How can I improve my students' writing?
November 8, 2007 8:34 PM   Subscribe

How can I help students improve their writing via comments on written assignments?

I am an art history professor with plenty of experience teaching art history and no experience teaching writing skills. At the moment, I'm primarily teaching undergrads -- mostly juniors and seniors. I grade my students' written assignments on the quality of their prose as well as that of their content, and generally make corrections on their papers to grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors. But the larger issues -- organization, sentence structure, etc. -- I generally just note with an "awkward," or similar short, not-particularly-instructive comment. I'd like to be able to give them more than a critical response and a suggestion to use the writing center (that they inevitably don't follow up on).

After the first assignment in any given class, I usually make a handout that addresses common problems, such as: the use of broad generalizations to introduce or conclude the paper; lack of proofreading; citations and appropriate sources; etc. (I find they vary from class to class, otherwise I'd hand this out with the syllabus.) But again, these categories of problems are more straightforward than the organization/sentence structure/logic problems I feel like I'm failing to address.

Last semester I tried asking students to hand in an outline of their final paper (something an undergrad prof of mine did, and that I found incredibly useful as a student learning how to write long papers), but I discovered that I was pretty terrible at addressing some of the problems their outlines presented. Basically, if a student demonstrates an inability to create logical arguments, I don't even know where to start helping them address that issue. While my front-page question is about written comments, I do have a mandatory meeting with my students once a semester, so in theory I could also address these concerns in person.

Is this something that people who teach freshman-comp-type classes are taught how to do? Is there a book you'd recommend? Or am I crazy for trying to teach my students writing skills that they should have learned in those freshman comp classes, and should I just stick with the "awkward"s and let them sort it out?
posted by obliquicity to Education (25 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
At the moment, I'm primarily teaching undergrads -- mostly juniors and seniors.

Theoretically a junior or senior should be capable of producing excellent, error free written reports which follow reasonably sound, logical arguments. Theoretically.

In practice I feel that many students are coming into higher education ill prepared to write, let alone articulate an opinion. It seems that increasingly English 101 is remedial when it should be teaching advanced skills.

That said, if you really want to emphasize quality writing you should put The Elements of Style on your syllabus and then spend sometime teaching from it.

If you cant devote class time to reviewing Elements, then at least build a list of ten or twenty rules which you find your students most often breaking, go over these with your class, and then penalize any students who break your rules.

As for the logical argument side, that's a little more problematic. I suppose you could require that you students turn in a rough draft (for a grade) which you could then critique followed by a final draft.

As for critiquing the papers? I suppose you could write questions in the margins, but really getting a rough draft is going to allow you single out those students who need the most help.

Does your school have a writing center you can work with? Perhaps you should require your students to meet you there one class where they can learn about the services offered?

Good luck, and thanks for working to make your students better writers!
posted by wfrgms at 9:08 PM on November 8, 2007

The excellent The Craft of Research addresses more difficult topics in academic writing, e.g. making good arguments, how to use sources, drafting and revising and more. The Craft is also cheap and easy to read. It, or a similar book, should be mandatory reading literature at universities if you ask me.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 9:09 PM on November 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Mandatory rewrites. Make them fix the errors, that is the best way for them to learn.
posted by LarryC at 9:28 PM on November 8, 2007

To begin, I think it's great that you're trying to teach this stuff, even if it should have been learned WAY earlier in their schooling. I'm still a student, though I'm earning multiple degrees. I can't tell you how frusterating it is to have those "peer editing sessions" and see that people who are contemporary to me and who will get the same degree I will have no ability to write at all.

To address your question... I obviously don't know where you teach... But are there resources on campus that help professors (who are not English professors) with these sorts of problems? Maybe they offer guidance there?

Something you might also try is sending them to the writing center at your school as a graded component of the class/paper. I was in classes where the prof would say, "For this paper, everyone must make at least one trip to the writing center." The writing center is staffed by people who know how to deal with the issues you're talking about. They will read over the paper with the student, and talk them through fixing their problems. If you have one "big" paper that you do, you could send them at different points in the semester... For instance, developing a thesis, making an outline, etc. The people from the writing center might also be willing to come and spend a few minutes going over this stuff with the whole class. (I know they will do that at my school).

