Help students become better writers - Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation - Carnegie Mellon University

How can I help students become better writers in the discipline
when I am not a writing teacher?

There are a variety of things you can do that do not require expertise as a writing teacher, as well as ways of creating assignments and assessments that will aid students in this academic endeavor.

Share Useful Strategies with Students.

Many of the writing strategies we take for granted (e.g., how to write an introduction, how to research relevant sources) are not at all obvious to our students. And yet, these issues arise so frequently that there are resources available for us to share with our students. For example, the library offers workshops on various topics such as conducting literature searches and evaluating sources that can be scheduled during class time so students all get the chance to learn these basic skills before they need to be applied in writing assignments. In addition, there are several sources of information on the web that we can share with our students on basic writing tips and strategies:

Provide Examples.

Use examples of good student writing to discuss with your students what makes these pieces of writing effective. This helps students identify the elements of good work for particular assignments within particular disciplinary domains that, in turn, helps them become conscious of these elements in their own work. Diverse models of student work also illustrate that there are different ways to approach the same assignment, thus offering students some sense of creative scope.

Model Your Process.

It may also be helpful for you to share with students your process in approaching writing tasks. For example, you can tell students:

  • What questions you ask yourself before you begin (you might, for example, ask: Who is my audience? What am I trying to convince them of? What do I want to say, and what evidence can I use to back it up?).
  • How you go about writing (Do you sketch out ideas on scrap paper? write an outline? hold off on writing your introductory paragraph until you have written the body of the paper?).
  • How you go about diagnosing problems and making revisions in your writing (pdf). (Do you ask a friend to read and comment on your work? Do you step away from the paper for a day and return to it with fresh eyes?).

This is not always easy: it means we must become aware of and then make explicit the processes we engage in unconsciously and automatically. However, illuminating the complex steps involved in writing and revising to both you and your students is a useful exercise.

Design Assignments that Offer Appropriate Practice with Feedback.

Of course, one of the best ways for students to become better writers is through practice. However, as our learning principle on practice and feedback shows, not all practice is equally effective. An important way to help students develop as writers, even in a course not solely designed for this purpose, is to match the writing assignments to the students' skill level and offer practice (with feedback) on the aspects of writing where they can benefit. See more information on designing effective writing assignments and on responding to student writing.

Embed Milestones.

It is also helpful to include milestones into an assignment so that students submit either preliminary drafts (so they can incorporate feedback in their subsequent revisions) or components of a larger paper (so they avoid leaving the entire assignment to the last minute). For example, you could require your students to read and comment on at least two other classmates' early drafts by a specific deadline (for information on peer review, see the University of Wisconsin's Writing Center).

Require Drafts.

Few people are able to turn out high-quality writing in first drafts. For most people, good writing requires rereading, rethinking, and sometimes fairly extensive revising. Many students, however, misconstrue or underestimate what good writing involves, believing that it's a simple linear process when, in fact, it is complex and iterative. Many students leave writing assignments to the last minute, expecting to be able to sit down and rapidly turn out a good paper. Thus, they may not give themselves enough time to re-examine premises, adjust the organizational scheme, refine their arguments, etc. Requiring drafts forces students to build in appropriate time frames for their work.

Create Rubrics.

A detailed scoring guide or performance rubric helps students to recognize the component parts of a writing task and understand how their competence will be assessed in each of these areas. A good rubric helps students to see what comprises high quality writing and to identify the skills they will need to perform well. You might want to provide your rubric to students along with the assignment so they know what the criteria are in advance and can plan appropriately.

Recognize Cultural Differences.

Besides the differences between skilled and unskilled writers, there are cultural differences that often manifest themselves in the written work of non-native speakers of English. For example, Arabic speakers may develop their arguments by restating their position rather than stating rationales. Japanese speakers are inclined to argue both for and against an issue, and to be more tentative in their conclusions. Some non-native speakers generally provide lengthier treatments of historical context, minimizing their own arguments. For more information about this area, contact the Intercultural Communications Center's Writing Clinic for non-native English speakers.

Be explicit with students about the behaviors of skilled writers.

Understanding the behavioral differences between skilled and unskilled writers can help us work more effectively with students, even to "warn" them in advance of potential pitfalls to be avoided.

Skilled/successful writers

Unskilled/unsuccessful writers

Conceive the writing problem in its complexity, including issues of audience, purpose, and context.

Conceive the writing problem narrowly, primarily in terms of topic.

Shape writing to the needs of the audience.

Have little concept of audience.

Are committed to the writing.

Care little about the writing.

Are less easily satisfied with first drafts. Think of revision as finding the line of argument. Revise extensively at the level of structure and content.

Are more easily satisfied with the first draft.

Think of revision as changing words or crossing out and throwing away. Revise only at the level of single word or sentence.

Are able to pay selective attention to various aspects of the writing task, depending on the stage of the writing process.

Often tried to do everything perfectly on the first draft. Get stuck on single word choices or on punctuation, even at early stages. Tend to believe that writing well is a gift you either have or don't have.

Sharing this information with students in advance of writing assignments can aid them in the writing process.