Improving Student Writing

Introduction

For students, the ability to communicate clearly and accurately is crucial for success in both academics and future occupations. Thus, it is important, but often difficult, for students to develop good writing skills. Four types of approaches to improving students’ writing skills have been suggested: (a) required writing courses; (b) writing centers and/or tutors, (c) individual help from instructors or mentors, and (d) writing instruction incorporated into content courses.  With regard to the latter, there is an extensive literature on how instructors can work toward improving students’ writing while teaching content courses.

An argument is sometimes made that helping students improve their writing in a content course takes away time and focus from the content of the course. The counterargument, however, is that providing students with writing experiences leads not only to improved writing but also to improved learning. In fact, it has been argued that students learn more when they are required to articulate their knowledge and thoughts in writing. Regular writing assignments can also help students keep up with reading, better understand course concepts, think critically about course material, and take a more active role in class.  Giving students an opportunity to put the course material into their own words makes it easier for them to assimilate and retain new knowledge.

Additionally, writing assignments provide an opportunity for students to learn the expectations of graduate writing and how they differ from those of undergraduate writing. Specifically, graduate school students are expected to learn the conventions, both explicit and implicit, of academic writing in their discipline. Scholarly or scientific writing is aimed at a different audience than undergraduate writing and is governed by specific norms about content, style, and format (e.g., formal tone, clear focus on a topic or thesis, and precise word choice). Course writing assignments give students exposure to these conventions as well as practice implementing them.

Finally, requiring writing assignments also helps instructors. Faculty benefit because written assignments provide them with feedback on what students are learning and how well they are understanding the course material.  Regular papers required early in a course also provide scaffolding for later assignments, which improves students’ performance on those assignments and thus simplifies grading.

Sources

Research Guides
University of Southern California Libraries Research Guides

Academic Writing
Purdue University Online Writing Lab

Writing Assignment Checklist
University of Minnesota Teaching with Writing

Understanding Graduate-Level Writing
Arizona University Global Campus Writing Center

Sciences
University of North Carolina Writing Center

Principles of Scientific Writing
University of Colorado/Denver Writing Center

Improving Students’ Writing

In order to help students improve their writing skills, instructors must formulate strategies for incorporating writing into their courses and providing students with helpful and effective feedback.

Writing is best understood as a process that comprises several steps, and opportunities to improve student writing arise in all stages of the process.  Most often these steps are said to include (a) brainstorming or generating ideas about a topic, (b) outlining the structure of the paper, (c) writing and rewriting rough drafts, (d) revising the paper to clarify, reorganize, and add or remove ideas, (e) editing the paper for grammar, punctuation, syntax, word choice, and so on, and (f) polishing and proofreading the paper for any remaining minor errors.

Following are some general suggestions for improving students’ writing:
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Using content-based courses to help students improve their writing means that good writing must be an explicit part of the course; therefore, instructors should add a writing student learning objective to their syllabus so students know that they value good writing and will be evaluating it in the course.

It also is crucial to create rubrics that clarify expectation for graduate level scholarly writing so that students know the instructor’s expectations and criteria when they evaluate student writing.
 Rubrics for Written Assignments

Another way for instructors to convey their expectations to students is to provide models of good writing. These examples should reflect features of writing valued in the discipline and can be annotated to point out exemplary aspects and emphasize important points.

Because student may not be familiar with the amount of work involved in producing good writing, it is helpful to discuss the writing process with them. Knowing that achieving good writing can take multiple iterations can relieve students of the anxiety that comes from believing that they must produce a perfect paper on the first draft.

The course should require multiple written assignments. This can include one big paper, which should be broken down in several smaller assignments (with deadlines), and/or multiple smaller papers throughout the semester/term.

To give students the experience of responding to suggestions and feedback and making improvements, drafts and revisions should be required for at least some of the assignments. This also allows students to see improvements in their writing.

In order for feedback to be effective, it should be timely, regular, and focused formative feedback. This means requiring some writing assignments earl in the semester/term, so students have the opportunity to learn from the feedback they receive.
 Student Assessment

It is also useful to embed short writing exercises during class time. These can be “low stakes” active learning exercises that are either ungraded or count for a small per cent of the final grade.
 Promoting Active Learning

In order for students to learn to monitor and judge their own work, the instructor can encourage self-evaluation of writing. Self-evaluation by students is most effective if they are provided with a checklist that teaches them to recognize common errors and guidelines for editing.

Using peer review is another useful technique for teaching students to evaluate and revise writing. It can involve brief informal discussions in small groups or pairs or use of guidelines or checklists.

So that students learn the importance of attention to detail and producing a polished final paper, they should be required to proofread papers before handing them in.