Maybe you yourself could do something like this. Before it's a full blown paper, have them turn in a topic sentence and the sentences that will be the "mini theses" for each body paragraph (like a sentence outline, I suppose). Not only will you be able to track their process on the paper (to make sure they are not waiting until the last minute to start thinking about it), but you will be able to help them in making sure the bones of the paper are solid.

Good luck!
posted by Mookbear at 9:34 PM on November 8, 2007

Best answer: Yeah, this kills me every term. On one level you have to accept that you will not be able to help most of them write well, given that you have other goals to accomplish with your course. Learning to write well takes a ton of time and effort, and a desire on their part.

My solution, and it's a bad one because it's unsustainably labor intensive for me, is to do papers in two drafts (i.e., mandatory rewrites) and to give them lots of comments on that first draft. Lots of comments = I note everything I find wrong with their grammar and sentence construction, and I note where their arguments are unpersuasive/fallacious/etc, and I ask where their evidence is, I cross out stuff that is blatant padding, etc, and then at the end I write a paragraph summarizing the key things they could do to improve. The first draft gets a grade. The first paper of the term gets graded super-harshly to let them know that I mean business and they had better look at my handouts about what I expect to see in papers. I still get a lot of garbage.

I've been told by reliable authorities that it's bad to write lots of comments, that you need to pick only the three things you want them to remember and just write those. Don't correct grammar etc, because students will get bogged down in that and lose the big picture. I definitely do find that when I mark a student's paper up completely, a certain class of student is less likely to try to do any substantial revision on their own. They'll just do the things I explicitly marked, and not make structural changes etc. Some students love the heavy editing, and they are the ones who I've had success with -- but it doesn't work for everybody/most people. (But I don't know how to teach writing any other way than by letting them see a heavy edit)

You could require that they go to the writing center with their draft if the first draft gets below a B+. You could also talk to your writing center to see what tips they have for you, given your student population.

A book I like to assign is A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston. It's about $6, very small, very practical guide to writing an argumentative essay. It makes comments easier too, because you can just underline a place where they are making a strawman of their opponent's position, for example, and write in the margin - "Unconvincing. Strawman, see p. 46". It's focused more on logical matters and how to build an argument than on grammar and style.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:47 PM on November 8, 2007 [5 favorites]

I also have had success with this method in some courses:

-Assign longer paper than they feel comfortable with. Drafts come in and are poor. Mark them up and require that students meet with me to discuss rewrite.

-In meeting, have student stand up and diagram their argument on my blackboard. The times I have done this, there have been some embarrassed miserable students, but there have also been some students who said "wow, I never thought about it this way before. Now I see why that paragraph is unnecessary, and why I need to defend this claim more" and so on. Makes it easy for them to see why they need each paragraph to make just one point, and how the flow of the paragraphs should go.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:54 PM on November 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Another thing. If there is a standard format for papers in art history, you could show them that, as they're starting to write their first papers (or maybe just when the first drafts come in). I have started walking my students through what I want them to say in the introduction ("Descartes says he wants to cast doubt onto any of his beliefs that he finds can be questioned. In this paper I will outline the ways he casts doubt on various beliefs, and I will explain why his final reason for doubting is unpersuasive."), and then what the outline of the rest of the essay will look like (claim, evidence, claim, evidence, counterargument, reply -- or whatever it is).

Some students really do better when they have this formula. They can think of claims, and can understand what type of evidence they need to give for their claims, but sometimes don't know how to string it all together in a sensible way.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:02 PM on November 8, 2007

I can only speak as a student, but I always wished professors would provide students with examples of well-written research papers. Perhaps students from previous semesters will let you distribute their papers anonymously.

