Next-Generation Writing Instruction

How to bring all students to an acceptable level of writing proficiency cost-effectively.

November 24, 2020

Harvard in 1900 had only one required course -- freshman composition -- reflecting the faculty’s belief that writing was too important a skill to be left to caprice. After all, back in 1874 -- 1874! -- half of Harvard’s first-year students failed the entrance exam in writing.

I, for one, am convinced that the inability to write clearly, persuasively and analytically imposes a glass ceiling that will impede not only a student’s academic success but their professional advancement in the future. If we fail to help our undergraduates write effectively, we have butchered perhaps our biggest responsibility.

Freshman comp, typically taught in sections ranging from 18 to 25, is among the most expensive courses our institutions offer. Yet there is a widespread impression that few college students write well and that too few can express themselves clearly or coherently in prose.

We all know why. Students aren’t asked to write enough. What Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found in Academically Adrift -- that half of the graduates they surveyed took five or fewer courses that require 20 pages of writing -- is likely true today.

Too few students are asked to submit artifacts of the writing process: idea generation, outlines, drafts, revisions and edits. Only rarely do they receive detailed feedback on language, organization, pacing, sentence structure, style or tone.

We get what we value, and it’s obvious that while the faculty might insist on writing’s importance, instructors aren’t demonstrating their concern in practical ways.

I suspect that all of us have experienced moments of revelation that illuminate fundamental truths. I experienced one such moment when the director of undergraduate writing at a major urban university announced, “We are not the department of corrections,” without a hint of irony or self-doubt.

If undergraduate writing instructors don’t regard grammar, punctuation, spelling, structure, syntax, transitions, typos or word choice as their responsibility, I wondered, who does?

I know full well about the heated debates that rages among specialists in rhetoric and composition about how best to teach writing at the college level. These debates pit proponents of product-, process- and genre-based approaches against one another. I am also aware of the arguments between those who emphasize a content or ideas-first approach versus those who stress awareness of an assignment’s purpose and of disciplinary conventions or focus on a process of goal setting, idea generation, drafting, revision and rearrangement.

But let me be clear: I am not here to place blame on the overworked, underappreciated (and sometimes undertrained) first-year writing instructors. Nor do I wish to add to the litany of often exaggerated complaints: that freshman comp pays insufficient attention to grammar, style and voice, or the kind of writing academics actually do, which is argumentative and dialogic, which makes extensive use of conjunctive adverbs (like “therefore” and “nevertheless”), and which draws heavily upon evidence and data (as opposed to voicing opinions or reflecting on one’s personal experience).

Instead, I want to ask whether there are more effective (and perhaps more cost-efficient) ways to strengthen writing instruction.

I will suggest three strategies: Peer feedback and workshopping, tech-enhanced writing instruction, and writing integrated across the lower-division curriculum. All exist to a limited degree. I think we need to go much further.

Peer feedback and peer workshopping: Whatever else it is, writing is, first and foremost, a mode of communication. Whether a written text is well written, well argued, well substantiated and well organized is certainly something that readers, including students, can judge and respond to.

The essential first step is for the students to collaborate on a rubric for a particular writing assignment. Rubrics are much more than a grading tool; they are the key to ensuring that students understand your expectations as well as a tool for providing timely, meaningful feedback.

A rubric spells out the skills that a student is expected to demonstrate. It also sets out a scale for evaluating each dimension of a student’s performance. The effort expended in developing a rubric is time well spent: rubrics help students understand a particular assignment’s purpose, your grading criteria and the components of an effective piece of writing. The rubric prepares students to provide their classmates with detailed feedback that reflects critical judgment.

Rubrics are inevitably discipline-specific. What I want in a history class is certainly different than what one might want in a laboratory report. Rubrics, then, help students understand disciplinary expectations.

The next step involves brainstorming. Don’t treat idea generation as a solitary activity; brainstorming isn’t cheating. If you want to elevate student performance, let groups work together to come with possible topics or arguments. But make it clear that brainstorming is only the first step. Next comes refining the topic or complicating the argument. Students can do that, too, collaboratively.