Early in the term/semester, before giving the first written assignment, the use of citations and the pitfalls of plagiarism should be discussed, so that students are clear on what is acceptable in scholarly writing.
 Addressing Plagiarism 

In order to maximize students’ opportunities to learn from feedback, instructors can arrange individual meetings to answer questions and clarifying comments. Aggregated feedback can also be reviewed with the entire class.
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Instructor should also have a list of school/university resources to give to students who want or need additional help.

Sources

Efficient Ways to Improve Student Writing
University of Wisconsin/Whitewater Learn Center

Providing Feedback to Writers
George Mason University Writing Center

In-Class Writing Exercises
University of Washington Center for Teaching and Learning

How Can I Effectively and Efficiently Respond to Student Writing?
Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovations

Teaching Resources
University of Minnesota Teaching with Writing

Commenting on Students’ Writing

One of the crucial ways to improve student writing is to provide effective feedback on written assignments (Providing Effective Feedback). Feedback on writing is most often provided through written comments, either on a hard copy or electronically.

The University of  Minnesota Teaching with Writing site describes the following eight possible types of comments on writing:

Open-ended questions: Encourage additional ideas and more in depth thinking without providing answers.

Coaching: Offers recommendation or suggestions for revisions of parts of text.

Praise: Points out a specific strength in the text and describe why it is successful in order “to affirm effort and encourage repetition.”

Explanation or clarification: Identifies an error or omission and provides a correction or additional information.

Closed-ended questions: Ask for specific information that has been omitted.

Criticism: Identifies a flaw or weakness in a specific part of the text and explains the associated difficulty so students knows what to revise.

Commands: Provide comments that demand a change in the text that are most effective If basis or reason is provided.

Corrections: Include changes made to the text by the instructor without students’ having to act.

 

General tips regarding providing feedback on student writing include:

  1. Read a student’s paper once without commenting to get a general idea of strengths and areas for improvement. Do not start with line editing.
  2. Before starting to read, be clear about the purpose of the assignment. Relate feedback to student learning objective regarding writing and the rubric for this assignment, so the student knows why you are making these comments.
  3. Provide positive comments that can reinforce good writing and motivate a student. The more specific, the better: point out clear thinking (e.g., an explicit thesis statement or an cogent example), effective organization (e.g., use of topic sentences or section headings), and effective writing (e.g., use of active voice or succinct wording)
  4. Categorize issues/problems that arise. Look for pattens that can be addressed and prioritize those that interfere most with clear communication.
  5. Start with “higher order” issues such as
    1. ​​​​​​​Effectiveness of organization
    2. Logical flow
    3. Clarity of thought
    4. Coherence
  6. Move on to “lower order” issues such as
    1. ​​​​​​​Word choice
    2. Grammar
    3. Syntax
    4. Punctuation
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  7. Ask questions that will help students to clarify their ideas and think of ways to respond rather than telling them exactly what to do.
  8. For directive comments, explain what the problem is and the basis for the proposed solution.
  9. It is not necessary to comment on every problematic aspect of a paper; limit comments to the most important ones so as not to overwhelm the student.
  10. Do not edit the entire paper; mark examples of repeated errors and expect students to correct them and others like them.

Sources

Write Comments
McGill University Teaching and Learning Services

Grading Essays
University of California Berkeley Graduate Student Instructor Teaching Resource Center

Commenting on Student Writing
Washington University in Saint Louis Center for Teaching and Learning

What Does Effective Feedback Look Like?
University of Albany Institute for Teaching, Learning, and Academic Leadership

Commenting on Student Writing
University of Minnesota Teaching with Writing

Editing for “Lower Order” Issues

According to the Dartmouth University Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, instructors have different methods of dealing with these types of errors:
  1. Labeling all errors using specific grammatical terms (agreement problem, comma splice, etc.).
  2. Circling all errors (with the aim of bringing students to labeling errors on their own).
  3. Correcting or rewriting a phrase or sentence (with the aim of modeling a correct and/or eloquent style).
  4. Labeling an error the first or second time that it occurs, and then instructing the student to find subsequent errors of that kind in their papers.
  5. Looking for patterns of error, and noting the two or three most common patterns in the summary comments.
  6. Referring students to a resource on writing.
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  Diagnosing and Responding to Student Writing
Dartmouth University Institute for Writing and Rhetoric

Writing Assignments

As indicated, writing assignments are generally of two types: formal high stakes graded papers completed outside of class and informal low stakes ungraded paper completed in class.

High Stakes Writing Assignments

High stakes writing entails formal writing assignments that are graded and are a major part of the final grade. The instructor may allow preliminary drafts and provide formative feedback, but the final product is expected to be polished and represent the student’s best writing. Feedback on high stakes writing is summative, but it can be used to guide future writing as well.