It's also surprisingly easy to get through college without formal writing training or even having to write significant research papers. I wish I had had more professors who emphasized writing skills and made it a required course element.
posted by wsquared at 10:03 PM on November 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

How about weekly writing assignments for practice? You can grade those harshly without letting it actually affect their final grade, while letting them know you're paying attention. If you're really good, you could come up with a string of writing assignments that connect to each other, so that the previous week's essay is re-written and included as part of an argument for the following week.
posted by one_bean at 12:25 AM on November 9, 2007

I recently took an intro-level rhetoric course on writing about the environment. The professor provided many examples of excellent writing, about topics we could relate to and intended for a variety of audiences, but the meat of the class was round-table discussion of short papers we'd written ourselves. It was a small class, with only about half a dozen students. We were required to email drafts of our work to the rest of the class at least a day or so early, and everyone was expected to print out, read and critique everyone else's work, bringing the marked-up copies to class. During class we'd literally sit in a circle, focus on one person's work at a time, and share our impressions and criticisms. The marked-up papers were then collected and given to the author, who'd use the input to refine the paper they finally turned in for a grade.

This sort of group feedback model made it easier to distinguish real quality issues, on which there was typically a solid consensus, and removed the intellectual option of dismissing red ink as a reflection of the prof's skewed personal preferences. Even when students couldn't name particular rules or style guidelines that were being violated, they knew crap when they saw it, and weren't afraid to say so.
posted by jon1270 at 3:35 AM on November 9, 2007

In one of the best writing classes I ever took, the professor had us submit our final writing projects to a fellow student. That student did a detailed critique. Then to teacher who critiqued both original paper & critique of paper. Then return fellow student's critique & professor's critique to original student for final draft.

Sometimes fellow students will be able to write/evaluate in more detail than you. But even more important, seeing all the issues with fresh eyes in someone else's writing seems to help a lot in evaluating your own.
posted by flug at 6:15 AM on November 9, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, all -- there are some great answers here. A couple of responses/musings:

I teach at a state school; my classes this semester with problem writers both have 50 students in them.

I like the draft idea in theory; in practice I generally have ~150 students each semester who all write 3-4 short papers and 1 long one each semester, and I have to do all that grading myself. I will admit that I do not have time to grade twice that in anything like a timely manner. So I really like the idea of requiring rewrites when students score below a certain level -- thanks, LobsterMitten.

I'll definitely check out all the book recommendations -- while I don't have time to devote to teaching writing skills in class, I do like that they would have a text to turn to. I used to assign a writing-about-art book to intro classes, but it has dropped off the upper-level ones; maybe it, or something similar, should go back on.

I also like the idea of students evaluating each other -- even if their criticisms aren't particularly useful (which is how I, intellectual snob that I was/am, felt when I had to do this as an undergrad), I do think it's really instructive for them to see each other's work.

As for the writing center issue: we do have a couple of resources (both instructor- and peer-based) that I've encouraged students to use -- perhaps I should make this mandatory more often. It would be one way to enforce the draft process without adding too much to my workload (which, as someone pre-tenure, is entertainingly overwhelming already).
posted by obliquicity at 6:51 AM on November 9, 2007

If you can't do as thorough a job as you want on grading, try to get some TAs to help you grade. State schools might not pay them, but can offer credit. TAs will have more of an incentive / more pride in their work and so will evaluate the students more critically than students in the class will evaluate each other. Based on my own experience, students will give each other pats on the back if you ask them to evaluate each other.
posted by lorrer at 7:00 AM on November 9, 2007

I'm out of practice now, but generally speaking I was really good at this type of writing. I was good at it because I had a few teachers over the years helped me go through the logical steps of how to get from "I think this aspect is interesting" to "academic argument." This is sadly not something that is taught as part of one's general education in the US. (I was in high school in the eighties...this isn't a new problem.)

I like the idea of including one of the books recommended upthread in the curriculum and, as LobsterMitten suggest, using it a reference when writing papers.

Even better than examples of good papers would be annotated examples. Otherwise, you read the great paper and agree that it's great, but still don't know how to apply those principles to your own ideas for writing.

I'd also recommend (and gods know, profs don't need more work to do, but think about this for a second) you practicing the type of writing that you're assigning. Not to share with the class, but just because having just done This Thing makes the mental logistics, so to speak, easier to explain.

