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.
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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.
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.
There is little argument that reflective writing is a good way to foster critical thinking, encourage self expression, and give students a sense of ownership of their work (Chretien et al. 2012, Kennison and Misselwitz, 2002). This generation of college students has been doing reflective writing since elementary school so they are familiar with the process, even if not all enjoy it. Almost every academic discipline includes content on which learner reflection is appropriate; so the problem, typically, is not in creating the assignment but rather in assessing the work. How do we place a fair and equitable grade on an assignment that has so many variables? What are we looking for in our students’ work that we can reward and encourage with a good grade?
One of the messages of the Writing Across the Curriculum movement is that writing skills can be developed in any course and that often the best place to start is with current assignments that involve writing. That’s where chemists Gragson and Hagen started. They were disappointed in the quality of student writing in their “journal-style” lab reports. Despite giving students a sample lab, a writing manual, and lots of good feedback, the quality of the lab reports was low and did not improve across the 10 to 15 lab reports students prepared.
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.