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Tips on Helping Your Students Improve Their Writing

Ways to help students strengthen their writing skills.

April 14, 2015

Natascha Chtena is a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.

As a foreign-language instructor at UCLA, I never considered it part of my job to teach students how to write in English. I thought that’s what writing, English Composition, and ESL classes were for. So when there was recently an English essay requirement added to our foreign-language curriculum, I took it for granted that my students had the experience and skills required to write a (short) critical reflection paper.

But my student’s papers really surprised me. Sure, my graduates did an excellent job, but the quality of undergraduate papers varied widely. As I graded a pile of papers without structure, coherence, or proper use of grammar, I realized that many of the writing strategies we grad students take for granted (e.g. how to write an introduction, how to make a simple argument, how to research relevant sources) are not at all obvious to our students.

When I talked to my supervisor about it, she suggested referring students with poor writing skills to our university’s Writing Center. But I started wondering whether that’s really the best we can do for our students. So I went back to the assignment guidelines and my lesson plans and redesigned them completely. And, indeed, the second time I taught that course the assignments were much better and, as a result, much more fun to read and grade.

If you’ve found yourself in my shoes, here are some suggestions for improving your students’ writing—and for improving the experience you have assigning, reading, and grading it.

•       Understand who your students are

Check out your campus statistics, talk to faculty, and inform yourself about the kind of high school writing instruction that goes on in your state (at least in public schools). With UCLA being a highly competitive school to get into, I assumed that my students would be star writers (well, kinda). What I didn’t know is that classes in many California high schools are overcrowded and, as a result, many of my students didn’t receive much direct instruction in writing, nor did they receive much specific response to their writing. After talking to my students, I also discovered that most of their high school assignments called for information retrieval, summaries, or statements of opinion—not the kind of argumentative or analytical writing required at the university level. Understanding who was sitting in my classroom was essential for tailoring my instruction to fit their needs.

•       Focus on preparation, not final feedback

Research shows (as do the stacks of unclaimed papers outside our offices at the end of each quarter) that our comments on final versions of papers are mostly ignored or poorly understood. To help students deliver better papers in your class, put your energy into preparation: designing and discussing assignment guidelines, sharing resources, providing feedback on informal writing assignments (like forum posts, ungraded in-class assignments, etc.) and early drafts (if it makes sense—with the reflection papers in my class, I feel that it doesn’t). Devote time to helping students understand how to write the kind of paper you’re asking for overall, rather than into writing extensive comments on finished papers (which, if we’re being honest, we usually just do to justify grades).

•       Provide examples

Don’t expect that students will come into your class knowing how to write the kind of paper you want them to write. For example, a student who has learned how to write an excellent analytical paper in a comparative literature course may not know how to write the kind of argumentative paper that is required in a political philosophy course. Provide a written list of discipline-specific standards and conventions and/or provide examples of the kind of writing you expect them to produce. What I’ve found useful is sharing (anonymized) examples of excellent and poor student writing and discussing with my students what makes those pieces effective or ineffective.

•       Assign a group paper

I’m a big believer in group papers, but it’s best to discuss with your supervisor first if it means diverting from the syllabus s/he provided you with. The obvious perk for you as a TA is that it reduces the number of papers you have to read and grade. But it also improves their quality overall. Getting students into groups usually means combining different strengths; that results in more thorough research, more sophisticated arguments, and more creative thinking. To ensure the groups/pairs are complementary, I like dividing the students myself to ensure native speakers are teamed up with non-native ones and scientists are paired with artists and humanists.

•       Discuss your assignment topic(s) during class

I’ve found in-class discussions of the essay topics to be a really effective way to get students thinking about the paper well in advance. The “shallow” thinking we find in some students’ papers is often the result of them spending too little time exploring and interrogating ideas before committing themselves to arguing a certain point. In my class, students are only given three essay prompts to choose from, so it’s easy to have an in-depth discussion about all of them. We usually consider strengths and weaknesses of different arguments and approaches as a whole class. But even if students are choosing their own topics, one can go beyond elaborating on their expectations and giving students a chance to ask questions. For example, you may want to start the discussion by asking several students to explain how they might go about approaching the paper. This is really nice because it also allows students who aren’t that clear about their papers yet to get a sense of the creative range and the different ways in which they can address a question.

•       Recognize (and embrace) diversity

Despite all your prep work, you might still receive some papers—in particular from non-native speakers of English—that are not exactly as you’d like them to be. Some international students grew up in educational systems that emphasize rote memorization over critical thinking. Others have been taught to take a strong, passionate stand that doesn't acknowledge counter-arguments. When I first started teaching, I tended to grade such papers harshly. But the more time I spend teaching, the more I come to see that students need time—some more, some less—to adjust to US conventions and expectations. And that open discussion and understanding might be more important to them than forcefully trying to recalibrate their writing in a quarter (or semester).

Do you have other suggestions for improving student writing? Please share your ideas in the comments below!

[Image by Flickr user Enokson and used under Creative Commons Licensing]



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