Students lack critical background skills - Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation - Carnegie Mellon University

Students lack critical background skills

Writing is a complex task involving many component skills, some of which students may lack completely, some of which they may have only partially mastered. These skills involve, among other things:

  • Reading comprehension
  • Analytical skills
  • Writing skills, including:
    • writing mechanics: grammar, sentence structure, spelling, etc.
    • planning a writing strategy
    • communicating ideas clearly and concisely
    • constructing a reasoned, demonstrable argument
    • effectively marshaling evidence and using sources appropriately
    • organizing ideas effectively

When students lack skills in these areas, their writing may be unsatisfactory in multiple ways—from poor grammar and syntax to unclear organization to weak reasoning and arguments. Complicating matters is that students often lack the meta-cognitive skills to recognize the areas in which their prior knowledge and skills are insufficient—and thus which skills they need to work to improve.

Moreover, students may have learned bad habits in high school that they need to un-learn. For example, some students were taught in high school to avoid the first person in formal writing, and thus may use awkward grammatical constructions to avoid it.

Strategies:

A key challenge in helping students learn basic writing skills is doing so without overwhelming the students or overburdening yourself. Effective strategies thus involve (a) prioritizing which skills you value, (b) communicating those priorities (and your specific expectations) to students, and (c) giving students opportunities to practice and receive feedback. 

Use performance rubrics to break down the skills involved in writing.

Use a diagnostic pre-assessment to identify common writing problems.

“Scaffold” writing assignments.

Create multiple practice opportunities.

Use performance rubrics to break down the skills involved in writing.

Writing isn’t a single task; rather it involves many component skills (e.g. synthesizing information, articulating arguments, crafting sentences, engaging an audience). Furthermore, the nature of writing depends heavily on both the specific assignment (i.e., the purpose of the writing) and the conventions of particular disciplines. Developing clear grading criteria can help students learn to recognize the component tasks involved in particular kinds of writing and identify what they need to work on. Performance rubrics help to demystify the component tasks of writing.

Developing good performance rubrics is not easy. It requires the instructor to be extremely clear in articulating the objectives of the assignment as well as his/her own values vis-à-vis writing. While creating a high-quality rubric can involve an initial investment of time, instructors who have developed good rubrics generally find that they expedite the grading process and provide students with feedback that translates into better performance. 

Use a diagnostic pre-assessment to identify common writing problems.

Give your class an un-graded writing assignment early in the semester and use it to diagnose areas of weakness in student writing. A quick read-through of student writing should illuminate common writing problems (e.g., weak arguments, poor use of evidence, missing topic sentences, etc.). If the problems cluster in a few clearly defined areas, you might choose to address them in class.

If the problems are not ones you can or wish to address in class, you can point them out to students and/or direct students to appropriate resources, for example, Academic Development, the Intercultural Communication Center, or an on-line writing tutor.

“Scaffold” writing assignments.

Use assignments that break reading, analysis, and writing into component parts and give students practice developing mastery in each area, building gradually towards more complex, comprehensive writing tasks. For example, you might first ask students to summarize, in writing, the central argument of a reading and three pieces of evidence the author used to support it. At a second stage, you might ask students to write a critique of the argument in light of that evidence and alternative evidence. At a third stage, you might ask students to write an essay comparing two readings in terms of how compellingly the authors made their cases.

Create multiple practice opportunities.

Learning to write well requires considerable practice. However, many faculty members are—understandably—reluctant to assign a lot of writing because of the grading burden it imposes. Yet giving students more writing opportunities need not always entail more work for you. Here are some options to consider:

  • Have students read one another’s work and provide feedback to their peers in the form of “reader responses.” This not only relieves you of some of the grading burden, it provides students with the opportunity to develop editing and evaluation skills that they can apply to improve their own writing. Peer feedback is most effective when you give students specific instructions about what to look for and comment on. You can ask students to use the same performance rubric you use, or give them a set of questions to address, such as: Was the writing style engaging? Is there a clearly articulated argument? Is there good correspondence between argument and evidence? Are the ideas expressed clearly and unambiguously? What you ask students to focus on in a peer review, of course, depends on your discipline and your goals for the particular assignment.
  • Use “minimal grading,” or extremely targeted feedback for some assignments. For example, you might make it clear to students that on one assignment they will only receive feedback on the strength of their argument and evidence but not grammar and spelling. Alternatively, you might choose to focus on clarity, underlining clear or effective passages in blue and unclear or problematic passages in green, and limiting your feedback to that single dimension of writing. This not only makes the job of grading easier, it helps students focus on one aspect of their writing at a time. Once again, what you choose to emphasize in grading will depend on your learning objectives for particular assignments.
  • Assign more writing tasks of shorter length or smaller scope rather than fewer tasks of great length or large scope. This way, students get more opportunity to practice basic skills and can refine their approach from assignment to assignment based on feedback they receive.

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