Students have misconceptions about what writing involves - Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation - Carnegie Mellon University

Students have misconceptions about what writing involves

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 and 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 schema, refine their arguments, etc.

Even if students do leave themselves sufficient time, they may only make revisions at or below the sentence level. In other words, they might ask themselves Are there spelling mistakes, typos, or grammatical errors? but not Is my argument clear? Is it interesting? Does each supporting paragraph help to build the main argument? Does it enlist appropriate evidence? Do I successfully address counter-arguments? Does each paragraph follow logically from the last? Are the transitions smooth? Does my conclusion both sum up and add a new perspective to the rest of the paper?

Faculty may inadvertently perpetuate student misconceptions of the writing process by telling students they should “think their argument through” before beginning to write, as if thinking and writing were discrete, sequential stages.

Strategies:

Instructors can employ several strategies to help students approach the writing process more realistically and productively.

Make your expectations clear.

Create “scaffolded” writing assignments.

Model how you approach writing tasks.

Require drafts.

Use performance rubrics.

Emphasize purpose-focused writing.

Make your expectations clear.

Spell out your expectations vis-à-vis revision and editing. This could be in the assignment description itself or on a checklist that students must fill out and attach to the completed assignment. Such a checklist asks students to verify that they have done certain things, from including page numbers and their name to rereading and spell-checking the paper to re-examining the core premises, the alignment of argument and evidence, and the overall organizational structure. This can serve as a reminder to students that their work is not done simply when they reach the page limit.

Create “scaffolded” writing assignments.

Break long writing assignments down into shorter, scaffolded assignments. For a research paper, for example, you might ask first for a proposal or statement of intention in which the student must articulate the purpose of his paper (who will it try to convince of what?). At a slightly later stage, you might ask for a list of relevant bibliographic resources, then for an argument, clearly stated in 1-2 sentences. This can help to illuminate for students the component tasks of a writing assignment, while not permitting them to wait until the last minute to begin work.

Model how you approach writing tasks.

Help students see writing as a multi-stage, iterative process by modeling how you, as an expert, approach a writing task, diagnose problems in early drafts, and go about making revisions:

  • What questions do 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 do you go about writing? (Do you sketch out ideas on scrap paper? Write an outline? Save your introductory paragraph until you have written the body of the paper?)
  • How do you go about diagnosing problems and making revisions? (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: the instructor must become aware of and make explicit the processes she engages in unconsciously and automatically. However, it is a useful exercise, illuminating to both you and your students the complex steps involved in writing and revising.

Require drafts.

Faculty can include the submission of intermediate drafts as part of an assignment, providing feedback at each of the stages. This has a number of advantages. First, it allows instructors to see where students are having problems while those problems can still be addressed. Second, requiring drafts communicates to students that good writing involves progressive refinement. Third, writing in drafts allows students to experiment and take some chances in their writing while the stakes are still low. Fourth, when students receive constructive feedback on early drafts and improve their writing as a result, they see the benefits of revision directly and begin to develop the ability to diagnose writing problems on their own. Finally, requiring drafts discourages plagiarism.

While giving feedback on drafts can be time-consuming, targeted feedback and performance rubrics can help instructors assess student writing more efficiently and provide more useful feedback. Moreover, requiring students to include their previous draft and your feedback with each new submission makes it easier for you to see how they have addressed your comments and hence faster for you to grade each subsequent submission.

Use performance rubrics.

Writing isn’t a single task; it involves many component tasks. 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. Rubrics help to demystify the writing process to students, but also to illuminate its complexity.

Developing good performance rubrics is not easy, because 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 use rubrics generally find that they ultimately expedite the grading process and provide students with more useful feedback.

Emphasize purpose-focused writing.

Students often take a topical approach to writing (i.e., “I will write about Subject X”) as opposed to a persuasive or argument-based approach and thus may have a difficult time adjusting to the kinds of writing expected in most college courses.

Instead of asking students to choose a topic for a paper, ask them to describe what they plan to do with that paper (this is sometimes referred to as a “Plans to Do,” as opposed to a “Plans to Say,” approach). For example, rather than state “I will write about Intelligent Design,” the student might develop this plan: “I will convince readers that Darwin’s ideas have been misrepresented by many proponents of Intelligent Design.” Having defined a purpose to his writing, the student can then move to how this goal can be accomplished: What argument should I make? What evidence can I enlist? How will I deal with conflicting evidence or interpretations?

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