This is the first in a series of blog posts for faculty who might not identify as writing teachers but are still responsible for student writing.
Written communication is a significant part of the student learning experience, especially in an online setting. At times, though, it can feel like there is a broad divide between the writing skills students need and the content we’re helping them to learn. After all, writing might be integral to our students’ demonstration of their content knowledge, but writing instruction is also a field unto itself. This series of blog posts is intended to help you leverage the things you already know to help improve the quality of student writing in your classroom.
It all starts with the assignment. Whether it’s a lab report, research paper, or discussion forum, ask yourself what, specifically, you’re expecting out of the student writing in question. What do you want your students to learn through this assignment, or what do you want them to show you that they’ve learned? What are the learning outcomes associated with the assignment? Consider using Bloom’s taxonomy to define your expectations. Do you want students to show that they understand material? Do you want them to apply key concepts and analyze other data or research? Do you want them to evaluate the work of others and create their own arguments? Being clear about your expectations – not just in terms of formatting and mechanics, but in critical thinking requirements – goes a long way towards helping students understand what they need to do to succeed.
The kind of writing you expect might not be one with which your students are familiar, especially if it’s a discipline-specific form like a lab report or ethnography. You know what good writing in your field looks like; try to make that explicit for your students. They’re not experts yet, but you are. Using an annotated example – from published work or previous student work (with permission) – can be extremely useful here. By breaking down an example and explaining the choices that writer made (and the effects of those choices), you can give students a more concrete understanding of the assignment’s purpose. Give them an appreciation of the fact that they are not writing simply to fulfil a class requirement, but to accomplish a learning goal, which is ideally tied to the kinds of work they will need to do outside of school. You already know what you want your students to write and why you want them to write it; make sure that they understand the same when they first encounter the assignment.