Eleven Tips for Improving Student Writing

Eleven Things You Could Start Doing Today for the Benefit of Your Students’ Writing*

  1. Give writing assignments in written form, not just [orally].
    Your student will be able to carry away your actual words about the assignment, not just a vague memory of them, and when she wonders at 1 a.m. what she’s really supposed to do, she’ll refer to your handout. For many students, puzzling over an assignment sheet becomes the first step in doing the writing. And for you, the act of writing down the assignment will help clarify its connection to your course goals.
  2. During classroom discussions of student writing, hand out copies of the writing being discussed.
    You want students to talk about both what has been said in the writing, and how. Both require students to discuss the written text, not their personal recall of hearing it read aloud by the writer. It is impossible to have a discussion of writing at the sentence level, where much of the crucial action takes place, without having the written text to refer to. Also, the presence of the physical text reminds students that you’re asking them to work with the writing, not work on the student who wrote it.
  3. [Maximize your use of] seminar-style seating, so that teacher and students can face each other in discussions.
    By giving feedback to another writer, guided by a more experienced writer (the teacher), students learn to recognize and talk helpfully about a text’s various qualities. Over time, students gradually internalize these discussions; they learn how to put into words their own use of written language. It is this [practice] that will leave them with a greater feeling of control over their future writing.
  4. Get your students to write weekly in some form, whether it’s a draft, informal response, or free write.
    Habits are powerful things, and the ability to generate written text at will is crucial. Weekly practice in small doses flexes a student’s writing muscles regularly and gives her more material (e.g., her own concerns about the course material) when it comes time to draft an essay. As Courtney, a first-year writing student, once remarked, “By having us write short assignments every week, it made the research paper less scary when it came time to do it.”
  5. In class, write when your students are writing.
    You are what you teach. If you want your students to write, be a writer in a way visible to them. Embody the writing way of life. If, for example, you ask students during a charged dialogue to pause and reflect in writing for 10 minutes, your joining them displays a commitment to writing as a way to struggle deeply with hard questions.
  6. Grade [only] finished products, not drafts or informal writing.
    Drafts and informal writing are, by definition, not completed work. The whole point of assigning them is to move students away from trying to write the finished product on the first try. The act of grading a draft, response paper, or journal entry sends a contradictory message by implying that it can be judged by standards applicable to completed work. The power of making room in the course for process will be lost if students believe that their “draft” should look finished.
  7. [Return] students’ writing… within 1 week. Adjust level of feedback to time available.
    Work returned soon with a little feedback, from the teacher or from a structured peer review, beats work returned later with a lot of feedback. A teacher’s few sentences penciled on a student’s informal response paper or another student’s questions jotted on his classmate’s draft will prompt more thinking and writing. Timing matters: The student needs to feel he is in a live exchange of ideas.
  8. The first time you read a batch of student work, do so without a pencil in hand. Just read to get a sense of it; make no comments. The second time, read closely and make comments.
    This method makes use of the power of your mind to process what you’ve read in its own quiet way. If you read the first time simply as a reader, not as a commentator or editor, then let the reading sink in, you can arrive at a basic idea of what your student is up to with surprisingly little effort. By the time you return to the stack, your brain will have invisibly processed, for example, that one student has sorted out the chronology of her ideas while most of the class still grapples with ordering their paragraphs. (Skeptical? Try this once; it works.)
  9. On each piece of writing you respond to, make at least 1 mark per page. The easiest technique is to underline what’s promising, worth pursuing, and well said.
    This is the basic practical way of creating a feeling of ongoing dialogue between writer and reader. Never underestimate the power of students’ knowing that you are paying attention to [them]. Underlining promising things is quick and communicative; it becomes a way of cultivating your own perception of the student’s potential, as well as guiding and encouraging the student to become aware of it. And don’t forget to tell your students what the underlines, and your other marks, mean.
  10. Retire the red pen; stop copy-editing your students’ work.
    Point out no more than 2 patterns of error, and leave it to the student to find a way to resolve the errors.
    When you copy-edit a student’s work, many students will look at the marked-up copy and think “Oh, that’s been taken care of for me.” Rather than encouraging learning, it sends the message that correcting those things is the teacher’s job. If a student can see that she regularly makes errors of a certain type, based on a misunderstanding of the underlying principle, and then correct that misunderstanding, lasting learning could take place.
  11. Commenting on the first draft of a full-fledged paper is your best opportunity to bring about learning. On the draft, make no more than 3 major suggestions.
    Only the strongest students — who are likely to be the best writers already — will read the commentary on a graded paper, extract general principles from the comments, and carry them over to their next writing assignment. The others will simply zero in on the grade. However, when your comments on a first draft go back to a student who knows she will be writing a second version, those comments stand the best chance of being applied. As for limiting your suggestions, both you and the student will benefit if you make your task, and subsequently the student’s, more manageable.

Here are some aspects of a student’s work you might consider when responding to it:

  • assignment (degree of completion);
  • form (appropriateness for assignment); [genre conventions]
  • focus (the paper’s main idea, thesis, guiding question);
  • organization (order of paragraphs, central idea of each paragraph);
  • evidence (data, examples, quotations, illustrations, personal experience);
  • language (appropriate to the topic, assignment, discipline, [audience]);
  • discussion [and analysis] (establishing connections between focus, evidence, and writer’s own ideas);
  • gaps (missing evidence, discussion, connection);
  • sources (selection of relevant ones, presentation in formal style,[attribution, documentation]);
  • the writer’s personal voice; and
  • other aspects of writing relevant to your discipline.

*The above advice was co-authored by Jane Kokernak, M.A., Writing Center Supervisor, Mount Ida College and Lowry Pei, Ph.D., Professor of English, Simmons College.