I’ve long been an advocate of student-centered learning and approaching material from a variety of perspectives. We hear so many buzzwords describing the ways we should teach or the ways our students learn, and we deal increasingly with issues of plagiarism and academic dishonesty. In a classroom of adult learners who frequently view themselves as consumers, we balance the need to meet their demands with the need for them to meet ours. Getting back to the basics can intrinsically incorporate kinesthetic, collaborative learning, and nearly eliminate plagiarism while promoting critical thinking.
In introductory collegiate writing courses, we teach students the writing process. Some texts and programs I’ve used insist that the process has four steps; others, five. The names may vary, but the steps are all important, and the process is recursive. The five that I talk about with my students are Prewriting/Invention, Drafting, Revising, Editing, and Reflecting. In addition to sharing this process, we ask that our student writers pay careful consideration to purpose, audience, and tone. Point-of-view occasionally makes this elite list, as well.
Demonstrating (modeling) the writing process and guiding students through each step naturally incorporates successful learning strategies while providing a variety of feedback that builds confidence and increases accountability while developing writing and thinking skills. The step-by-step process can be used with any essay length or type and with any research component.
I have students begin prewriting in class by listing potential subjects. I give either a number or time capacity; for example, each student must list ten topics or as many topics as she or he can in three minutes. Specifying the number of items or length of time to write helps counter writer’s block. Each student then selects three of the ten topics, conferring with classmates if needed. Next, for each of those three topics, the student completes a five-minute freewrite. This invention activity can take place in the classroom or at home, but I find that with less motivated students, the immediacy of the classroom produces better results.
During the next class meeting, we hold a full-class workshop. In turn, each student shares her or his three subjects with the rest of the class members, who are encouraged to respond. This incorporation of classmates from the very outset helps the student writer understand the important role of writing to your audience and its interests, and discussions about purpose and tone begin to take root. Student writers ask one another questions. They disagree, they share experiences, and they encourage one another. Their response lets the writer know that the essay has meaning outside of fulfilling an assignment. Each writer notes not only the question she or he has about the subject, but also the questions or concerns of the increasingly apparent audience. As students take ownership of their ideas, the propensity to plagiarize also decreases.
Students frequently cite both procrastination and an underdeveloped understanding of the assignment as their reasons for resorting to plagiarism. If, however, we are both giving the adequate, guided time for the writing process and sufficient feedback on their ideas (as opposed to criticism of their structure, grammar, and mechanics,) then we are eliminating these excuses. I encourage students to answer the questions they generated during the invention phase from wherever they can, focusing on research as a means of “finding out” rather than meeting an arbitrarily set quota of sources. Whether they search academic journals, interview a professional in their field of study, or reach into the recesses of their memories, these student writers are actively engaging in their own learning.
Revising their writing again involves the audience. Students are excited to share their findings with one another, and many share ideas and potential sources, as well. This collaborative effort helps students strengthen their own ideas as opposed to taking credit for the ideas of others. Considering the perspectives of their peers, students are more considerate of tone, and if their readers aren’t getting the same sense of “purpose” intended, these writers have a real reason to take genuine interest in their revisions.
Time and again, when my students reflect on their writing (in writing,) they appreciate the opportunity to create something meaningful, and almost all report increased confidence in their writing abilities. Greater empathy for and improved collaboration among peers are two additional benefits. Although I am an English instructor, faculty in other disciplines can incorporate the same processes by allowing students to apply principles from a particular discipline to their own experience through writing.
Ultimately, this practice of helping adult learners develop meaning and ownership through writing will promote a better understanding of not only subject material, but also of their relationships with their colleagues, experiences, and the world around them.
Carmen Hamlin, M.A. is an English instructor and NTHS Faculty Advisor at the School of Health Science of ECPI University.