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A Writing Guide for Social Work

Research on college writing indicates that, perhaps now more than ever, students tend to be intimidated by writing assignments, particularly complex assignments with many important elements. Many students experience anxiety, sometimes quite acute, and many also endure particularly low self-efficacy with regard to writing tasks. Facing an assignment sheet, many students feel incapable of taking the initial steps toward a topic, and as a result, they put off the writing process until it is far too late for them to develop an effective paper. As this guide has emphasized before, late starts sometimes result from laziness or extreme under-preparation, but more often than not, we can help.

Tips to Make Your Grading Easier: Use Process Assignments

After many experiences with students starting their writing projects too late and creating disastrous papers at the last minute, many of us have already adopted a “best practice” recommended by researchers in composition: using process assignments. Process assignments are informal, formative assignments graded primarily for completion and development. They do require more “up front” time from instructors, who have to respond to the students’ incomplete ideas, rather than their polished products—but we will make up that time at the end of the term, when students turn in clearer, more professional papers that require less-extensive markup. Students also benefit by learning that writing tasks do not happen all at once, but rather require a process involving multiple kinds of activity.

TIP# 7: Develop Process Assignments that Target Writing Goals

One common process assignment is simply the “draft” paper. Reviewing drafts is a wise practice, since it helps instructors re-route students who have started off on an unrewarding track, but it works best as the last “process” assignment in a carefully guided sequence, and will be discussed in more detail in this guide’s section on revision, Why Make Students Revise? For now, the following list includes potential process assignments for every stage in the writing process before the “draft review” stage. There are far more here than we would probably choose to include for every class; the purpose of this list is to propose many possibilities, which we can choose and tailor to our specific assignments’ needs, and our students’ capabilities.

Group Discussion: State Assignment Tasks and Process

  • Time: 10-20 minutes in Class
  • Purpose: This process assignment starts students responding to an assignment and embarking on the writing process as soon as the assignment is given.
  • Assignment: In groups, students read and discuss the assignment, and develop a list of Things We’ll Have to Do, and Things We’ll Need to Know First. Students write down the lists and turn them in to the instructor, who reads and responds to the lists, indicating which “Things We’ll Have to Do” look like effective responses to the assignment requirements, and clarifying the assignment whenever student responses indicate misunderstandings. Responses can occur in class, or via written feedback.
  • Response: Instructor responses will clarify the assignment, resolving potential misunderstandings.

Topic Proposal Assignment

  • Time: One Graded Assignment, Outside of Class
  • Purpose: This assignment requires students to clarify their goals and interests very early, so that they can use their day-to-day coursework to help them move forward with their writing.
  • Assignment: This common assignment can run into trouble when it demands too much specificity up front. Students should develop an area of interest, and then quickly narrow it down to a specific area of inquiry. At this stage, however, students often respond best when not yet required to state a “thesis statement.” Instead, we can encourage them to clearly state how their own interest areas would intersect with the assignment’s requirements (e.g., I have a client whose case would fit this task; I have an interest in gerontology, which might be difficult to fit, but sounds useful; etc.), or ask students to formulate a question to help guide their inquiry. These assignments are typically one page or less in length.
  • Response: At this stage, students often find questions about their interests or preferences useful in generating further avenues for writing and research. Since this is a formative assignment, it’s often less useful to discuss grammar, APA style, or “finished product” qualities.

Topic Proposal Peer Review

  • Time: One Group-Based Project, 20-40 minutes in class.
  • Purpose: Reading one another’s topic proposals can help students attain a sense of the range of possible responses to an assignment. Evaluating these proposals can also give them the practice they will need, in order to evaluate their own work.
  • Assignment: Working in small groups, students read one another’s topic-proposal assignments. This assignment works best when we can provide students with a set of instructions that suggest how to evaluate a topic assignment. Following guidelines or specific questions, students offer written feedback to their peers, either by hand, or via email. Depending on the writing project, students might evaluate a topic’s breadth, specificity, or appropriateness to the assignment, and might also offer suggestions about avenues for research (for larger projects).
  • Response: It is often best for us to take a quick look at how effectively students have responded to this assignment, but often no significant grading time is needed.