I also love one_bean's idea of essays that connect to/build on the argument for the next week.
posted by desuetude at 7:22 AM on November 9, 2007

Should've previewed. Re: students evaluating each other thing. The blind leading the blind. They should be encouraged to seek feedback (and proofreading help) from their peers before they turn in their papers, but I wouldn't waste class time on this.
posted by desuetude at 7:24 AM on November 9, 2007

I can only speak as a student, but I always wished professors would provide students with examples of well-written research papers. Perhaps students from previous semesters will let you distribute their papers anonymously.

I agree with this wholeheartedly.
posted by matkline at 7:37 AM on November 9, 2007

Best answer: I am the assistant director of a very large university writing program (approx. 100 grad students & 30 non-TT instructors). I deal with these issues every day as a writing teacher and as an administrator. I will add a bit more advice (some of which contradicts what you've read above) -- take it for what it's worth.

1) Do not expect an easy solution that can be found in a book. No book, not even the most complete grammar or rhetoric, is going to be a "solution" for you, or your students. Improvement is going to be a result of a certain amount of education, experimentation, and patience on your part.

2) You really should not have to "teach writing skills" in your class. As several people above have mentioned, a lot of it is how the assignments are crafted and conducted throughout the course. What you will need to teach (if you teach anything specifically writing related) are conventions and styles that are specific to writing about the things art historians write about, and in the way they like to write about them.

3) Talk to individuals on your campus with expertise in this area. Ask your Dean if you have a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program on your campus. These types of initiatives are designed to put writing faculty in dialog with faculty from other disciplines. This would be one of your best options.

4) Contact composition/writing faculty at your institution (writing faculty, not literature faculty or creative writing). There might even be a Director of Composition or Writing. Explain your situation to them. Ask them to point you to specific resources for your specific situation. They will probably be happy to help you

5) Actually visit your institution's writing center. Let the consultants know what you are looking for and ask them if they can help you. If you feel good about the writing center (some are better than others), send your students there. Otherwise, don't.

If you are looking for more specific advice, resources, methods, etc. you can contact me via email.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:37 AM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

To help with organization you could do a lot worse than introduce students to outliners. I recently went though this, on a smaller scale, with my partner who has just returned after ten or so years. She went from helplessness to 'I can do this' in ten minutes, faced with her first writing assignment, once I had gently explained the basics of structuring a piece of writing, and how an outliner does this.

I sure you could cover this and some paper based alternatives (I was thinking mind maps and index cards to a linear structure)in a couple of sides of handout. It seems that a lot of people I encounter are missing a basic grasp of how to structure writing, and moreover do not realize that it is not an innate ability of the talented, but a specific and learnable skill.
posted by tallus at 7:43 AM on November 9, 2007

This is a continuing problem for me, too, and I'm hoping to profit from a lot of the good answers here. A few further thoughts:

* Don't think for a minute that your difficulty with this is unusual. I'm skeptical that any kind of "training" but experience helps much, but in any case most instructors in most departments, including people who teach comp, are dropped into roughly the same situation as you're in and learn as we go.

* What LobsterMitten said about overcommenting is important. Students can get overwhelmed by small corrections and miss the larger point. I think your current approach of using "awk." to mark grammar/style problems is actually about right; you definitely don't need to copyedit each sentence into a more readable form.

* Outlining is not a magic bullet. It may help with broad problems of argument structure, but there are many kinds of ground-level problems with marshalling evidence in support of an argument, handling counterarguments, writing style, etc., that will be missed until the whole paper is drafted.

* You can't do everything yourself. Listen to mrmojoflying about how to make use of your institution's writing center.

* One simple thing that I've found can help is to give a first short writing assignment quite early in the semester, before the mid-term grade anxiety has set in. This can serve a diagnostic purpose for you and for the students at once, helping you figure out what to emphasize for the rest of the semester and helping them see what aspects of their writing they need to work on in future assignments.
posted by RogerB at 7:55 AM on November 9, 2007

The English Department here tells me they have no problems finding a teacher for when a new section needs to be open. See if you can get a couple of English TAs to help you.
posted by Kioki-Silver at 9:53 AM on November 9, 2007

Best answer: I find it painful not to correct grammar or awkward sentence construction when grading papers. That said, I know that students who can't write good papers are unlikely to read detailed comments and are even less likely to be able to understand and apply feedback they get written on papers. So I simply don't allow myself to grade with a pen in my hand. I read the paper and at the end write 2 or 3 major things that the student should focus on (usually major organizational or thesis issues). For the good papers, I get the pen out and help them learn to polish their writing.

