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Improving Students' Writing

University of Regina Centre for Teaching and Learning Scott J. Wilson, Writing Services Coordinator-SSC

Scott J. Wilson

on 23 September 2014

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Transcript of Improving Students' Writing

Improving Students' Writing
Scott J. Wilson, Writing Services Coordinator
Student Success Centre

To Start: Critical Thinking
Developing Critical thinking skills
critical thinking: Benefits
Writing and Critical Thinking
Writing is learning
Critical Writing
Non-English Curriculum
"the capacity to work with complex ideas whereby a person can make

an effective provision of evidence to justify a reasonable argument...
it is a shift from absolute conceptions of knowledge towards contextual knowing
statistical data analysis
classroom debates
guest speakers
multiple, short exercises
reading and writing-specific tasks
independent learning
problem solving
relevant questions
explaining assumptions
effective evidence
shift from passive to active learning (argument formation)
(Cavdar and Doe 2012)
For Paul and Elder, "writing is so essential to learning that one cannot be educated and unable to communicate one's ideas in writing form."
Boyd and Hassett point out that student in disciplines like engineering are graduating without the skills necessary to "clearly communicate their ideas...within their discipline."
(according to Cavdar and Doe 2012)
Part of the issue is the lack of focus on graded writing and reading assignments after first-year courses.

Obviously, students have to write after first year, but marking and evaluation of those assignments focuses on capturing course content over sound writing.
8 general Student Writing problems
1. Weakly constructed and substantiated arguments
2. Less-than-careful reading of instructions
3. Lack of precision
4. Lack of a clear and sustained line of thought
5. Difficulty with utilizing evidence to substantiate or challenge an argument
6. Weak or absent evaluation of the assumptions of the theory at hand
7. Lack of organized, convincing, and elaborate responses to the question at hand
8. An inability or unwillingness to integrate the feedback that instructors provide on drafts
Regardless of discipline, students need to understand that their writing will
respond to other voices in the discipline

We don't write without provocation
; they need to understand why their voice matters to the discussion.
Writing with conviction and Originality
Keeping it original and debatable:
i) selecting appropriate materials/sources
ii) identifying key themes in source material
iii) presenting the ideas of others in a coherent, clear and accurate way
iv) creating structure and organization
v) developing their own informed point of view: a reasoned conclusion based on research.
For Briskin, students can make essays an original contribution to scholarship by:
Join the Conversation
If students understand that every article or chapter they read has a
central thesis (argument or goal)
, they will comprehend that their papers, assignments, and test answers will have to have the same focus, that
there needs to be a point to their argument beyond obtaining marks.

Instead of simply assigning readings, have students identify the central argument (and sub-arguments), main pieces of evidence in each article and write an abstract (short summary) of the article.
So What? or Who Cares?

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein do an excellent job in
They Say/I Say:The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing
in explaining to novice academics that beyond accurately summarizing what other voices in the discipline say, they must have an argument that adds to the conversation.
A Mysterious method
However, if you stress writing is a process, something that requires
structure and practice
, they will be more motivated to write more and spend more time writing.

To do this, structure your course and assignments with
sequenced assignments

that build towards a major writing project.
Often, students feel good writing comes from a magical, mysterious place; they decide that they are a good writer or they're not. They also believe you understand them or you don't.
High Stakes writing
Too often, we focus on what Peter Elbow (cited in Cavdar and Doe) calls
"high stakes" writing assignments.

Here, we expect students to learn the theories and relevant voices in a field and translate that learning into a major writing assignment (often a term paper).

However, this approach
often requires students to use writing and reading skills they've acquired in other classes
or that they've gathered from comments on smaller assignments.
These high stakes writing assignments are problematic (even if the course has two or three major writing assignments) because instructors mark the paper, providing feedback on strengths and weaknesses of the writing, with the hope students will learn from their mistakes or strengths.
Efficient feedback Loops
Sequenced assignments,
often done through a piece-by-piece approach to writing assignments,
can lessen the chance of a feedback loop breakdown.

They "facilitate both learning the content and writing improvement" (Cavdar and Doe 300).

Cavdar and Doe call these
scaffolded writing assignments
"progressive assignments that build
increasingly complex skill sets
, also provide tangible demonstration of
improved thinking and writing
" (300).
sequenced writing Assignments
Truthfully, this type of approach can add to your marking load, but will also
increase student engagement, teach critical thinking skills, and improve your students' writing.

Many of these steps do not have to be for marks, but they do require feedback from you, your T.A. or through peer review.

In-class workshops can help with many of these steps.
Principles of Assignment Sequencing

1. must be a series of assignments where
each assignment builds on the previous one
and prepares for the subsequent one
2. they can be an
effective means of teaching
critical skills
should be provided
for each assignment
before the next is assigned
example 1:
1. Thesis Statement Workshop
2. Developing an Outline
3. Introductory Paragraph Assignment
4. Peer Editing of First Draft
5. Revision of Draft
If limited by time or resources...
Again, some of these sequenced assignment plans are not possible due to class size, T.A. support and many other factors. However, one way to provide this experience is to
utilize peer editing.

Softwares such as
peer editing options
that allow students to provide anonymous feedback to their classmates, which eases any anxiety about hurt feelings in the classroom.

By finding mistakes (and mentioning the positives) in student papers, they gain a much clearer understanding about the faults in their own work.
Peer Editing
I recommend going through the steps of peer editing, including examples and some simple steps to follow.

