How Can Profs Support Students Who Come In With Poor Writing Skills?

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How Can Profs Support Students Who Come In With Poor Writing Skills?

By Bonni Stachowiak (Columnist)     Sep 24, 2018

How Can Profs Support Students Who Come In With Poor Writing Skills?

This article is part of the guide: Toward Better Teaching: Office Hours With Bonni Stachowiak.

The following is the first full installment of the new EdSurge advice column about teaching in higher education. You can pose a question for a future column here.

How can I best support students with very poor writing skills when the class is not one specifically focused on writing? I'm already encouraging them to use the Writing Center and giving feedback that highlights one or two specific grammar/ clarity issues to focus on. Yet I fear that those who enter college with major deficits in this area will struggle in every class, without sufficient resources available to catch up. Thanks Bonni!

—Kerry Moore, assistant professor of social work at Vanguard University of Southern California

Let me start by saying that I hear this question frequently. We professors sometimes misjudge the skill level students will start from on the first day of class on a variety of fronts. And these students vary in which courses they have taken or plan to take before they finish, so there is a bigger picture of their progression to consider.

Recently I had a bit of a wake-up call regarding my thinking about developing writing skills. In talking with Asao B. Inoue, director of the writing center at the University of Washington Tacoma, for my Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, he stressed the importance of finding out from students what their goals were around writing, prior to attempting to provide them with feedback. I realize that sounds completely obvious, but it was not something I have always remembered to integrate into my own teaching.

You can submit your challenges and questions here.

One example we talked about was all the time we might spend emphasizing a particular citation style (e.g. APA, MLA), when the individual has absolutely no intention of ever pursuing graduate school. Yes, I realize that many of us never had the idea of going to graduate school until well beyond finishing undergrad. I also recognize that in some disciplines, teaching students to use particular citation styles is essential, even at the undergraduate level. However, starting by identifying what goals our students have will allow us to provide far more powerful feedback than if we never are aware of them at all.

Inoue also articulated the importance of spending more time writing as vital to growing these skills. He stated that “The engine of learning is labor.” The more we write, the better we will get at it. This is particularly true if we have someone giving us useful feedback who is aware of our broader goals and aspirations.

John Warner’s forthcoming book, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, addresses this question directly. We might just be “teaching writing wrong,” he argues, by conditioning our students to perform “writing-related simulations,” which are too sterile to help them develop in ways that are most relevant to them.

I reached out to John to see what advice he has for us in these pursuits. He shared:

“I always like to remember and remind students that writing is thinking. If they're having trouble with the writing, there's likely an underlying problem with the thinking, and often it's rooted in them not being sure what they're supposed to be thinking about. I go back to trying to decide what kind of thinking I'm trying to privilege with the assignment and then helping students get started on that path.”

I asked others on Twitter for their advice and received far more responses than I ever would have anticipated. J. Scott Self, assistant professor in the school of educational leadership at Abilene Christian University, joked in a tweet that learning more about growing writing skills was the number one thing he was planning on asking Santa for this year, since it is such a challenge to help struggling writers make improvements.

I completely understand the frustrations, yet there is hope. We can look to those who have been able to address the realities while still challenging themselves and their institutions to change their approaches. I will weave the guidance received from Twitter in with my own advice and will link to the recommended resources.

Remember Writing Skills Fall on a Continuum

One paradigm that can be especially helpful is to think of developing writing skills as falling along a continuum. Ideally, we model for our students that we continue to grow our own writing skills and this quest is a lifelong pursuit.

Shannon Riggs, executive director for the division of Extended Campus at Oregon State University, stresses the importance of reading the kinds of writing styles we wish to emulate. That has been such a helpful practice for me—each time I have entered into a new form of writing in my work. It is also beneficial to employ this approach when it has been a while since we have written in a particular style.

Align with a Team

One challenge I have experienced at different times in my academic career is the feeling that I am trying to develop skills like this as a solo player. The more we can connect with others who are teaching in our program and across disciplines, the more we can brainstorm and share advice on improving our students’ writing together.

Approaches and resources that were recommended by people on Twitter include:

  • Writing Across the Curriculum: This is a movement that works to build effective writing assignments into courses well beyond English, composition and literature classes. There are several well-crafted books on the approach, including Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum, by Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen.
  • Writing Across the Disciplines: Jason Ferguson summed up this approach best in a 2014 essay: “Every academic discipline requires writing of some kind and most of them require it frequently.” He provides an overview of the distinct goals and writing products within various areas of study.
  • Encouraging Active Learning: One recent book focuses on making sure writing assignments are done in way that promotes active learning, where students learn by doing rather than passively receiving information. It’s called Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, by John C. Bean

Thanks to Josh Eyler, director of the Center for Faculty Development at Rice University, and Matt Salamone, associate professor of mathematics at Bridgewater State University for suggesting that. Salamone also recommended the Writing Across the Curriculum Clearinghouse, which looks fantastic.

Building a relationship with your university’s writing center can also be foundational in aligning with a team. They often have far more knowledge than we do about resources to support the writing-related learning goals we have for our classes. They are also able to develop relationships with students that extend beyond a given course and can provide individuals with a place where they can see longer-term growth opportunities.

If your institution does not have other departments you can rely on as part of your team, there are online repositories that can support you and your students’ learning. Anthony Schmidt, an educator and Ph.D student, tweeted his recommendation for Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) website, which is one of my all-time favorite resources for my growing my own writing abilities over the years.

Give Plenty of Opportunities for Practice and Revision

If we want to develop better writers, opportunities for practice and for gaining an understanding of the importance of the revisions process need to be emphasized. Laura Gibbs, an online instructor at the University of Oklahoma, shared:

“Exercises on writing can help up to a point, but in the end, writing is a skill that needs practice, and it is a complex skill which means that feedback from a skilled writer is essential. My main job in [my classes] is giving students feedback.

Riggs, of Oregon State University, also recommended regular practice as a means for improvement. She tweeted that getting three pages down each morning can help all writers become more fluent and to reflect more on our writing.

Thanks for being among the first to write in with a question for my new EdSurge column (I should note that I work with Kerry at Vanguard University).

The fact that you are inquiring means that you care about supporting your students in developing these vital skills. I wish you success in these pursuits. I was going to ask you to let us know how your efforts are going, but now I’m thinking we should read Bean’s Engaging Ideas together and report back to each other on how it helps our teaching evolve.

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