Don't spend time writing comments that are not going to be read and absorbed.
posted by underwater at 11:27 AM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've taught the first-year writing course at my university several times. The curriculum I used is based on the same system as the aforementioned Craft of Argument, especially the chapters about argument structure. I've learned a lot since I first started doing this, and I think I have more success helping students with their writing now than I did at the beginning, but I still don't have all the answers. There's good stuff in this thread already; here are a few further thoughts.

First, I just want to say that teaching writing is really, really hard. And it's not even your primary job! So give yourself lots of credit for trying, and don't get too dispirited if you can't turn poor writers into good ones in one semester.

One thing I've found really effective is to break the writing process into stages. You've already tried this a little with having the students draft outlines before writing the papers. As you've discovered, though, in order to draft an outline, a writer has to be able to conceive of an argument as a whole, and know how to structure it, and a lot of college students can't do that. So I break the writing process down into even smaller steps.

I always start with evidence. I think one of the major ways that students go wrong is by trying to form a claim first; they pull something out of their ass, and then then they don't know how to support it. I get them to start by taking a really close, detailed look at the evidence—whatever it is I want them to write about. I find that this works best with a narrowly defined paper topic.

So let's say that my students have a paper due in a few weeks on . . . umm . . . the backgrounds in portraits and how the backgrounds affect the mood or meaning of the portrait. (I am completely making this up. I don't know what would be a realistic art history assignment.) This week I would assign students five different portraits to look at and for each portrait they would have to make a list of what colors are in the background, what objects are visible in the background, whether the background shows interior or exterior scenes or neither, etc. (I would give them a VERY SPECIFIC list of elements to look for.) In class I would take 10 minutes to have the students get together in small groups and compare lists with each other, so they get a chance to hear from someone else if there's some detail they didn't notice, and I would ask them if there were any questions or disagreement that arose. OK, so that's the first stage—just gathering evidence. For the next assignment, I would ask them to do some really basic analysis of the evidence. For example: "Choose two of the portraits that you looked at last time and write an informal one-page essay comparing and contrasting their backgrounds." Or "Choose one of the portraits that you looked at last time and write an informal one-page essay answering the question, How do the elements that you noticed in the background affect the mood of the portrait?" You get the idea—it should be the same kind of analysis that you want to form the substance of their papers, but broken down into a smaller, more specific question with a more limited set of evidence. You can collect the one-page papers and either glance over them to see that everyone is on the right track, or not read them but just give people credit for doing the assignment (but tell students if you're taking this approach so they don't wait on feedback from you). Then at this point I would ask the students to brainstorm possible claims they could make that would apply to all the portraits (and be prepared for lameness like "backgrounds can have different effects on portraits") and/or write outlines.

Whew. Did that all make sense?

Another thing that I think helps students' writing is to do the kind of checking in and collaborating that I mentioned in the example above (comparing their lists of evidence with each other). This is different from "peer editing" because you're not asking them to judge or critique each others' work; you're asking them to compare notes and/or build something collaboratively. (For example, instead of assigning the list of background elements as homework, you could have students create those lists together in class.) This is a sneaky way of getting students to learn from each other. It also gives them a stronger foundation for their papers: when I have students compare lists of evidence, I always say, "If you see something on somebody else's list that you like, you can 'steal' it for your paper."

As for teaching them how to structure an argument . . . that is the hardest part. All I'll say for the moment is that I just try to drill it into their heads over and over, "For every claim you make, you must have supporting evidence. Every piece of evidence in your paper should be working to support a claim."