The most productive high stakes writing assignments promote student learning and include opportunities for self-evaluation and reflection. In designing these writing assignments, it is important, whenever possible, to provide students with a specific meaningful task, with clear guidelines, which requires critical thinking. To engage their interest and teach them about the field, this might mean asking students to address authentic questions or investigate problems common in the discipline and requiring them to follow the conventions for writing in that discipline (e.g., use APA format, include a thesis statement, and present supporting evidence).

Writing assignments should, of course, be tied to course learning objectives. The instructor needs to have a clear idea of what the students are being asked to do and communicate those expectations in detail to the class. It is also helpful to relate the purpose of any assignment to the  goals of the course, so students know why they are being asked to compete that assignment. The following information should be included in every set of writing assignment instructions:

  1. Task: What exactly are students being asked to do?
  2. Rhetorical situation: What is the topic? Who is the audience? What is the purpose of the assignment?
  3. Rubric: What criteria will be used to evaluate the assignment?
  4. Due date: When is the last time you will accept the paper? What is the penalty for turning in the paper late?
  5. Length: Is there a minimum? Is there a maximum? What is the penalty to not adhering to this requirement?
  6. Formatting guidelines: Is there a required format or citation style?

There are several possible types of high stakes writing assignments, including (a) summary papers, (b) research reports, (c) position papers, (d) Compare/contrast papers, (e) reading responses, (f) position response papers, (g) disciplinary problem papers, and (h) data analysis papers. All call for a range of skills, and it important to consider the particular skills involved and how they relate to course learning objectives in choosing assignments. If the course includes more than one writing assignment, best practice is to sequence them so they become increasingly complex and thus scaffold the development of new skills as the course progresses.

Sources

Teaching Resources
University of Minnesota Teaching with Writing

Design Assignments
McGill University Teaching and Learning Services

Designing Effective Writing Assignments Series
University of California/Davis Center for Educational Effectiveness

Sequencing and Scaffolding Assignments
University of Michigan Sweetland Center for Writing

In-Class Writing Exercises
University of North Carolina

Low Stakes Writing Assignments

Incorporating informal writing activities into a class can also lead to both enhanced learning and improved writing. Low-stakes writing is informal writing, usually one paragraph to two pages in length, that encourages students to develop critical thinking skills by exploring ideas, with minimal concern about the format and structure of the writing. Low stakes writing may not be graded, may yield credit for being completed, or may be graded for content, rather than as a final product.  Low stakes writing provides students with practice analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating ideas and putting their thoughts into their own words – skills that they can then apply to high stakes writing assignments.

As with high stakes writing assignments, when introducing these activities in class, instructors should be sure to inform students of their purpose, what is expected, and how they will be used (i.e., how they will be counted toward the final grade).  The University of Minnesota Teaching with Writing site provides the following example of informal in-class writing activities:
 Informal, In-Class Writing Activities

  1. Informal writing activities
    1. ​​​​​​​Freewriting
      Freewriting requires students to write without stopping to edit or analyze. In this technique, all ideas are written down as soon as they occur in the mind. Five-minutes of freewriting can be useful many points in the drafting process as students work to develop their ideas.Freewriting can be of two types (a) prompted freewriting, which  allows students opportunities to initiate or develop their thinking on an instructor-supplied prompt and (b) open freewriting, which allows students to write on topics chosen by the students, sometimes in order to orient themselves to a topic. When the time is over, students should read over what they’ve written, highlighting useful and interesting ideas that can provide ideas they can use in their papers.
    2. Five-minute papers
      Students are given a prompt and a time limit and asked to write several sentences of paragraphs on a topic related to a class paper. The primary purpose of five-minute papers is to provide opportunities for students to increase their writing abilities, and the primary audience is the writer. These exercises provide a low-stress opportunity for students to develop the sorts of thinking abilities needed in larger, higher-stakes assignments. Students can generate, summarize, question, defend, synthesize, or apply ideas and can then these skills in their next assignments. Students should receive feedback about the content, but not mechanic; usually the assignments are not graded although they may count toward the final grade.
  2. Five-minute revision workshops
    1. ​​​​​​​Students are shown a brief writing sample and asked to read the sample and find the problematic writing issue it demonstrates. (1 minute)
    2. When the issue has been identified and described, students are instructed to diagnose why this issue happens and to suggest ways to remedy the problem with revisions. (3 minutes)
    3. Students are asked to reflect on how they might check their own work for possible instances of this same writing problem. (1 minute)
  3. Reflective memos
    1. ​​​​​​​Between drafts, they are answering three questions:
      1. ​​​​​​​What have you already revised (based on peer comments)?
      2. What do you know you need to revise but haven’t been able to get to yet?
      3. What, specifically, would you like me to respond to in this draft?
    2. With a final draft, they are answering four questions:
      1. ​​​​​​​Which section of this draft do you feel most confident about? Why? What was your process for writing that/those section(s)?
      2. If you were to revise this again, what might you alter?
      3. Where (inside or outside your coursework) might you see an assignment like this one again?
      4. If you are given a similar assignment in the future, what writing tips would you give yourself?

