Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 28: improving student writing

In my experience, most students understand that a paper for an English class is not the same as a text message. But do they understand that writing for a college class is not the same as writing for a high school class (or a standardized test)?

This semester I’m teaching a literature course for non-majors, and while writing is one my learning goals, it’s not as major a focus as it would be in a composition class. We spend most of our time talking about literature, but since the major assessments are mostly written I wanted to spend a little bit of time getting students to rethink what writing means. I’ve tried a few different approaches with this class, which I’ll simply list here:

  • We talked about readers. Early in the semester, I asked students to consider who reads what they write. I used a very specific genre: emails to a professor. The choice was sparked by an article from Wellesley College’s Project on Social Computing that was floating around Twitter at the time (and a similar post in the Facebook group “Angry and Not Angry Teaching Resources.”) I asked students what they thought professors (or managers, or any kind of potentially senior person whom they don’t know) might expect from email, stressing the generalizable point that readers determine the expectations for what is written.
  • They summarized the assignment. Before the first paper, I handed out an assignment describing what I wanted and giving the rubric I’d be using to grade. But there’s research to support the notion that students often ignore these directions, falling back instead on what they have seen from writing assignments in the past (assuming, I suppose, that all writing is the same). So I asked students to summarize the assignment back to me, in their own words. Most did fine, and I was able to correct a few who clearly had missed the point and resorted to the 5-paragraph, standardized-test model of writing.
  • I surprised them with a workshop. I’m not in the habit of lying to students, but this is the one exception (and I’ve used this exercise in several classes). According to the syllabus and to the assignment instructions, the paper was due in class on a Monday. Rather than collecting it, though, I asked students to do an impromptu workshop, then revise the paper and turn it in on Wednesday. They passed their papers to the right, reading their classmate’s work with specific instructions from me. We did this several times, so by the end of the class each student had seen seven or eight examples of other students’ writing. The exercise had two goals, which I explicitly spelled out to the class:
    • Writing is a process, and they can only improve by revising. The point of surprising them with the workshop is that even “final” drafts can be improved: it’s been my experience that students don’t always put their full effort into a paper if they know it’s “just for the workshop.”
    • They get to see what student writing looks like (which, unless they’ve taken other workshop-style courses before, they don’t often get to see). Most students read only professionally edited, polished prose, which can be intimidating if their own writing looks nothing like that. It helps to see writing more similar to their own.
  • They summarized my comments. After I returned the papers, I asked each student to write me a paragraph summarizing my comments and telling me what they will do differently next time.

I was impressed with the papers, overall. They at least contained all the right parts: they made a claim and supported it with evidence, and most were moving past the “writing to display” model. And having read the paragraphs summarizing my comments, I can confirm that students at least read them (which, we know, isn’t always the case). The summaries even seem genuine: a few expressed disappointment in the grade, but also understood what they need to improve.

How much time do you spend working on writing in your classes that aren’t overtly writing-focused? Do you have any strategies that have worked well for you?

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