I mostly teach basic technical writing, and I face the same problem that confronts many of us who teach writing. It’s hard enough getting students to do the assignments, and almost impossible to get them to do a first draft. But writing takes practice, and if you require students to practice, that leads to an inevitable mountain of papers to grade. At my college, the trend is toward bigger classes and fewer course hours in English. This makes giving students the chance to practice all the more important, and providing the necessary feedback all the more challenging. I’d like to share a couple of solutions I’ve devised that help me deal with both these problems.
HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS
writing assignment strategies
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.
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?
A qualitative study of plagiarism reported that although students know that plagiarism is wrong, most are quite confused about what actually constitutes plagiarism. The availability of so many online resources has exacerbated the problem. Cut-and-paste features expedite using the material of others. Studies are also showing that students do not think the principles of ownership apply to online resources the same way they do to published material. Finally, many faculty are still struggling to master the rules of referencing that apply to Web-based resources, which does not excuse but certainly explains why students find referencing these materials so confusing.
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.
Do you sometimes (maybe regularly) get papers from students filled with spelling, punctuation, proofreading, and other more serious grammatical problems? Yours is not an English class and you have other content to teach, making it difficult to address these writing problems. And yet leaving them unaddressed puts students in jeopardy. They may not believe us, but the fact is we still live in a culture that “sorts out” people based on their use of language and a student who can’t put together an error-free résumé or cover letter isn’t likely to get many interviews or good jobs.