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Five strategies to improve writing in your courses

How to get your students to submit better assignments.

by Roger Graves

Do you want to:

a) Improve the quality of writing your students turn in at the end of the term?
b) Save time grading that stack of papers?
c) Improve your course evaluations?
d) All of the above?

One way to accomplish these goals is to invest in revising the writing assignments in your course. The best resource I’ve found for this is John Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, 2nd edition (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011). If you don’t have the time and inclination to read all 330 pages, try the five strategies below, which can help move your teaching closer to where you want it to be. These tips will clarify your goals to the students and help reduce confusion.

1. Identify the genre of the assignment
Genre is one major source of student confusion, and this leads to poor writing. Calling your assignment a “paper” or “essay” reveals very little about the kind of text you are expecting to receive.

Dr. Bean (a professor of English at Seattle University) has an excellent chapter on this. The University of Alberta Writing Centre has tried to distill it and combine it with other sources into a two-page document. In short, you need to identify the intellectual goal or learning goal for the assignment first. Do you want students to articulate a teaching philosophy? Do you want them to summarize research findings and use them to recommend a course of action? Once you know what learning outcome you want, you can then select the genre or kind of writing that will move students towards that kind of learning.

2. Let students know how you’ll evaluate it
Creating a scoring guide when you develop an assignment description will save you hours when you mark the assignments. It will also save your students hours when they make decisions about how to write their versions of the assignment.

Criteria for good writing vary from instructor to instructor and discipline to discipline. You need to communicate to students what you value in the assignments they will hand in to you. We’ve also tried to summarize Dr. Bean’s advice and combine it with other research on assessment in another two-page document on the Writing Across the Curriculum website.

3. Structure in opportunities for revision
Robert Graves (no relation, unfortunately) wrote that “there is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.”  To get high-quality writing from your students, you need to get them to draft the document in time for it to be read by someone else, and then revised.

Strategies for encouraging revision include setting aside time for students to exchange drafts and write comments, in class or online. Provide three or four guiding questions for this peer review (what is the thesis or argument of the essay? What evidence has the author provided? Can you follow the transitions from one paragraph to the next?).

You might consider a small grade for the review (two to three percent of the final grade) to encourage students to take them seriously. You might also break a large assignment (a term paper) into a few smaller assignments such as topic proposal, annotated bibliography and the term paper itself. This allows you to provide guidance along the way while students still have the chance to change their overall direction.

4. Assign low-stakes writing
Dr. Bean makes the case for “low-stakes” writing, or writing that is ungraded or for minimal grade value.  This kind of writing helps students explore ideas, encourages risk-taking and promotes critical thinking. It can be used to summarize lecture points, explore out-of-the-box solutions to problems, personalize topics discussed in class, and a wide range of other possibilities.

These assignments are generally brief; some of them can be marked by other students in the class; many of them can be completed online. We’ve summarized this on another two-page document. All of the low-stakes assignments can increase student engagement with the course material, and many of them can be used to pose problems that can encourage students to read source material and participate more fully in class discussions.

5. Contact the writing centre
There’s one final strategy you may wish to consider. Many campuses have a writing centre; contact the director to see what resources they have, both people and online, or what resources they might obtain to assist students in your classes. Experienced tutors working with groups of students can work wonders in an hour.

Roger Graves is a professor of English and film studies and director of Writing Across the Curriculum at the University of Alberta.

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Comments on this Article

There are some excellent suggestions here, especially #1 and #2, and I think I will try to fold some of them into my own courses. #3 is also an excellent suggestion, though truly helpful opportunities for revision can be hard to achieve using peer (student) review.

The one point I'd like to add to the discussion is that #4, which suggests building in "low-stakes" writing assignments, can backfire. As Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies for many years, I dealt with numerous breaches of academic integrity involving precisely this kind of assignment. When students feel that there is not much at stake in an assignment (i.e., few or no marks attached), they are more likely to push it to the bottom of the priority pile and/or cheat. This finding has been repeatedly demonstrated in academic integrity surveys at a variety of institutions.

So while the idea of "low-stakes" assignments is attractive for a number of reasons, I think it probably needs to be used with care.

Professor Sheila Ager
University of Waterloo

Posted by Sheila Ager, Aug 27, 2014 6:21 PM

These are great tips, but one key resource is missing - Librarians. Due to their extensive experience with helping students do research, they have much to offer a professor, from helping you shape your research assignment to make it understandable to your students, to coming to your class to offer guidance in research question/thesis development and research.

Posted by William Badke, Aug 27, 2014 4:17 PM

This is a great article, learning to write effectively is more important then ever. Writing in courses will follow with writing in real world. Use of text is ever so important in our work and personal life.
We operate a small design firm in Calgary and quality content writers are becoming harder to find.
Universities should be used to groom more effective writers...
thanks for this awesome article Roger!

Posted by Azhar Siddiqui, May 9, 2014 12:21 PM

This sounds like an excellent use of technology to promote the kind of low-stakes writing tasks that improve student writing. You've revision worked into the assignment, and I really like the way the peer audience can interact with the author. I also like the way you've established a genre and then kept students coming back to it over several years.

Posted by Roger Graves, Feb 5, 2014 11:58 AM

In McMaster's Integrated Science (iSci) program, we've rolled up a number of these ideas into a science 'blogging' task.

Students in years 1-3 of the program write short (500 word), formal science pieces on topics that connect to the content they are learning throughout the program. After the draft is written, other students in the program can comment on these posts for one week, and the original author can continue to revise the post during that week. There are only a few marks on the line for each (i.e. low stakes), and students have many opportunities (eight over the three years) to hone their skills at this task. TAs ultimately mark the final post.

This is in addition to higher-stakes and group-authored writing that they do in other components of the program.

Some of our students' public posts can be viewed at:

Andrew Colgoni
Services Librarian, Thode Library
McMaster University

Posted by Andrew C, Jan 21, 2014 4:05 PM

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