Efficient teaching: improving student writing ability


Last week’s post was about university writing requirements that fall ludicrously short of their goal, like how this ferret falls short of his goal:

Let’s assume two facts:

  1. We should expect good writing of our students.

  2. Good writing comes from lots of experience with writing.

Which results in the following inference:

It is incumbent on us to require lots of writing from students in our classes.

This is not a small problem, because writing is not typically taught efficiently. If you’ve ever talked to people in English who teach composition, it sounds like a lot of work for the instructor, relative to the improvement in learning outcomes. How can we teach writing in an efficient way? This is a weakness of mine, so hopefully there will be a lot to learn in the comments. But here goes with my thoughts about the attempt to teach writing efficiently.

What makes people write well, more than anything else, is practice and revision. In addition, quality feedback matters.

Here is a thought: even people who don’t write well can often detect shoddy writing, and maybe even diagnose how to fix it. Even many amazing writers need other people to edit their own work, as they simply lack the independence of perspective needed to find the flaws.

Are we able to be more effective editors than the students in our classes? I would think so. But perhaps, with the proper guidance, students can become effective editors of one another’s writing? Moreover, do students have the opportunity to learn more about writing from the process of editing other people’s work?

Is it possible to teach writing well without needing the instructor to edit fresh writing on a frequent basis?

How about we design assignments — lab reports, short essays, term papers — in which students revise one another’s work? Instead of editing a stack of papers, we can review edits of edits. What really matters is that students are writing and getting good feedback. There’s no rule that the feedback has to come from us. If we provide both guidance and expectations for quality editing, then students should be able to do good peer edits and evaluations. I hope.

In a comment on the first teaching efficiency post, I explained a writing exercise I did with my class. I had the class read – in class over just five minutes — a short and well written piece. (Erwin’s classic paper in the Coleopterists Bulletin). I had the students discuss in small groups to identify the characteristics of the writing that made it good writing, and they reported back and we had a small discussion about it. Then, I took a piece of somewhat okay anonymous student writing from another time and place, and projected it for the class. With everybody watching, I modeled the editing process in google docs and showed them how and why I made a score of changes to improve it. I let them interrupt me with questions or suggestions as we did it. Then, groups of four were asked to create a single google doc and did their own writing and editing simultaneously.

Having students work together to develop and edit a single written document was a valuable lesson for everybody involved. I haven’t taught much writing since that semester, but when I do, I’d like to continue working with students to give them opportunities to edit one another’s writing and make sure that I have a grading structure in the class that rewards both writing and editing.

The difficult part of this plan is to keep an intentional focus on writing. It’s one of the most important and most overlooked parts of a university education, and like most other instructors, other things can seem more important at the moment. In insect biology, building and curating a collection is a big focus. In non-majors laboratory, I want to focus on experimental design and the fun of science, rather than nitpicking the writing of lab reports. In biostatistics, concepts and problem-solving come up front. Regardless of the content, it’s easy to see how writing could get shunted to a tier of lower priority, even though it’s fundamental.

Do you include a substantial writing component in your courses? If so, do you have approaches that work without taking all of your time away?

15 thoughts on “Efficient teaching: improving student writing ability

  1. Two things about writing 1. It’s never done (deadlines determine when it’s finished) and 2. it always gets better with editing…ideally from outside feedback.

    Another useful exercise I still have trouble doing is reading my own writing out loud; you find the stumbling points easily when you do that. Also, reading the essay or paper backwards helps reveal thought processes.

    An issue that can come up is if you have an outside edited piece of writing, is it still that individual student’s work? Or is the editor also credited? And then are you evaluating the writer themselves or the editor/writer combo? As a blogger, I am my own editor, and I’m not sure I do the best job; outside feedback would make me better.

    And one last tip for editing a peice, before editing, change the font…it will shift your perception of it so you can see it with somewhat fresh eyes.

    I lied: one more. I’ve been using the Hemingway app (Hemingwayapp.com I think) as an editor. There are electronic editors out there that can give feedback w/o feeling super judged by another human (though we all do need to get used to getting feedback from other people).

    I know this comment is rushed and not well written. please edit.

