moreover, making our everyday devices an object of analysis on par with canonical texts contributes toward Adam Banks’s vision of “an emancipatory composition [that] moves us past rhetorical exemplars and into vernacular, communal practices and into greater agency for individual writers to engage with traditions and discourses on their own terms” (Digital Griots 147). Composition instructors today should encourage students to critique the many persuasive modes visible and invisible in digital technologies.

Re-reading the rhetorical situation comprises a step toward multimodal critical literacy. We must next give students the opportunity to apply their analyses of multimodal digital platforms in constructing their own multimodal digital rhetoric.


Encouraging Freshmen to Become Multimodal Composers

Some instructors choose to incorporate a single multimodal assignment into a first-year composition (FYC) course—the current practice of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric’s standard English 15 curriculum—while others make multimodality the basis of all composition in a course. Jody Shipka takes the latter approach, which she calls “a mediated activity-based multimodal framework for composing,” claiming that it “facilitates flexibility and metacommunicative awareness without predetermining for students the specific genres, media, and audiences with which they will work” (Toward a Composition Made Whole 87). Of course, her approach might seem unfeasible to instructors without training or institutional support to step so far outside FYC’s “status quo.” Here, I focus on how to construct one multimodal assignment rather than how to revise the entire composition curriculum.

Inventing an Assignment

The first step in crafting a multimodal assignment is to consider learning objectives—in particular, with what rhetorical affordances should students experiment? Since multimodal composition is not just a subset of writing, as Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes argue, careful thought must be given to how it differs from print-based projects. Each mode comes with specific affordances conducive to persuasion, which we must understand as we select the medium of an assignment. For example, if an instructor wants students to study the ways color and layout appeal to logos, a pamphlet or a webpage project would be appropriate mediums. If an instructor wants to have students learn to convey ethos through voice, music, sound effects, and time, they might assign a soundwriting project (see Danforth and Stedman’s Introduction to Soundwriting Pedagogies). If an instructor wants students to focus on how the lighting and transitions in moving images stimulate emotions, she might assign a video project (see Hidalgo on rhetorical filmmaking).

As an instructor considers how students can learn rhetorical affordances through particular modes, the assignment should grow to include reflective components and assessment criteria.

Reflective Components

There is some indication that multimodal composing might inherently encourage more reflection than traditional essay writing. As Crystal VanKooten shows in her study of students’ learning from a video project, multimodal composition enables students to develop meta-awareness about composing; working across modes seems to encourage greater reflexivity about rhetorical choices including image, voice, and music, than does the familiar—and unfortunately often formulaic—medium of the academic paper. Students can more easily envision a “real” audience and reflect on how to reach that audience, since many of them regularly share multimodal posts—not essays—on social media. To enhance the metacognition that organically arises during multimodal composition, many instructors include formal reflection tasks; VanKooten included a goal-setting log and reflection statement with the video assignment.

Incorporating specific reflection activities into a multimodal project not only helps the instructor understand the student’s composing process, but might also motivate the students to pay attention to their choices. As Jody Shipka suggests, having students turn in a reflection along with their project encourages them to be conscious about their rhetorical decision-making since they will need to explain it: “students are provided with an incentive to consider how, why, when, and for whom their texts make any kind of meaning at all” (116). Shipka suggests that the following questions are useful in stimulating reflections on multimodal composition:

  1. What, specifically, is this piece trying to accomplish—above and beyond satisfying the basic requirements outlined in the task description? In other words, what work does, or might, this piece do? For whom? In what contexts?
  2. What specific rhetorical, material, methodological, and technological choices did you make in service of accomplishing the goal(s) articulated above? Catalog, as well, choices that you might not have consciously made, those that were made for you when you opted to work with certain genres, materials, and technologies.
  3. Why did you end up pursuing this plan as opposed to the others you came up with? How did the various choices listed above allow you to accomplish things that other sets or combinations of choices would not have? (114)

In general, the guiding questions should align with the assignment’s ultimate objective to experiment with the rhetorical effects facilitated by certain modes. These reflective activities go by many names; in the terminology of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, which I borrowed for my English 15 course, they are “cover letters.” You can view my own cover letter prompts on my syllabus (pages 13-14).

Assessment Criteria

Since scholars generally concur that reflection is key to student learning, especially with multimodal projects, assessment should draw from students’ own evaluations of their work. Beyond this strategy, there is no one-size-fits-all assessment rubric for multimodal compositions, as the diversity of contributions to the collection Digital Writing Assessment and Evaluation shows. Suggestions include finding ways to reward risk (Reilly and Atkins), recognizing our tendency to transplant print-based criteria to multimodal projects (Wierszewski), and attending to fairness across diverse students (Poe), among many others. Although these contributions vary in their recommendations, they generally agree that instructors need to figure out how to apply general domains to assessing specific projects; “context, artifact, substance, process management and technique, and habits of mind” are the domains recommended by the National Writing Project’s Multimodal Assessment Project group.

