This is the sixth in a series of blog posts for faculty who might not identify as writing teachers but are still responsible for student writing. You can view earlier posts here.
In previous posts, we’ve discussed the fact that writing development is something that happens over time; there really is no “quick fix” option for student writing issues. Helping students to move along a developmental writing arc takes time and effort, on both your part and the students’. When student writing is relegated to one, or perhaps two, high-stakes assignments over the duration of the class, students have little or no opportunity to benefit from instructor feedback – and thus, to learn how to improve their writing skills. That said, there are ways to take advantage of that long developmental arc in your class, and we’ll discuss two in this post.
If you construct your class such that it relies upon one or two high-stakes writing assignments – such as a mid-term paper and a final paper, or only a term paper at the end of the class – consider staging those assignments. Staging an assignment entails breaking it down to discrete steps that students complete over time, receiving feedback at the completion of each step. For example, a traditional term paper might be broken down into an initial abstract, an outline, a working bibliography, a partial draft, and a final draft. By providing feedback to students at each stage, you increase their chances of creating an effective piece of writing, guiding them along the way and steering them away from paths that will fall short of expectations. Students come to see the writing process as a series of manageable tasks, rather than a single, monumental “paper” to create whole cloth. This method can seem like more work, but in essence it is a redistribution of effort, with the added benefits of increased student learning via additional contact points and more thoughtful, carefully-constructed final papers.
If your class lends itself more to shorter writing assignments – lab reports, editorials, or critiques, for example – consider the genre practice model. Have students create these shorter assignments regularly and frequently throughout the class, with feedback on each assignment designed to improve the next. These should be lower-stakes assignments individually, as students learn how to be effective writers by the act of continued practice. With each round of feedback, you can re-prioritize and re-focus your comments to address more and more nuanced aspects of the student’s writing. You should also be able to get a sense of what aspects, if any, the class as a whole is struggling with, and thus be able to discuss those aspects with the class as a whole. Students should get more comfortable over time with the conventions of the required genre, creating writing suited to the specific needs of the field or discipline. You might also consider having students collect all of these assignments in a portfolio at the end of class, prefaced with some self-reflection about the changes to their writing over time.