Once students have completed the assignment, have groups provide peer feedback organized around the rubric. Rubrics ensure that peer feedback is consistent and focused and that it dwells on precisely those components or skills that you consider most salient.

Tech-enhanced writing instruction: I believe that technology can significantly improve writing instruction by focusing on elements that instructors too often fail to address. Software has grown increasingly proficient in identifying errors in spelling, mechanics, grammar and even in word choice. It can also offer insights into readability, sentence complexity, prose quality and organization.

But don’t let the software do this behind the curtain, like Microsoft Word’s autocorrect feature. Consider incorporating activities in class in which groups of students must revise poorly worded sample essays.

Why not create practice sessions that students can complete at their own pace in which they rework examples of poor grammar and syntax? Let students revise sentences that contain comma splices, faulty predicates and pronouns, misplaced or dangling modifiers, run-on sentences, subject-verb or tense disagreements, and poor word choice.

Writing is a craft that requires repetitive practice and timely feedback. We need to ask our students to write a lot. Those pieces need not be long, but these assignments do need to focus on specific writing skills including lucidity, precision and conciseness. Building such assignments into the online portion of our classes is not onerous, and the payoff is huge.

Automation can significantly improve students’ grammar, enhance their sensitivity to poor writing and strengthen their ability to edit their own work.

Technology can also help students better visualize the construction of arguments. Have groups of students reverse engineer an author’s argument to better understand its logic and lucidity.

Writing across the lower-division curriculum: Although writing across the curriculum has grown increasingly widespread, it typically involves a relatively small number of designated courses, often at the upper level, that compel students to meet certain stipulated requirements: to produce a succession of drafts, each of which receives written feedback, resulting in a lengthy research paper.

I favor something quite different. I believe writing should infuse the entire lower-division curriculum.

All academics are professional writers and all know the genre conventions in our disciplines. I believe each of us has a duty to figure out how to make writing -- and writing instruction and feedback -- a key component of our courses.

I have made writing a major element in my 1,451-student U.S. history survey course. Each week, students must write a minimum of 400 words in a formal response to a primary source document and to other forms of material, aural or visual, evidence (including gravestones, fugitive slave ads and examples of historical fashion and hairstyles).

Do my students get sufficient individualized feedback? No. Is each submission hand-graded? No. But each week the students received generalized feedback and each week’s breakout session focuses on a specific aspect of historical writing:

  • Constructing a thesis
  • Evaluating evidence (for authorships, audience, authenticity, bias or perspective, and trustworthiness)
  • Framing and structuring an argument
  • Integrating quotations and data into an argument
  • Writing with clarity, concision and a focus on actors and action

In addition to making writing a key component in your classes, let me urge you to share the “secrets” of writing within your discipline. Years ago, a Bowdoin College historian, Patrick Rael, wrote a brilliant guide to historical writing for college students. In this guide, he spelled out a series of strategies that professional historians adopt in their writing. They:

  • Tackle a previously unaddressed issue or topic.
  • Fill a gap or rectify a deficiency in the existing scholarship.
  • Debunk or add complexity to an existing interpretation.
  • Enter an ongoing debate, and either recast the debate by asking new questions or by approaching the topic from a novel perspective.
  • Use a case study or test case to illuminate a larger issue or evaluate the conventional wisdom.

I can assure you that once undergraduates know these secrets and better understand what it is that historians actually do, the quality of their performance dramatically improves.

No discipline should “own” writing, and no single course should be primarily responsible for writing instruction.

To be sure, we will be limited in the kinds of feedback we provide by the number and size of our courses. But if we truly value writing, we can find a way, even if this includes writing assignments that are ungraded or graded on a four-point scale (exemplary, proficient, partly competent, novice).

If we do this, we can do a better job of bringing all our students to an acceptable level of writing proficiency.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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