In short, it is the task of each program administrator and individual instructor to understand the overarching characteristics of strong multimodal compositions and tailor them to their own pedagogical contexts. You can see my own grading criteria on my syllabus (page 11, 13, 14).


More on the “How”

My review of relevant scholarship has been limited. Much more could be said about the ways scholars have addressed the “how” of multimodal composition pedagogy. For further resources, I recommend mining Kristin L. Arola, Jennifer Sheppard, and Cheryl Ball’s annotated bibliography, where references to sources including Claire Lutkewitte’s Multimodal Composition: A Critical Sourcebook and pedagogical articles in Kairos can be found.

Pedagogue's Reflections

This section follows the questions provided by Penn State’s Teaching with Technology rubric.

What methods will you use to achieve your goals?

I’ve always relied on experimentation and reflection. I try something; if it succeeds, I keep using it, but if it fails, I move on to try something else. This approach certainly applies to my use of digital technology.


How do you know when you have achieved your goals?

The best way to know how students reacted to new technology is to ask them directly. I created a survey using the Canvas Quiz tool and offered it as extra credit to my students. That resulted in a 100% response rate! The following statistics are based on 24 responses recorded near the end of our course. I present the results most pertinent to other teachers working with technology—the entire survey contained dozens of questions about every aspect of learning. The technology questions can roughly be divided into questions about skills and questions about enjoyment.

Note: Some percentages do not add up to 100 due to how the questions were configured.


Word Processor (Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Pages, etc.)

  • I know how to change margins.
    • Yes: 83%; No: 17%
  • I know how to insert a page break.
    • Yes: 75%; No: 25%
  • I know how to make a header with my surname and page number.
    • Yes: 100%; No: 0%
  • I know how to apply hanging indentation.
    • Yes: 96%; No: 4%
  • I know how to personalize the spell and grammar check tools.
    • Yes: 71%; No: 29%



  • I know how to change my website’s theme (template).
    • Yes: 92%; No: 8%
  • I know the difference between a “page” and a “post.”
    • Yes: 63%; No: 38%
  • I know how to edit images I insert: their size and alignment.
    • Yes: 83%; No: 17%
  • I know how to add hyperlinks within my paragraphs.
    • Yes: 100%; No: 0%
  • I enjoyed learning how to use WordPress.
    • Yes: 63%; No: 38%


Infographic Program

  • I used a program new to me to create my infographic (e.g., Piktochart).
    • Yes: 20%; No: 17%
  • I enjoyed creating my infographic.
    • Yes: 63%; No: 9%
  • I think knowing how to make an infographic is a useful skill.
    • Yes: 88%; No: 13%



  • I quickly learned how to use Canvas to submit assignments without much difficulty.
    • Yes: 96%; No: 4%
  • I downloaded the Canvas app on my phone.
    • Yes: 83%; No: 17%
  • I know how to control notification settings on Canvas.
    • Yes: 79%; No: 21%
  • I have my notifications set so I see new comments and grades as soon as they are posted.
    • Yes: 88%; No: 13%
  • I like using Canvas for conducting peer review and viewing peers’ comments.
    • Yes: 88%; No: 13%
  • I’d prefer to conduct peer review on paper, bringing two copies of my work to class and having my reviewers write in the margins.
    • Yes: 46%; No: 54%
  • I find it beneficial to see how my peer reviewers rate my work on the rubric.
    • Yes: 83%; No: 17%
  • I find it easy to view Mrs. Miron’s comments on my PEs [“playful essays”] and proposals.
    • Yes: 100%; No: 0%
  • I find it easy to view Mrs. Miron’s annotations on my final drafts [made in Speedgrader].
    • Yes: 96%; No: 4%
  • I like seeing how my final draft scored in different criteria on the rubric.
    • Yes: 100; No: 0%
  • I find it easy and convenient to sign up for office hours on the Canvas page.
    • Yes: 100%; No: 0%
  • I prefer using the Canvas messaging system (“inbox”) over Penn State webmail.
    • Yes: 83%; No: 17%
  • I read messages from Mrs. Miron within a few hours after she emails them.
    • Yes: 100%; No: 0%
  • I like having the option to submit in-class writing online.
    • Yes: 96%; 4%
  • I like to read my classmates’ posts when PEs [assigned posts] are submitted to discussion forums.
    • Yes: 58%; No: 42%
  • I’d find the discussion forum PEs [assigned posts] more useful if we were assigned to comment on our classmates’ work.
    • Yes: 25%; No: 75%

General Reflection

  • Overall, I am glad that several projects require me to use mediums besides the traditional paper.
    • Yes: 75% ; No: 25%
  • Overall, I like that this course strives toward paperless learning–that is, I like that almost all of our assignments are collected online, and that almost all materials from the instructor are distributed online.
    • Yes: 100%; No: 0%

The points in the General Reflection are most intriguing to me. Clearly, not every student longs to do digital composition–as the graph shows, a full quarter of them would have preferred to simply write papers.