  2. I have my students review published work looking for the common writing mistakes found in Pechenik’s book (concentrating on the chapter on editing). I provide a checklist of the common mistakes that good editing should reveal. They also look for problems with flow, etc. The process of finding how many running jumps, unreferenced “its”, etc., is mind numbingly long for them but they appreciated the experience and their writing seems to have gotten better as a result.

  3. As a TA who has been tasked with marking a lot of student writing the last couple semesters for 1st & 2nd year Ecology courses, I agree this is a really big problem.

    Last semester 2nd year students had a writing assignment (writing a short summary of a paper of their choice) and had to edit each others’ work and provide detailed feedback in tutorial. Great in theory, but in practice at the point when we did this, a lot of students were still such weak writers that they were not really equipped to recognize weaknesses in their peers’ writing. Most of the final products were still very weak.

    A related problem is plagiarism. Many students lack the confidence to write in their own words (they have presumably had very little practice) and rely heavily on patch-writing. The instructor from last semester’s course has apparently had some success with teaching students to avoid this in a course she is now teaching by giving students some example summaries I wrote of the methods section of a paper (one that is patch-written and follows the original very closely, one in my own words that is a bit better but pretty clunky, and one that improved on the previous version by editing for clarity and conciseness) and having them work together to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each to decide which was best. Then in a full class discussion the instructor could point out additional points students might have missed.

    Apart from preparing writing examples for students to analyze, this sort of activity seems like a pretty low effort way to teach students to recognize problems with writing and some features of clear writing, before exercises where they are tasked with editing peer writing.

  4. Terry, my credentials again. I taught writing for 20 years in Oregon higher education. Courses included remedial, basic comp, argument, tech writihng, business, writing, research writing, creative writing, and environmental writing (in an honors program). That’s 6000 students who generated roughly 2500 words a course (at minimum) for a total of 15 million words edited. I also wrote. A lot. Writing teachers need to practice what they teach, which means that if you’re seeking advice froma colleague in English on campus, go to the writers and those who teach it rather than some comp director, who is usually interested in “theory” and selling his or her version of the zillion how-to writing textbooks on the market.

    That said, what you’ve suggested is old wine in old bottles. It’s called collaborative writng and gets to the core of an academic paradox. Most real-world writing is collaborative, but most undergraduate writing is not. But the classroom solution yhou propose won’t work. Alternatives are offered.

    Using expert examples of good writing is intimidating. Use student examples for excellent and poor writing with the names removed, as you mentioned.
    Having students “edit” each other’s prose won’t work. You’re asking the blind to lead the blind and you’re setting yourself up for the standard excuse: “Well, she told me is was okay.”
    Your “efficiency” is an old trick to reduce your workload, because, yes, teaching writing is labor intensive. University of Chicago rhetorician Wayne Booth recommended no more than 15 students per writing course, and no more than three courses per instructor per term/semester.

    The solution is this, and have your student memorize it: draft, revise, proof. Draft, revise, proof. Get rid of the word “edit.” Early drafts are always messy, even for the best of writers, as you say. 1) The draft is to organize thinking and therefore the document, so tell students to forget about grammar and mechanics. Get organized first. 2) Then revise, meaning revise organization. Once organization is under control, then and only then work at sentence level. 3) Proofread for grammar and mechanics. This approach is efficient and cuts your workload and gives students a sense of control, because most students confuse drafting with revision with proofreading.

    Final tip. Don’t grade junk. You waste your time hunting comma splices, assuming your know one when you see one. I used the rule of ten. If I circled ten grammar/mechanical/spelling errors on the first page, I’d stop reading and returned the essay in the next class meeting. I’d tell students at the beginning of the term that if I found ten I’d return the essay and would not read it until they cleaned up the problems. I’d tell them that I wanted to read their work without being distracted by lousy proofing. The student had until the next class meeting to make the corrections and resubmit without penalty. After that, he or she would lose a grade a day.

    Usually that level of junk error on the first page indicated the student had thrown the essay together at the last minute, and I wasn’t going to do the work for him or her. And it worked. I’d also tell the student to correct as many errors as possible, and then approach me with questions, which I used as a check to identify students who genuinely lacked the knowledge needed to control grammar and mechanics. Most students discovered through this approach that most of their errors were caused by rushing the assignment. This approach also used grading as an incentive rather than a sanction. Carrot rather than stick. For the most part. I’d also have to deal with plagiarism on occasion and used the stick.

