Thursday, December 02, 2010

How to Help Students Write Better

Although this is a self study group (which means I don't make a habit of marking student writing), writing is a primary focus. That makes this article relevant. If you want to write better, feedback and revision are necessary. How do you propose handling that within our DIY (do it yourself) structure?
So is writing, not that anyone else has been doing much of that lately.

The following are not my words and do not apply to blogging on the study group blog, which is informal writing to practice writing and very different from college writing.

I teach developmental composition. In my class, I require 7 essays and 3 rewrites, with a fourth rewrite as optional. Most of the other faculty require between 4 and 6 essays and between 0 and 3 rewrites.
When I was much younger I required 14 essays in a 16-week semester.
I would like to encourage my students to write better, while not having to grade quite so many papers. So when I was reading the CHE forums, this post caught my attention.
I assign a paper due on the first day of the second week. Five pages based on a unique set of questions over a short book. I mark the s*** out of the student papers and grade them fiercely, using only two grades–B, and Rewrite (sometimes I don’t give any Bs). I prepare a handout of the most common errors, and review them with the class. Then I hand around a piece of my own writing with tons of editor’s marks on it. As the students look it over I talk about the importance of rewriting to the writing process. At this point one student will say “This is going to be bad, isn’t it?” Then, with jokes and encouragement, I hand back the papers. If they got a “Rewrite” they must rewrite the paper, attach the original, and get it back to me in a week. If they got a B they can rewrite if they like. Only the grade on the rewrite counts. “You can all still get an A!” I tell them.
They nearly all do a fine job on the rewritten papers (except for the 10% of the class I lose–bonus!). This reinforces something I have long thought, that most students can write better than they normally do write. You just have to show them the fear.
I usually assign two more 5 page essays during the semester. The second essays are so much better than the first! I still grade them pretty hard and assign a handful of rewrites, but more As. The third essays I just glance and grade, generously.
I see dramatic improvement in student writing over the course of the semester, and even more so when students take multiple courses with me. And the policy has additional benefits–it drives the slackers out of my classes right at the start of the quarter, it causes the rest of the students to prioritize my course over their other classes, and (counterintuitive thought it may seem) it gets me great student evaluations. And nicely written ones as well.
I like this idea. I think I will institute it during my summer class with freshman composition.
It also seems that it would encourage the students to think of themselves as part of the academic discourse community, if I told them about revise and resubmits in publishing.
A different approach, and one I have used for the exact reasons specified, was recommended by another forumite:
One thing that’s worked well for me in the past has been to allow rewrites of papers, but to average the original grade together with the new grade. It works for two reasons: (1) students have an incentive to do well on the original draft in the first place, and (2) the slackers decide that it simply isn’t worth the effort for only a slight grade increase, but it still makes the grade-conscious students happy. In my class of 24 last summer, maybe six students decided to do revisions, and they all did a good job with it.
I require 3 rewrites for my developmental students. They need the help and the experience. I offer them an optional rewrite. I haven’t gotten those yet, so I don’t know how many took me up on it. Based on past experience, I would say not very many.

Note about posting: this excerpt from Teaching College English and comments are cross-posted to both Blogging English (a closed ESL study group blog) and a public blog, Computers, Language, Writing mostly about the intersection of computers, language and writing, as well as to Academentia

Note to study group: Please comment and offer your own ideas. What you you think of this article? Respond to the questions I pose at the opening.


  1. Vanessa
    I quite agree with your article.
    I think that I have to write at first and rewriting comes next.

    I now write my journal everyday and it becomes my hobby. No one looks my journal, so I can write it almost freely.I mean I don't care grammer,spelling,etc.

    However when we post anything to blogs, we have to care many things.So I believe posting to my blog is my writing exercise.

    It's my opinion that my posting to blogs is equivelant to rewriting of collage students.



    Yes, I know I am shouting, but that is because I am really upset about this.



    THAT IS *NOT* MY PURPOSE HERE. I want everyone to write more. If you are too self conscious about sharing your writing, then most of you won't write enough.

    Writing in a private journal is a good idea and you always want to check writing before posting, emailing or publishing. HOWEVER, worrying too much about mistakes and revising before posting makes writers too self conscious and often blocks writing.

    ABOUT REVISION: most writers, even the most experienced, need feedback from readers before they re-write

    Also, THIS IS NOT A PUBLIC BLOG. I did that on purpose, so you would all feel more comfortable about sharing writing.

    I hope this is not why so few of you have posted your introductions.

    A FINAL NOTE: this is NOT "my" article. Please note that I opened with a few comments of my own and then reposted excerpts from another blog. Obviously, I need work on formatting so that it's easier to tell the difference.

    And maybe it's time for me write about re-writing, editing, copy-editing, proofreading ~ and the differences between them.

  3. Vanessa

    I'm sorry to make you upset by my post.My saying was wrong. I only wanted to say that posting to blogs is likely to be equivalent to rewriting in academy for me.

    I know they are quite different.I have learnt a part of academic writing in callage at your class. So I know it's deffent from our posting to blogs.

    I'm sorry again to say such a thing.



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