On Teaching Students to Write Well
By Anonymous, July 30, 2009 in Pedagogy and Teaching

I try to design my classes so that students will learn both the materials and important skills that they will continue to use for the rest of their lives. In the coming semester, I want to focus in particular on writing ability, and Iím trying to devise a system that will help my students to develop their writing skills over the course of the semester. Essentially, I want to establish a system that will allow me to set a goal for the students at the beginning of the course and then give them an opportunity to meet that goal. As part of the system, I want to design a grading pattern that will leave room for error in the beginning and encourage improvement throughout the rest of the semester. Here are a few options that Iíve come up with:

The first method is to weight the paper assignments incrementally. For instance, in a class with four five-page papers, the value of each paper toward the final grade would be 10%, 20%, 30%, and 40% respectively. The first paper would establish my expectations and then students would have the opportunity to improve as they wrote each paper. This way, those students who did poorly at the start wouldnít be penalized too greatly, and those who progressed would be rewarded. On the other hand, the final paper is worth a large portion of the grade and the students might be uncomfortable with that.

Another method would be to ask for a draft of the first paper (worth, say, 10%) and then require a corrected version (worth 15%). Once again, the first paper would set the standard, but in this case each subsequent paper would be worth 25%. Thus, students would get one chance to learn what is expected of them, and then they would have three equally weighted opportunities to bring themselves up to that level. This option creates more work for me, but it might offer the best opportunity to help the students to improve. It also removes the pressure that would come with a final paper worth 40% of the final grade.

Yet another possibility would be to have the first paper be worth 10% and then to make each subsequent paper worth 30%. This removes the extra work that would come with looking over the first paper twice, but it once again allows students to figure out what constitutes a good paper before their grades really start adding up. With this method, however, I fear that many students may not take the first paper as seriously as the others.

I think each of these systems has its merits, and thereís an almost infinite number of possible permutations, but I think some method of raising the stakes as the semester goes on is helpful because it allows me to set a higher standard without punishing the students in terms of their grades. I wonder what others think of these suggestions, or the motive that underlies them. Can anyone suggest a method that they use to help students improve their writing skills? As I said, my goal is to set a high standard and encourage improvement without sinking my studentsí grades.

Tags: Education

David Kidd on Jul 30, 2009 at 12:32 pm

At Villanova, first year grad students in the philosophy program are required to work a few hours each week at a writing center. If your university offers something equivalent (and especially if it's run by capable people) I encourage you to do as many profs at Villanova do and require your students to have their paper evaluated at the writing center before it's turned in. It's no replacement for the good ideas you suggest, but you may find it makes a difference without any more work on your part.

Lee Trepanier on Jul 30, 2009 at 7:36 pm

In my experience, writing centers have not been very helpful for students in their writing. Students usually need the most help in grammar, syntax, and style, and, at least in the schools that I've taught, the writing center does not offer those services. What they do teach is how to compose an argument as taught in the Introduction Composition Course, e.g., thesis statement, supporting points, evidence. Although this has its uses, it may not be helpful in teaching students how to write analytically. Of course, writing centers vary from institution to institution.

The other concern I would raise is you need to factor in the time to grade students' papers. Generally speaking, revisions are easier to grade than brand new papers. Although I support writing assignments (we are required to offer them in all of our classes in my department), they do eat up a lot of your time, which becomes a problem if you have heavy publication demands for tenure and promotion.

Steven McGuire on Aug 1, 2009 at 7:34 am

Thanks for the comments David and Lee. I'll see what our writing center offers. Maybe I could throw in a requirement that they take their first paper there before handing it in.

Time is definitely an issue, but I would like to do something to help the students write better, even if it costs me a few hours. In my experience, they really need the help!

Lee Trepanier on Aug 1, 2009 at 1:32 pm

One thing you might want to mention to your students is that the number one things employers are looking for are people who can communicate clearly. It is amazing how many people are hired in the private sector who can't compose a simple memo. I don't know whether that will motivate them to write better, but you're right that it's a skill sorely lacking with most of our students.