Classroom Writing Instruction

Why integrate writing into a course?

  • Students deepen their knowledge of course material by writing. Whether reflecting on what they’ve learned, composing a question, or connecting knowledge to lived experience, writing extends students’ engagement of a subject.
  • If students have had a chance to explore the course material through writing, they are likely to feel more invested in it, to be better able to discuss it, and to retain what they’ve learned.
  • Reading our students’ writing—whether a paragraph describing a lecture or a research paper—gives us a heightened sense of their grasp on the course concepts. This, in turn, allows us to teach to their needs.
  • Writing gives students practice in participating in the discipline. Rather than simply testing their acquisition of knowledge, writing provides an opportunity to analyze, challenge and contribute to existing ideas.

Why are my students poor writers?

We’ve found that instructors often conflate “poor writing” with issues of usage and grammar. While it may seem that complaints of student error are unique to our times—a product of text-messaging and media-saturation—the complaint is nothing new, nor is the percentage of errors on the rise. Robert Connors and Andrea Lunsford conducted a study comparing types and frequency of error of contemporary students with studies done from 1917-1930. They found that, in fact, the rate of error (about two per hundred words) remained consistent over time. What has changed, though, is what constitutes an error, which depends on current standards of language.

Our students will be better served if we are transparent about what constitutes good writing in our discipline and if we are clear about how to define error. John Bean offers some observations about error that may also help us to understand it more complexly:

  • “Even in an error-laden essay, an actual count of the errors reveals that there are many more correct sentences than flawed ones.” Bean reminds us that our “psychology of reading” shapes our location of error in student papers. Individual teachers tend to notice different errors. If we are looking for particular errors, they are highly visible to us.
  • “What constitutes ‘error’ really involves stylistic choices—issues of rhetorical effectiveness and grace rather than right-or-wrong adherence to rules.” If we find wordiness or passive voice abounding in our papers, rather than approaching these as errors, we might devote time to instructing students on why these are not appropriate in a given rhetorical context (the lab report, the book review).
  • “Errors in student writing increase with greater cognitive difficulty.” As students enter new academic territory, other skills may temporarily regress. By building in multiple drafts, students will have the chance to correct these errors and further their thinking.
  • “Teachers can expect to see sentence problems in first drafts and on essay exams.” Students tend to produce less error-ridden prose when they have opportunities to draft, receive feedback, and revise. In the case of the essay exam, not only are students writing under pressure, but they are engaging in a cognitively challenging task. (See also “How do I improve writing on essay exams?”)
  • “Traditional procedures for grading and marking student papers may exacerbate the problem.” Well-intentioned teachers often tell us that to improve students’ grammar, they mark every error they find. Not only is this time-consuming (and frustrating) for the instructor, it can be counterproductive. Instead, try marking one or two patterns of error you see, and provide an explanation of why a rule has been violated. Then, let the student correct his/her own text—she will learn far more by doing so.
  • “Student errors are systematic and classifiable.” That is to say, there is a difference between errors that occur in a pattern in a student’s paper—which demonstrates confusion about a rule—and a “mistake” made out of haste or lack of proofreading. If you find an error made consistently throughout a piece of writing, call attention to it and help the student understand why it isn’t correct. If the issue is a mistake, you might emphasize the need for editing, providing students strategies of how to do so.

Robert Connors and Andrea Lunsford. “Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing.” College Composition and Communication, 1988, 39(4), 395-409.

John Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey-Bass, 2001.

How do I encourage my students to revise?

Many of us, our students included, carry around the idea that good writers, real writers, get it right the first time. As instructors, we need to help students understand (and remind ourselves, too) that good writers spend much more time revising than they do drafting.