    Contact me at barryrobertsgreer@gmail.com if you have questions. I compressed 35 years into a few paragraphs.

  5. Now, here’s the organizational crux of the pervasive illiteracy problem. English departments used to house writing, and, in fact, when Thoreau attended Harvard, writing was the mission of the English department. The contemporary English department has been captured by and is controlled by the study of literature, which has been reduced to seeing who can create the next critical fad.

    Case in point. When Graham Spanier arrived at Oregon State University in the 80s as provost and VP for academic affairs, he made changes tro strengthen literature and changed nothing in the writing program. Lit faculty course loads dropped from eight to five a year. Lit faculty no longer had to teach writing. Spanier’s wife, a lit prof, was hired by English for a job that did not exist. The writing instructors, but for a favored few, were fired and replaced with grad students to teaching comp. The fired instructors were all experienced writers, and the Writing Program Administrators recommended that OSU build a writing program around those experienced professional writers. The WPA was ignored.

    That dynamic is universal and is still with us. Read this February WaPo essay: http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/03/06/i-was-a-professor-at-four-universities-i-still-couldnt-make-ends-meet/

    The only, and I mean the only solution to changing the culture is union. In the meantime, ridicule, ridicule, ridicule the leadership who allow campus illiteracy and do nothing to end it. Do what you can for your students, but don’t lose any sleep over their bad writing. It’s not your fault.

  6. Cataranea’s comments are correct. Peer editing doesn’t work in basic college writing. And assigning writing instruction to TAs is a symptom of the problem. A high school English teacher will train for six years, but how much training do TAs get to teach writing?

  7. I agree with the above, especially the points about how peer editing requires that the students are able to recognize the errors. One approach that I find effective is to edit in parallel with them, and then get them to edit again after seeing and discussing my version. Not perfect, but it fits our time constraints and experience level (I teach incoming grad students).

    One thing that I didn’t initially expect was how insecure these students’ writing can be, especially when writing about their past experiences and future plans. In response, I’ve largely shifted my teaching focus to bolstering student confidence, which has then indirectly improved their writing by making it less passive and more concise. I feel like this addresses a more fundamental issue and strengthens my students on multiple fronts. I wonder how often poor writing is a symptom of a different problem, rather than just a technical issue?

  8. Totally agree w/jonathanklassen comment about confidence. Basically right this very minute (week really) I feel like I’m beginning to understand the purpose of academic writing, and that it’s not really different from blog writing or any other kind of writing, i.e. to get the reader to understand what you have to say. I think this has tripped me up before in class because the actual audience (the instructor) is usually completely different from the audience we’re assigned to write to, and this imaginary audience is not very well defined to me, the student. Of course I’ve also had very little concrete feedback on my writing, and I’m now finishing up a PhD. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

    I had a prof for a couple classes here who would collect reading responses, which we were supposed to write with him specifically as the audience, to share what we got out of the readings. I found that my writing style would shift from casual to technical depending on what I was trying to say, which IMO is how it should be. It was helpful without even getting feedback. (Though this was a grad seminar sort of class, so not necessarily applicable to undergrads. FWIW.)

  9. Barry, I would read said blog, if it existed.

  10. All of my students are EFL so I place a lot of emphasis on writing. I like peer-review activities but only ask students to identify strengths and weaknesses of the papers they are reviewing guided by a detailed rubric or checklist; they don’t allocate points. One of the biggest advantages of peer-review exercises is that students can identify problems in macro-structure (organisation, transitions between sections and paragraphs etc) more easily in writing that is not their own. Following up a peer-review exercise with a self-review using the same criteria often helps them ‘see’ areas that need improvement in their own writing.

    When I review their papers or reports, I use a checklist created in association with our Writing Center to identify common errors in micro-structure and only mark-up a max of 2 paragraphs for them; students who need a lot of help are referred to the Writing Center.

    Some of my courses also incorporate daily write-to-learn exercises, such as minute papers or KWL? forms. They don’t all need to be assessed; I use them simply as additional writing practice and to give me feedback on student understanding of course content.

  11. I had many classes that used peer editing. Usually people gave each other a bunch of pretty useless advice. In the cases my profs considered a “success,” students with already strong writing skills improved weaker students’ papers. This made the strong students resentful since they were putting in a lot of work improving their partners’ grades and not getting any real feedback on their own work.

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