So, there are a few thoughts. I also agree with a lot of what's already been said, especially the bit about not over-commenting (or, to put it another way, picking your battles—if you could get a solid argument with crappy grammar or a grammatically flawless paper with crappy reasoning, which would you rather have?). Some students may be able to handle it all, but I think many just don't have the ability to sort it all out. They'll fix (or not) the things that they understand easily, like spelling, and figure they can ignore the rest, since they've already made an effort. Also, I've found that it makes a difference (not for each individual, but on average) whether I write "this paper doesn't offer evidence to support all of its claims" and leave it at that or go on to add, "on your next paper, the most important thing to work on is making sure you offer evidence to support each and every one of your claims." It seems like DUH, OF COURSE you should work on whatever was criticized in your previous paper, but I think it makes a difference to frame it as "this is something you CAN work on, and in fact I am EXPECTING you to work on it" rather than just "this is what's defective in the work you've already done."

Speaking of overcommenting, I think I've gotten long-winded. I'll stop now.
posted by Orinda at 11:38 AM on November 9, 2007 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, Orinda, that was amazing. Thanks for spending the time! And you're dead-on with the marshalling-of-evidence being the problem.

About the peer review idea: it's not the benefit that their writing will get from it -- I agree with desuetude that it is "the blind leading the blind" to have them correct each other -- it's the simple awareness that they get that other people are writing differently than they are. But maybe that isn't useful enough to be worthwhile.

About the writing center: I've done some research (I'm new here, and only discovered the more obvious parts of the writing center before the semester took over) and it turns out they'll come into my classroom and do workshops, exercises, etc. of a variety of lengths. This is definitely something I'm going to pursue, so thanks to those of you who encouraged me to take a closer look at that resource.

As for TAs, yeah, I wish -- but our school has a rule that you can't have a TA without having more than 50 students. So of course my classes are capped at 50. I might ask around and see if any of my colleagues have workarounds for that rule; but at least in my department, the workaround seems to be "give lots of exams instead of papers." (I love my department, actually, and sympathize with this position -- but I can't bring myself to do the same. Exams are a terrible way to learn art history skills.)
posted by obliquicity at 3:06 PM on November 9, 2007

Orinda: that's awesome.

Do listen to everyone else who has said that you shouldn't overcomment. I mentioned it as a sin of mine that I'm trying hard to overcome. Every term I regret doing it, but I don't know how to stop. Sigh.

50 student in an intro class with no TAs sucks. That is exactly the reason why nobody has time to teach writing skills.

You could have short assignments that feed into each other, but which you grade only in check, check-plus, check-minus, with a standard set of comments that you can choose from. I have done this with some success in smaller classes than yours. My progression of papers looks similar to what Orinda describes, but for philosophy.

One page papers, due every other week:
Paper 1: reconstruct the argument made by an article we read this week. (grade this super-hard and return with an example of an excellent paper and a mediocre paper that you wrote; go over in class what makes the difference between the two. Sometimes I will repeat this assignment for two or three weeks with different articles; less comments on subsequent weeks.)
Paper 2: reconstruct the argument made by an article we read this week, and offer one telling objection to it. (go over in class, talking about what makes an objection telling vs. trivial)
Paper 3: reconstruct the argument made by an article we read this week, offer a telling objection and say how the author is likely to respond to your objection.

Then they're ready to write the longer papers in the second half of the term.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:47 PM on November 9, 2007

About the peer review idea: it's not the benefit that their writing will get from it -- I agree with desuetude that it is "the blind leading the blind" to have them correct each other -- it's the simple awareness that they get that other people are writing differently than they are.

Yep. (I do use peer editing as well as the collaborative stuff.) Also sometimes it's good for them to see the similarity between their writing and other people's—I'm not sure that it happens often, but I think occasionally students see the weakness or annoyingness or illogicality of a particular approach in another student's paper and then come to recognize the same fault in their own.

(I think. Maybe. I hope.)

As for overcommenting, yeah, it's a struggle to restrain oneself. Sometimes the compromise is that I allow myself to circle egregious mechanical errors but not to use copyediting markup. Students invested in their own education will figure out the nature of the errors. Unmotivated students won't learn any less than they would have if I had made detailed markups for them to ignore.

Earlier this semester I spent two or three hours reading and commenting on a particular paper. Handed it back, and the student said cheerfully, "Could you tell I wrote it in 45 minutes?" Argh!!
posted by Orinda at 10:44 PM on November 9, 2007

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