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Students may be intimidated by writing and lack confidence in their abilities.
Students who have not taken writing-intensive courses in high school or college may find writing assignments unfamiliar and intimidating. Other students, who have received harsh criticism, unhelpful feedback, and/or grades that seemed arbitrary may also be gun-shy about writing assignments; they may believe they’re “just not good at writing” or that “the grading is all subjective anyway” and thus approach writing assignments with the expectation of failure. These students’ anxiety or sense of fatalism about writing may impede their ability to perform effectively.
Give students the opportunity to practice writing in situations where the grading stakes are low. Structure into your course short assignments that are un-graded (but required) or assignments that have a pass/fail grade or a low overall point value. Low-stakes assignments give students the opportunity to practice writing skills without the stress of high-stakes assignments. Use low-stakes writing assignments to build the skills and confidence students will need for more heavily weighted assignments, like formal papers, research projects, etc. Emphasize to students that low-stakes assignments provide them with the practice and feedback they will need to perform well on higher-stakes assignments.
When students try to conform to formal writing conventions, they often write in an awkward, convoluted manner. Instructors sometimes find that when students write informally, they relax and are clearer and more persuasive than on formal assignments. Even if your ultimate goal is for students to employ the formal writing conventions of your discipline, consider assigning some informal writing early in the semester (for example, you could ask students to write a letter attempting to persuade a friend about an issue relevant to your course, or ask them to reflect informally on a reading’s significance to their own lives). Informal writing assignments can reduce the tension students associate with writing, help them get their ideas down on paper clearly, increase their confidence, and eventually pave the way for more formal writing assignments. It may even convince reluctant writers that they like writing after all.
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 the paper (who will you 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. Breaking the assignment down into smaller pieces can help demystify it for students. It can also give them a clearer point of entry for beginning the assignment and thus help to overcome anxiety and writer’s block.
Students sometimes feel overwhelmed by instructor feedback and don’t know where to begin to improve their performance. Consider providing targeted but not extensive feedback. For example, you might make it clear to students that on Assignment X they will only receive feedback on the strength of their argument and evidence but not on any other aspects of their writing. Or, alternatively, you might 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 helps students focus on one aspect of their writing at a time. This is most effective if you make it clear to students that each assignment’s feedback is meant to help them with a particular aspect of writing, but that on formal assignments they will be assessed along multiple dimensions, which you spell out clearly.
Many instructors write extensive margin comments and some even edit student papers for grammar, sentence structure, and spelling. However, research indicates that detailed margin comments are not always effective for improving student performance. First, a heavily “marked up” paper can overwhelm a student who lacks confidence about writing. Second, students can come to believe that revision is simply a matter of incorporating the instructor’s edits, rather than thinking about the paper’s strengths and weaknesses and making their own editorial decisions.
Instead of making extensive margin comments, focus on “end comments” that address substantive issues of meaning and organization and which students what they have done effectively in addition to what they need to work on. End comments focus students on the core issues in writing while making it clear that their work is their own: you will not change it or edit it for them. Focusing on central issues does not mean that you have to accept poor grammar, sentence structure, etc.; you can simply point these out to students and give them the responsibility for finding and correcting problems. If students need help with mechanics, direct them to Academic Development and/or the Intercultural Communication Center.
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