Explore potential strategies.
Students are unclear about certain parameters of the assignment or do not know how to meet them.
Without a clear description of the purpose of the writing assignment (e.g., whom they are trying to convince of what, what style or tone is appropriate to the given audience), students may be writing for a vague or inappropriate goal. They may not know, for example, what audience they should be writing for and thus may be unclear about how much background information to include or how to “pitch” their argument. Although these aspects of writing (and planning) may seem trivial to instructors, students often have trouble gauging how much information to include when they write. For example, a natural assumption students often make is that you the instructor are their sole reader. Because they know you already know the material, they underestimate the degree to which they need to define terms and explain complex concepts and ideas. To further complicate matters, many students do not even consider asking themselves questions such as who is the intended audience or what tone or style is appropriate for this piece when planning a piece of writing. So, they do not ask their instructors for extra details about these aspects of the writing assignment even when doing so could greatly help them. Finally, students may struggle with the length requirements of an assignment because they have not yet learned how much depth or breadth is reasonable in the number of pages you expect them to write.
Explain to students what kind of reader they are writing for. For example, if you want your students to include explanations and descriptions of the texts, works of art, or principles about which they are writing, they need to be told not to assume the reader is familiar with this material. In terms of tone or style, be clear about the purpose of the writing assignment by indicating, for example, what kind of reader they are trying to persuade about what. It is particularly helpful to specify the intended audience for an assignment in concrete terms, as in, “For this paper, imagine that you are writing to convince a friend (who has not taken this course) of X” or “For this paper, you are writing a news article for young adults interested in learning about Y.” By varying the audience and tone you specify for different writing assignments—even those dealing with the same or similar topics—you highlight to students how much these parameters can and should influence the style of writing they produce.
Give students examples of good student responses for a particular assignment. This provides students with a better sense of how much depth or breadth is reasonable for an assignment of a particular length. It can also serve as a springboard for discussing how the (student) author was able to convey the desired style or tone through writing. As beginning writers, students do not necessarily see the choices that authors must make in conveying information, and they will benefit from hearing your analysis of how a piece of writing effectively deals with issues of audience, tone, and style. This is especially useful if you will be using similar criteria when grading their papers.
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