Sources

Teaching Multilingual Students
University of North Carolina Writing Center

Working with Multilingual Student Writers
Purdue University Online Writing Lab

Evaluating and Grading Multilingual Writing
University of Wisconsin/Madison Writing Across the Curriculum

Supporting Multilingual Learners
University of Minnesota Teaching with Writing

Responding to Errors in Multilingual Students’ Writing
Boston University Teaching Writing

Advice/Tips/Resources for Students

These sites provide information students might find useful in evaluating their own writing.

Writing Guides and Tools
George Mason University Writing Center
This comprehensive site lists 23 ways to improve a draft. They include advices on thesis statements, paragraph structure, transitions, quotations, introductions, and conclusions.

Online Resources for Improving Grammar and Word Choice in Writing
George Mason University Writing Center
This site lists many online resources with information on writing basics as well as information of general writing practices.

Handouts
Vanderbilt University Writing Studio
This site provide a long list of handouts on topics that include argumentation, incorporating sources, advice on word usage and sentence construction, and APA format.

Becoming a Better Writer
University of Rhode Island Graduate writing Center
This site provides advice from writing tutors on becoming a better writer that focuses on both the process and content of writing.

The Writing Process
University of Kansas Writing Center
This site focuses on the writing process, describing each step and providing links to additional resources.

Handouts and Online Resources for Students
University of California/Los Angeles Writing Programs
This site includes handouts and online resources organized according to the steps in the writing process and specific types of writing assignments.

Nine Basic Ways to Improve Your Style in Academic Writing
University of California/Berkeley Student Writing Center
This site provides advice on ways to improve academic writing, including tips on voice, punctuation, sentence structure, and vocabulary.

Writing Guides
University of Michigan Sweetland Center for Writing
This site includes several Writing Guides that address a series of specific issues, including creating a strong analysis, writing a title, incorporating quotes, and creating a strong thesis. It also has handouts from their Peer Writing Centers.

Site Map
Purdue University Writing Lab
This is a guide for a very comprehensive site with a wide range of information on writing, including academic writing, grammar, punctuation, and mechanics.

Editing Key and Writing Tips
Yale University Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning
This is a handout with tips for addressing common issues in writing and for identifying related editing symbols.

Multilingual Students

Improving the writing of multilingual students raises issues that are both similar to and different from those presented by students for whom English is their first language. The relevant literature focuses on creating a balance between correcting for higher order issues (e.g., clarity of ideas, coherence, and critical thinking) and lower order issues (e.g., grammar, syntax, and word choice). It advocates for clear guidelines, specific feedback, and individualized support, as well as attention to cultural differences in expectations, if relevant. This advice can be summarized as follows:

  1. Provide detailed assignments with clear expectations
    1. ​​​​​​​Guidelines regarding style appropriate for the discipline
    2. Guidelines regarding organization and structure (e.g., sections of paper and headings)
    3. Specific formatting information (e.g., font size, margins, and title page)
  2. Develop and hand out rubrics with explicit grading criteria
  3. Be aware of possible cultural biases
    1. Structure assignments so they do not call for knowledge or information unique to students with English as a first language
    2. Avoid using jargon or idiomatic expressions that may be unfamiliar to multilingual students
    3. Be aware of and address differences in academic and cultural norms that multilingual writers may have previously learned
  4. Discuss expectations of academic writing, including
    1. ​​​​​​​Clear organization, beginning with thesis statement
    2. Use of evidence to support points
    3. Concise writing style
    4. Precise word usage
    5. Correct format of citations and references
  5. Provide models of appropriate writing from journals, texts, or other students
    1. ​​​​​​​Annotate them to emphasize important points
    2. Discuss salient features in class
  6. Discuss students’ ideas with them before they start and encourage them to talk with others about their paper, so they can more easily articulate their thought is writing
  7. Encourage students to begin early by focusing first on content and then moving on to mechanics
  8. Encourage self-editing so students learn to identify and correct errors on their own
  9. Provide and explain proofreading guidelines
  10. Require revisions/multiple drafts and be willing to provide formative feedback on them
  11. Explain commenting practices so students know how to interpret them; if necessary, meet with students to review comments
    1. ​​​​​​​Thoroughly comment on a limited number of pages, or
    2. Choose a few errors and mark these throughout the entire paper
  12. Do not correct all minor grammatical errors (i.e., written accents); focus on a few patterns and errors that interfere with communication
  13. Provide support, resources, and referrals for additional assistance
  14. Teach about use of citations