improving student writing skills
Every October, members of the Canadian Forces College’s National Security Program—a master of public administration program for senior military personnel and senior public service professionals—have the opportunity (and privilege) to travel to Ottawa to meet with high-level policy practitioners. The intent of the trip is to allow our students to compare what their in-class readings have taught them about governance and executive leadership with what actually happens in the national capital on a daily basis.
Most students in my developmental writing classes claim they “hate” writing. It’s a familiar refrain. But, it is less about “hate” and more about a lack of preparation in the subject area. They do not have sufficient experience with the writing process in order to understand what to do. It is not until they gain this experience and realize for themselves what is wrong and what is right with their own work will their writing improve. This personal realization has to happen. It is key to neutralizing their fear and boosting their confidence.
I’ve been teaching composition at the college level since 1984, and have had the pleasure of working with students at several different institution types: a community college, a private college, and a research university. For 10 years, I served as writing program administrator at the University of California, Irvine, responsible for facilitating required first-year writing courses and for training new graduate students to teach composition. The first-year writing class is truly a rite of passage, a common experience for thousands of college students across the country every year.
We all understand that writing is important and our students should do it well. Even so, many professors feel uncertain when teaching it, especially when their subject area is something far removed from “Composition 101.” Even instructors who work on writing skills find it challenging to maintain momentum when their own academic content inevitably requires attention. Moreover, students, many of whom are easily stressed, worry that their grades will suffer when an “outsider” teaches writing. Some colleges have found it hard to sustain Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) programs just because of this. But it isn’t a lost cause. Writing need not be so frightening and teaching it can be fun…for both students and instructors. And the writing lessons themselves don’t have to detract from any other academic content. Really!
Breathes there a professor of any subject with soul so dead who never to himself hath said, “Today’s undergraduates are hopeless at research!” (apologies to Sir Walter Scott). It is easy to blame high schools or freshman English classes, but that doesn’t fix our problem. As a frustrated educator of future teachers (Clouse) and a 20-year veteran of teaching college writing and research (Nelson), we obviously sympathize and often feel blamed. We have found that a better approach is an interdisciplinary effort that gives students ample opportunities to practice and develop their writing and research skills. The cumulative effect of this approach not only benefits faculty, but our students seem to appreciate and feel less intimidated working within this method as well.
Thanks to the Writing-Across-the-Curriculum movement we are having our students write more and we’re using a wider range of writing assignments. Right?
If that’s what you’re doing, it’s consistent with the actions of faculty teaching undergraduate sociology courses; as documented by an analysis of 405 different syllabi. Almost 95% of those syllabi described some type of writing assignment and most of them required more than one.
One of the ongoing challenges for my composition students is the task of narrowing a broad, generalized topic into a more particular, focused topic for a short research essay. To help them develop this skill, I now prescribe a broad topic for everyone to use in the first research essay. Over several class sessions, we work collaboratively to explore the general topic, identify more particular subtopics, and develop research strategies to investigate these subtopics as possible subject matter.
The Writing Across the Curriculum movement has successfully introduced faculty across disciplines to a variety of writing, including very informal writing that faculty do not necessarily read or grade. The advocacy for this kind of informal writing rests on the old premise that practice makes perfect—that as long as students are writing something, their writing will likely improve.
Turnitin, the leader in originality checking and online grading, announced the results of a new study analyzing instructor feedback on 2,093,396 student papers submitted through GradeMark, the Turnitin online grading tool. The study found that while instructors have accepted online grading as mainstream, they are finding the same types of grammatical and compositional errors across secondary and postsecondary grade levels.
Most professors want students to know how to research and write in their fields. In fact, many degree programs now have introductory courses for majors with content that addresses these research and writing basics. However, the assumption that students learn everything they need in one course is a faulty one. All of us who teach courses for majors need to regularly revisit this content if students are to develop these research and writing abilities. Let me be specific and suggest six things professors can do that help students improve in both areas.