How Can We Help Students Start?

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.

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

Apply the why

A Writing Guide for Social Work Created in 2011-2018 by Christopher D. Kilgore for the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Arlington