This is the second in a series of blog pasts for faculty who might not identify as writing teachers but are still responsible for student writing. You can view the first post here.
Creating and responding to writing assignments for your students requires some baseline understanding of how writing development works. While we might think of learning as a linear process in which students continuously compile new and more nuanced understandings of topics, learning tends to happen quite differently in practice. The development of a writer can often move back and forth across a spectrum of proficiency as students learn new concepts and attempt to incorporate them into their own processes (Sommers, 2006). Why is that?
Part of the reason is that what we call “writing” is actually a collective of skills and knowledge, and putting all of the pieces together can be a challenge even for advanced writers. At the most fundamental level, writing is communication: transmitting an idea to an audience (and recognizing that the audience will respond in one way or another). Successful communication requires defined purpose, analysis of the intended audience, and a mastery of organizational structure from the largest scale down to the sentence level. Effective writing in college also requires keen critical thinking skills; the student needs to have a full understanding of the topic at hand and what she wants to say about it. Because no writer is operating in a vacuum, information literacy skills also play a significant role in a writer’s success. The student needs to know what else has been said about a topic and how her own work will address the work of others. Being a successful writer means being a careful thinker, a critical reader, and a skilled communicator; the process of putting words on a page is more complex than most of us – even those who are excellent writers – realize.
Those who teach writing will frequently split up some of these skills when discussing them in student work. You might hear divisions such as “global issues” versus “local issues,” or “higher order concerns (HOC)” versus “lower order concerns (LOC).” These labels are an attempt to recognize the varied, discrete aspects of a writing process, and they can be useful when thinking about how your students write and how you can best respond to them. Global issues, or higher order concerns, trend towards the thinking and planning parts of the process. Does the student have an adequate understanding of the subject matter? Is her purpose clearly defined? Is the writing organized in such a way to serve that purpose? Is she engaging with the necessary research? Local issues, or lower order concerns, trend towards the practical aspects of the process. Is the writing mechanically sound? Is it formatted accurately? Are choices in tone and style made appropriately? Both aspects are important to the final product, but recognizing where a student might need additional support is integral to the learning process. In our next post, we’ll dig deeper into how you can identify and respond to specific issues in student writing.
*Sommers, N. (2006). Across the Drafts. College Composition and Communication, 58(1), 248-257.