Research Question Assignment

  • Time: One Graded Assignment, Outside of Class
  • Purpose: This assignment helps students further clarify their goals in completing a research-intensive assignment. Students often have the most trouble when they conduct broad, unfocused literature reviews, so this kind of assignment can help them narrow their topic enough to read and write efficiently.
  • Assignment: Students write a single page in which they clearly state what they want their research to find out. Student responses might take the form of a question, a series of interrelated questions, or a question and then a hypothesis. Students enter research assignments at many levels of preparation, so it’s often useful to allow them some flexibility in their responses.
  • Response: As in the Topic Assignment, it’s often useful to respond to the Research Question with further questions that help students narrow down their topics. Responses often work best when they follow the general form of the Apply the Why exercise suggested in the Student Edition of this section.

Literature Review or Annotated References

  • Time: One Graded Assignment, Outside of Class
  • Purpose: This assignment helps us check to make sure that students are making progress in their work on larger researched projects.
  • Assignment: There are many potential variations on this kind of assignment. For larger projects, it may be useful to ask students to write a full literature-review section, rendering their discoveries in paragraph form. For smaller projects, or for less-experienced students, an “annotated references” page may be sufficient. Here, students accompany each APA citation with a brief paragraph summarizing the source’s findings and relevance to the project.
  • Response: Many student research projects founder because the student becomes overwhelmed, unfocused, side-tracked, or all of these at once. By providing feedback that helps the student narrow down a broad topic of inquiry, or by suggesting new avenues of research overly narrow topics, we can help them make their research time more productive. Students may also find the Purdue O.W.L.’s Social Work Literature Review Guidelines page useful. Again, because this is a formative process assignment, it may be useful to provide APA feedback, but scoring on APA style, in whole or in part, may be counterproductive at this stage.

TIP# 8: Use Responses to Process Assignments to Build Student Confidence

Each of the above assignments has the chance to do double-duty, keeping students on-track toward effective writing projects, but also helping them feel in-control of the writing process (and therefore reducing writing anxiety, and boosting writing-related self-efficacy). Many students already know that their writing does not meet expectations, but have trouble understanding what to do about that, particularly when our feedback overwhelms them with critiques that are too numerous, too nitpicky, or too negative. Three simple grading “tricks” have a good track record with building confidence while encouraging further work:

The Criticism Sandwich
Perhaps the most basic rhetorical device we can use in responding to student work is a demand for more work, sandwiched between observations about what the student has done well. Positive observations need not lavish praise on a clearly incomplete draft. Indeed, the first part of the sandwich can often simply summarize what we think the student’s project is attempting. Such a “read it back to me” approach helps dignify student thought and effort, by showing that we took the time to understand what they have done. The summary-critique-praise sequence may seem patently artificial—and it is—but its purpose is to help students feel comfortable with what they have done, and accept the further work they will need to do in order to produce an effective paper.

Two Is Enough
Contemporary research in composition indicates that students respond best to a limited number of critiques. After about four “action items,” students’ ability to assimilate and use our advice in future work (or in revisions) becomes limited. Faced with a welter of comments, students often pick one or two, seemingly at random, and work on those. As a rule of thumb, particularly for process assignments, our feedback will be most effective if we pick out only one or two major areas for improvement, and if we stick to the most systemic problems—particularly those of content and structure. If we have to comment on grammar or style, we should be choosing problems that appear in every paragraph, if not every sentence, or problems that render the content literally undecipherable.

Socratic Writing Responses
Rather than detailing, in discursive form, exactly what went wrong with an outline, draft, or paper, we can usually elicit much more enthusiasm (not to mention hard work) by asking questions. For example, instead of saying, “The research question is still too vague,” it’s often preferable to ask probing questions that invite the student to revise further. Such questions can often use the pattern of the Apply the Why exercise included in the Student Edition of this guide, helping students develop more focused projects by asking questions that encourage them to develop more specific research questions and hypotheses.
Process assignments and formative responses help encourage productive writing habits among students, by breaking down larger projects into manageable steps, and modeling process-based writing through course structure. By encouraging students to take ownership of their research and writing process, and to manage their time, we also reduce the likelihood of plagiarism, which forms the central focus of the “Tips” in the next section, How Can We Help Students Cite?

«  What is Social Work Student Research? How Can We Help Students Cite? »


A Writing Guide for Social Work
Created in 2011-12 by Christopher D. Kilgore for the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Arlington