January 11th, 2011

Student Writing: Avoiding the Blank Screen Blues


Staring at a blank screen the night before the research paper was due—this was the dilemma faced by my upper-level science students. The paper, the product of their independent research projects, is an important part of our curriculum and one component of our assessment of their scientific writing skills.

However, the products of these last-minute efforts suffered. Students were unsatisfied with their grades, and reading these hastily prepared papers was painful for me. Even worse, when I returned this work, students flipped to the final score on the paper and never bothered with my comments. Buried in the final frantic weeks of the semester, amid other assignments and final exams, the learning potential of this experience was largely lost.

Good writing is a valuable skill that students can take from college, and we work to develop it in our curriculum. Our majors read several texts that provide insights on scientific writing. We spend considerable class time discussing the construction of a scientific paper. However, student writing doesn’t improve with talking; students need to practice both writing and revising. The way to ensure that students revise is to make revision a required part of the project.

In response, I adopted a new strategy. During the final month of classes, some facet of the project is due every period. I have deadlines for the methods section (which is submitted first in list form), a properly formatted annotated bibliography, a hierarchical outline for the introduction, the paragraphed methods section, a rough draft version of the introduction, an outline of the discussion section, rough results that include graphs and tables, a complete rough draft, and the final paper.

This may seem like a daunting grading task during the already hectic last month of the semester. As it turns out, I do not grade each draft. I start with a checklist indicating each item due from the student. I check them off as they are handed in. No late drafts are allowed for any item. I write brief comments. For poorer drafts, the comments are fewer but broader in scope. For example, I do not comment on specific wording or structure when the whole section requires major revision.

I periodically ask the students to meet with me so that I can interpret my comments (this is easily accomplished during a laboratory meeting). My comments on early drafts focus on framing their work in a broader context. Comments on later drafts focus on more detailed facets of their wording or ideas. The main goal is to get students to revise their work.

Because I do not grade each draft, the students need to be motivated to do serious revision. To encourage students to pay attention to my comments and revise appropriately, their final project is due as a portfolio, with all of the drafts appended to the final product. As I mark the final paper, I can see whether I have already made a recommendation and whether students have acted on it. Their response to early criticism constitutes 15 percent of the final project grade.

Despite initial misgivings, student response to this approach has been overwhelmingly positive. They appreciate having the opportunity to improve their work on a project that constitutes a large portion of their course grade.

Their papers have dramatically improved. Students appear to learn more about the writing process as they are forced to rectify shortcomings in earlier drafts of their work. Stress levels seem lower. Their final week is spent in assembly and revision rather than literature review and draft-writing. Given the quality of their papers, I’m convinced their better writing is worth the effort.

Kari Benson, PhD is an associate professor of biology and environmental science at Lynchburg College.

Excerpted from “Avoiding the Blank Screen Blues.” The Teaching Professor, 24.9 (2010): 3.