Over the summer I worked on revising a manual for teaching assistants that we hand out each year at our annual TA Orientation. One of the sections deals with writing intensive courses across disciplines and how TAs can facilitate and evaluate writing assignments. The information, advice, and resources in the manual speak to an audience beyond graduate student teaching assistants. Even seasoned instructors may struggle with teaching writing skills and evaluating written assignments.
Two mistakes that teachers may make are assuming that students in their courses know how to write a scholarly paper and not providing appropriate directions for assignments. These assumptions are likely to guarantee that the resulting student writing will disappoint.
As a quick aside, faculty often complain about the poor quality of student writing, claiming that students today don’t write as well as students in some vaguely imagined past, perhaps when the faculty member was a college freshman. However, the results of an interesting longitudinal study suggest otherwise. A report in JSTOR Daily, Student Writing in the Digital Age by Anne Trubek (October 19, 2016), summarizes the findings of the 2006 study by Andrea A. Lunsford and Karen J. Lunsford, Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study. “Lunsford and Lunsford, decided, in reaction to government studies worrying that students’ literacy levels were declining, to crunch the numbers and determine if students were making more errors in the digital age.” Their conclusion? “College students are making mistakes, of course, and they have much to learn about writing. But they are not making more mistakes than did their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.” Regardless of your take on the writing of current students, it is worth giving thoughtful consideration to your part in improving your students’ writing.
Good writing comes as a result of practice and it is the role of the instructor to facilitate that practice. Students may arrive at university knowing how to compose a decent five-paragraph essay, but no one has taught them how to write a scholarly paper. They must learn to read critically, summarize what they have read, identify an issue, problem, flaw, or new development that challenges what they have read. They must then construct an argument, back it with evidence (and understand what constitutes acceptable evidence), identify and address counter-arguments, and reach a conclusion. Along the way they should learn how to locate appropriate source materials, assemble a bibliography, and properly cite their sources. As an instructor, you must show them the way.
Students will benefit from having the task of writing a term paper broken into smaller components or assignments. Have students start with researching a topic and creating a bibliography. Librarians are often available to come to your class to instruct students in the art of finding sources and citing them correctly. Next, assign students to producing a summary of the materials they’ve read and identifying the issue they will tackle in their paper. Have them outline their argument. Ask for a draft. Considering using peer review for some of these steps to distribute the burden of commenting and grading. Evaluating other’s work will improve their own. [See the May 29, 2015 Innovative Instructor post Using the Critique Method for Peer Assessment.] And the opportunity exists to have students meet with you in office hours to discuss some of these assignments so that you may provide direct guidance and mentoring. Their writing skills will not develop in a vacuum.
Your guidance is critical to their success. This starts with clear directions for each assignment. For an essay you will be writing a prompt that should specify the topic choices, genre, length, formal requirements (whether outside sources should be used, your expectations on thesis and argument, etc.), and formatting, including margins, font size, spacing, titling, and student identification. Directions for research papers, fiction pieces, technical reports, and other writing assignments should include the elements that you expect to find in student submissions. Do not assume students know what to include or how to format their work.
As part of the direction you give, consider sharing with your students the rubric by which you will evaluate their work. See the June 26, 2014 Innovative Instructor post Sharing Assignment Rubrics with Your Students for more detail. Not sure how to create a rubric? See previous posts: from October 8, 2012 Using a Rubric for Grading Assignments, November 21, 2014 Creating Rubrics (by Louise Pasternak), and June 14, 2017 Quick Tips: Tools for Creating Rubrics. Rubrics will save you time grading, ensure that your grading is equitable, and provide you with a tangible defense against students complaining about their grades.
Giving feedback on writing assignments can be time consuming so focus on what is most important. This means, for example, noting spelling and grammar errors but not fixing them. That should be the student’s job. For a short assignment, writing a few comments in the margins and on the last page may be doable, but for a longer paper consider typing up your comments on a separate page. Remember to start with something positive, then offer a constructive critique.
As well, bring writing into your class in concrete ways. For example, at the beginning of class, have students write for three to five minutes on the topic to be discussed that day, drawing from the assigned readings. Discuss the assigned readings in terms of the authors’ writing skills. Make students’ writing the subject of class activities through peer review. Incorporate contributions to a class blog as part of the course work. Remember, good writing is a result of practice.
Finally, there are some great resources out there to help you help your students improve their writing. Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab—OWL—website is all encompassing with sections for instructors (K-12 and Higher Ed) and students. For a quick start go to the section Non-Purdue College Level Instructors and Students. The University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching offers a page on Evaluating Student Writing that includes Designing Rubrics and Grading Standards, Rubric Examples, Written Comments on Student Writing, and tips on managing your time grading writing.
Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources
Image source: Photo by: Matthew Henry. CC License via Burst.com.