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (p26)

If we want students to move from the down draft to the dental draft, though, we need to support the writing process. Here are some ways you can do this:

  • Create writing assignments that leave room for students to explore an issue or problem of genuine interest. If the writing is driven by inquiry—rather than providing a pre-determined answer—they will be more apt to revise.
  • Make clear to your students that revision is different from editing. Help them understand that revision involves not only tweaking the text, but also re-examining the ideas within the text. You might provide them examples of a text at different stages of the revision process.
  • Build time into your course to accommodate the writing process. You might set one deadline for first drafts, and then leave time in class for students to share texts and offer feedback to one another in small groups. If you can’t spare the class time, encourage them to visit the Writing Center (Love Library N203), where they can talk through their process with a consultant. Leave adequate time between assigning the paper and its deadline for genuine revision to take place.
  • Give your students’ papers the majority of your comments while they are in process, not when the final version has been turned in. That said, try not make your comments so extensive that the student feels overwhelmed. Focus your response on one or two central goals for revision, so that the student has an achievable goal.
  • Don’t forget to point out what is working in the draft. This gives the student language for what she is doing well, so that she can repeat it.
  • Require students to submit all drafts along with their final copy. This will give you (and the student) a sense of how your students have progressed to the final version of the assignment.
  • Consider asking students to write a “process account,” in which they document the rationale that shaped the changes made in their revision process. If you choose to include attention to process in their final grade, a process account will help you evaluate this component.
  • Model revision. Consider letting students see a piece that you have revised for publication, from an early articulation to a mid-process draft to final version. This will give them evidence that professional writers do, indeed, revise.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird. Anchor Books, 1994.

How can I promote improved writing on essay exams?

Essay exams can offer many potential benefits to students: they give students an opportunity to synthesize material, to learn to think and compose quickly, and to use course material to make arguments. Here are some strategies that will help the learning potential of essay exams.

  • Teach your students how to write essay exams. Often we tell students we value “clear” writing or that they must provide “coherent” responses. Since no student sets out to write in an unclear or incoherent manner, this advice is usually ineffective. Instead, provide students examples of exams that are exceptional, average, and poor. Help them to understand why each received the grade it did.
  • Be clear about whether your grading will include usage, grammar, etc. If so, be sure to give students adequate time to look over their answers and make revisions.
  • Allow students to practice, either writing in class or taking a practice exam as homework. This gives the student another opportunity to see what you value in an answer in why. In addition, it gives students another opportunity to learn by writing.
  • Call for thesis-governed writing. This will increase the chances that students write a succinct, clear essay. If the question uses verbs such as “discuss,” “analyze,” “compare and contrast,” students tend to stray from the task. If you use imperatives, make sure the task is well contextualized. For instance, “What are the pros and cons of using pesticides to control mosquitoes?” is clearer than “Discuss the use of pesticides in controlling mosquitoes” (Bean 192).

Adapted from John Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. For more suggestions on essay exams, see Bean’s book, pages 183-195.

How do I incorporate writing into a large lecture course?

While it may be impossible to require a course of 100 students to write research papers, incorporating writing into your lecture course is still possible. Below are ideas that allow students to write-to-learn that are also manageable for the instructor.

  • Develop guided journals to accompany your lectures. You might ask students to write short responses (a couple of paragraphs will do) to link lecture information to their own experiences, to apply it other contexts, or to critique or question the ideas presented.
  • Incorporate writing moments into the lecture. You might stop your lecture and ask students to write for several moments about how the presented material interests, challenges, or confuses them. Invite a couple of students to share their responses. This will facilitate both learning through writing and dialogue between you and the students.
  • Invite student questions in writing. At the end of your lecture, you might invite students to compose a question about or response to the material. This will give you a sense of how students are interacting with the knowledge presented.

What’s the difference between high-stakes and low-stakes writing? Why does it matter?

High-stakes writing bears the pressure of a grade, of passing or failing a class, of being allowed or denied entrance into a program. Most of the writing composed in the college classroom is high-stakes, because students know it will be evaluated.

While high-stakes writing is certainly important, students also need opportunities for low-stakes or exploratory writing. Exploratory writing allows students to think on paper, to raise questions, to present uncertainties, or to grapple with course materials without the pressure of a grade. For this reason, it serves as an important precursor to higher-stakes writing, because it enables students to discover ideas, to try out several directions, and eventually, to discover a clearer focus.  Unfortunately, as John Bean notes, “college students do not [typically] realize the value of exploratory writing and are not given nearly enough opportunities for doing it” (98).

John Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey-Bass, 2001.

John Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey-Bass, 2001.