I received some similar feedback on the teaching evaluation (SRTE)–for example, “I think I would have learned more if we focused more on essays instead of odd mediums of essays such as videos and websites.” Along the same lines, another wrote, “I would focus more on writing essays as opposed to other mediums. I felt that working with things such as iMovie and Sites made it somewhat stressful to learn the genres.” Yet another student desired “more actual writing and less time focused on technology like iMovie or websites.” (How do we define “actual writing,” I wonder?) Similarly, one recommended making “the course more essay oriented in order to help students strengthen their writing skills.” A few students commented that if they were to change the course, they would cut iMovie–“I spent most the time learning how to use it rather than actually writing and doing english [sic].” These comments certainly give me pause. Did the nontraditional mediums detract from students’ progress in “writing skills”?

Yet, returning to the General Reflection, every student apparently recognized the convenience of organizing the course online. In addition, some explicitly acknowledged the variety of mediums as a benefit of the course. For instance, on the SRTE, one student wrote, “I was challenged to develop my writing style to different arguments and into different mediums.” Another commented, “I have a blog on WordPress and learning more about how to use the site has helped me improve it. I also hope to use these skills I learned in class for my future classes and jobs.” Finally, regarding the use of discussion forums, one remarked, “I liked when I was able to see the other classmates [sic] posts under an assignment. I found that it was extremely helpful to draw my own ideas for the topic and it gave a clear example of what was required.”

Overall, reflecting on the students’ reactions to my teaching, I see changes I could make the next time I teach this course: I would make better arguments! That is, I would devote more time to arguing for why rhetoric and composition entails more than merely essay-writing. Furthermore, I would also argue for why the mediums I’ve assigned provide special rhetorical opportunities–how does WordPress offer more than a word processor? How do the visual and aural affordances of iMovie enable rhetor-audience connections beyond those possible in a silent, still paper? My goal for improvement would be rely less on the inartistic proof of authoritative force–you use this medium because it’s the assignment–and more on the artistic proofs of good reasons presented clearly.


Did the student behavior meet your expectations?

Ultimately, yes, in that I expected my students to learn new programs quickly, and they did it because they had to! Of course, there were some hurdles along the way.

I didn’t necessarily expect the acute discomfort some students expressed about learning new software. As an instructor, I tend to aim my focus loftily toward the learning objectives, but as students, the concern is, will failing to learn this new program destroy my grade?

A stereotype I labored under was that all students effortlessly absorb new programs—they’re always using apps on their phones, after all! Not so, as you can see from some of the results above. 25% didn’t know how to insert a page break in a word processor, and 29% didn’t know how to personalize spelling and grammar check tools.

When I taught the students how to create a site at and how to design pages in WordPress, I underestimated the learning curve. I also overestimated the students’ juggling ability, since I also asked them to learn Piktochart or another infographic program on their own—yes, that same day! They told me they needed more help with WordPress, so I rearranged the session after the initial lesson to spend more time in the computer lab.

By the time we got to iMovie, I had already seen them do fairly well with WordPress, so I wasn’t particularly anxious about their videos. But they were. I had designed Unit 4 to first focus on how to write a proposal, and only once the elements of proposal argument had been thoroughly covered, to turn to the short film medium. It turned out that my approach, intended to avoid overloading my students with the demands of both a new genre and a new medium simultaneously, actually induced stress. They knew they’d have to make a video, and they wanted to know how that video was supposed to look, feeling frustrated when several lessons passed and I still hadn’t provided example films.

In the cases of both WordPress and iMovie, I hadn’t expected those responses. I (foolishly) thought WordPress would be easy to learn within about an hour—it wasn’t. In the latter case, I thought I was doing students a favor with the way I arranged the unit, but the resulting uncertainty about the medium caused them dismay.


What would you recommend to a colleague?

Try to make at least one major project employ multimodal digital composition. I believe you will find what I found: especially for students who struggle with writing—that is, most of them—the new medium can help them escape from the limiting formulas that they’ve imbibed, like the five paragraph essay.

In addition, with multimodal compositions, they can draw from capacities like orality, musicality, sociality, and artistry that are typically sidelined in the English classroom. For instance, a student adroit at networking via social media could draw on that capacity to solicit responses to her survey, thus gathering valuable data for a proposal. A student who loves art can put his sense for color, balance, and focus to work in designing a website. A student who enjoys storytelling can use her wide-ranging vocal expression in crafting a podcast.

They can thus begin to build self-confidence, exchanging the label of “bad writer” for “multimedia composer.” A student who feels confident in their rhetorical abilities will enjoy composing more, putting more effort and time into the coursework—a win-win for both you and your student!