If you prefer to put your students in groups and have them peer edit and provide comments in person, a standard form helps with quality control.
ReWrites: Yes or no?
While a
sequenced approach
is most effective in giving students more than enough opportunities for revision, often times offering a chance to
rewrite one writing assignment
(usually the first one, never the last one) allows students to get comments on the first paper, learn your expectations, and rewrite that paper when they've developed more skills over the course of the semester.
Writing in Any Course
Despite many studies that suggest writing quality must improve for students to succeed and beyond, teaching writing is a challenge for instructors.
The (American) National Commission of Writing describes writing as
"thoughts on paper"
(Cavdar 2012).

The act of writing is crucial to thinking critically.

Stress to students that
writing is not simply for graded assignments
, it is also part of the process of learning course materials.
"knowledge transformation"
rather than listing or memorizing
(Scardamalia and Bereiter 1987).
(Moon 2008).
John Dewey furthers this idea: "no act of thinking is complete till its products have been set forth in writing" (Boyd and Hassett quoting McLellan and Dewey).
Citing Orr, they reveal that "
unless both student and teacher have sufficient knowledge of the unique purposes and characteristics of English as it is used in a student's target field of study
, writing instruction will be no different than in general English courses, and thus, less effective in enabling students to successfully carry out profession-related tasks."
Essentially, students need to not only pose an argument,
they need to be able to explain why their perspective matters
either by what it adds to the discussion or by the lesson their reader learns.
In class, students put into pairs or threes and given a theme. Then, they work together to find evidence, develop potential essay topics, and then write thesis statements. Often, their first few attempts result in vague arguments and plot summary. I circulate throughout the class and provide feedback and stress that a proper argument must be:

1. Specific
2. Debatable
3. Able to hold up to the question, "So What?" (A reader should know the value of an argument immediately).
Thesis Statement Workshop
When students get into the habit of knowing their unique perspective and argument matters, you can stress the importance of
original thought throughout
the paper.

However, Linda Briskin points out that students are unclear, or misinformed, about
how much of their essay needs to be original thought
and how much needs to be the information and opinions of others.
As a result, even papers that start strong and focused devolve into descriptive summaries and not sustained arguments.
You mark, they learn?
Or do they?
However,this doesn't always happen (for a few reasons):

1. Students don't get an immediate chance to apply this knowledge
isn't always allowed or encouraged
3. Lack of communication between student and professor (Underwood and Tregidgo call this a
breakdown in the "feedback loop."
As a result, bad habits are repeated in higher-level classes.
Greenwald et al. offer a model for proper assignment sequencing in Teaching Critical Skills: A Manual for Course Instructors:
may be given
for each assignment
and/or for the sequence as a whole
5. the
complete sequence should be explained
when the first assignment is given
6. the
sequence's overall critical skills purpose
and relation to course goals should be explained to students
example 2:
1. Literature Review
2. Research Question and Handwritten Outline
3. Annotated Bibliography
4. Oral Presentation of Research Topic
5. Peer Editing of First Draft
6. Revision of Draft
example 3:
1. Interviews
2. Observation
3. Library Research
4. Analytical Paper
Practice Makes perfect
Writing is an essential tool for learning and something we use daily, yet the time we spend practicing is minimal.

Part of the issue with feedback on writing assignments is that most marks are given for the final paper.

Recommend your students hone their writing skills over the course of the semester and into the offseason.
Practice Strategies
Don't just assign readings; provide discussion questions that students must answer in a message board on UR Courses. Tell them answers must be written in a formal style and must not only summarize, but must make an argument.

Students will also be responsible for responding to their classmates' points of view.
During the course:
Inksheds (writing prompts):
pick a current event related to the course or any random inspiration that can get the class into a writing mindset (video clip, image, a quote).

Have them take 5-8 minutes to write whatever comes to mind. After the time runs out, ask if anyone would like to share or discuss. If there's dead silence, carry on as usual.
During the course:
Practice Strategies
This Taylor Mali video helps getting them thinking in this frame of mind. Writing shouldn't turn us into robots. We're not just reciting what our teachers want us to say. We have relevant ideas to express...
Practicing Outside of class
750 words.com
One-Month Social Media Challenge
Six Word Memoirs
Clear Expectations
The best way to develop students that write clearly and with confidence is to be clear what you are looking for:

1. Marking Rubrics
2. Detailed Assignment Sheets and Handouts
3. Sample Student Work
Works Cited
Boyd, Greg and Marie Hassett. “Developing Critical Writing Skills in Engineering and Technology Studies.” Journal of Engineering Education. October, 2000: 409-412.

Briskin, Linda. “Teaching Critical Reading.” Teaching Critical Skills: A Manual for Course Instructors York University Centre for Support of Teaching, 1992. Adapted 2011. https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.yorku.ca%2Flaps%2Fsosc%2Fdocuments%2FTeachingCriticalReading2011.pdf

Cavdar, Gamze and Sue Doe. “Learning through Writing: Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in Writing Assignments.” PS: Political Science & Politics 45:2 (April 2012) 298-306 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1049096511002137

Graff, Gerald & Cathy Birkenstein. They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. New York: Norton, 2006.

Greenwald, Tom, Joan Page, Jan Rehner and John Spencer. Teaching Critical Skills: A Manual for Course Instructors. York University Centre for Support and Teaching, 1992, 31-33.

Moon, Jennifer. Critical thinking: An Exploration of Theory and Practice. London: Routledge, 2008.

Paul, Richard and Linda Elder. The Thinkers Guide to How to Write a Paragraph. Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2007.

Scardamalia, M., and C. Bereiter. “Knowledge Telling and Knowledge Transforming in Written Composition.” Advances in Applied Psycholinguistics Ed. Sheldon Rosenberg, 142-75. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Set guidelines
: rewrites need to show substantial revision; they cannot simply be a cleaning up of typos. Thesis statements need revision, arguments must be sustained and papers over 80% cannot be rewritten. Making an appointment with you or the T.A. is also a good requirement to add.
This helps keep the feedback loop working well.
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