The Eyes of a Writer: A Strategy to Improve Student Writing

How many times have you provided feedback in the margins of students’ papers, only to find that you’re providing the very same feedback on the next set of papers? As a new faculty member, I was left dumbfounded by this experience. I couldn’t understand why my students continuously made the same errors and why my feedback did not improve their papers. I was also surprised by the number of students who requested meetings to discuss why they felt their papers warranted a higher grade. My colleagues assured me that I wasn’t alone in these experiences, but I knew there had to be alternatives to this unproductive cycle.

After some time, I realized that if I wanted better writers and my students wanted better grades on written assignments, then I had to teach them the qualities of effective writing and empower them to improve their written work. Now this may sound like a daunting task to some, but it’s not as time consuming as you might think. Let me explain the approach I’ve developed.

In advance of the first major writing assignment each semester, I provide students with a benchmark paper from a previous semester. (I secure the students’ permission to use their papers and remove all the identifying information from them.) In class we read this paper with “the eyes of a writer.” In other words, I ask students to notice what the author did to make the piece effective. If students have difficulty identifying these qualities, I point out things like a clear statement of purpose, a strong organizational structure, and effective use of sentences and paragraphs. Next, I share a piece of work that doesn’t have these characteristics. Again, we collaboratively mark up the text and observe what the writer did well and where the paper fell short. After comparing the two papers, I ask the students to assume the role of editor and provide the second author with specific feedback and suggestions to improve the paper. At the end of class I collect this feedback so I can gauge how well the activity worked. Such an activity could also be given as a homework assignment.

Since implementing this approach, I have seen a measurable improvement in students’ written work and an increased sense of agency among them. One student recently remarked, “The rubrics you provide tell us what you expect, but the benchmark texts show us.” Another student said, “I am less overwhelmed about assignments when you show us a benchmark text, because I know what you expect and I say to myself, ‘OK, you can do this.’”

Even though this approach helps many students, some still struggle as writers. For those students, I have developed an extension of the first activity. I meet with these students, but before we get together, I ask them to do some reflection. They reread the benchmark paper for that particular assignment and list at least five things that make the paper successful. Next, I have them reread their own papers, including my comments, and make another list of at least five things they noticed about their own work (i.e., strengths and/or challenges). Finally, after comparing the two papers, they use a graphic organizer I’ve provided to develop a list of specific things they need to work on to improve their writing.

When students come to our meetings having done this analysis, it changes the overall tenor and efficiency of our meetings. Rarely do students contest the grade, although some do ask to rewrite the assignment—a practice I don’t generally encourage. However, I do want students to learn from this experience and stay motivated to improve their work, so I encourage them to apply what they’ve learned to their future papers. When grading those papers, I make a point of noticing their improvements and they earn credit for their efforts. This practice reinforces that learning is the goal and it honors students’ growth over time.

In sum, providing students with benchmark texts and teaching them to read with the eyes of a writer helps them internalize a rubric for effective writing. It also moves the responsibility from faculty having to defend grades on written work to students being empowered to positively affect the grades they earn. Making the transition from expecting good writing to teaching the qualities of good writing has improved not only students’ engagement and written work, but also my relationship with them and my sense of efficacy as a teacher.

Dr. Kristin M. Gehsmann is an associate professor at Saint Michael’s College.

Reprinted from Learning to Read with the Eyes of a Writer. The Teaching Professor, 25.1 (2011): 1,3.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Linda Macaulay


    Would you be willing to share the graphic organizer you give students that need the extra support? I would love to oncorporate that into my process. (

    1. Linda Macaulay

      Incorporate, that is! (Maybe I need the rubric for my own writing!)

  2. @DrBruceJ

    Hello Dr. Gehsmann:

    Thank you for providing a very insightful post.

    You’ve talked about a challenge that many educators face – students who continue to make the same mistakes.

    Let’s consider now what happens when you take the time to provide very detailed feedback and students do not respond to you. What do you do when you provide meaningful feedback and the student does not respond to that feedback? In addition, you find that they are continuing to make the same types of mistakes. What is your reaction to this situation?

    When this occurs, here are some questions to consider:
    Do you believe that they are reviewing the information, policies, procedures, and feedback you’ve provided?
    Do you also believe that they are able to comprehend and understand the information provided?

    One approach that can be utilized is the use of Socratic questioning. Socratic feedback is a method of inviting students to reflect upon their work, leading them deeper into the topic. Do you think that this would be helpful, as a means of engaging the unresponsive student by encouraging a conversation and interaction with them? This is also a challenge for online instructors because they aren’t physically present to check in with students about their progress.

    Dr. J

  3. Jay Bidal

    The use of models is useful, but one of the problems students have is that they have difficulty understanding how the writer of the model achieved his goals. In other words, they don't understand the "process" of good writing when faced with a blank piece of paper, even if they know the "Process" of brainstorming, outlining, drafting, and editing.

    To help student writers understand the "process" of writing, the cognitive apprenticeship approach is worth considering. It involves modeling the thinking processes of a good writer by having the instructor write parts of an example assignment in front of the class and giving voice to the myriad of mini-decisions a good writer makes as they construct their sentences, paragraphs, and arguments. In time, the instructor involves students in making those decisions by eliciting from them what the writer should do next, or how best to link two ideas, etc. Students then try on their own to apply the principles and thinking processes to their own writing, and the feedback cycle starts.

    I've found this approach to be effective, and students seem to appreciate the lack of pressure at the start.

    Jay Bidal

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