Let’s face it—some things never change, like last-minute assignments and the growing anxiousness that gets even more intense with the amount of assignments students receive.
Writing assignments come in different forms and shapes, from lab work to a short argumentative essay. Why, then, do many students end up failing to complete them? It just contradicts plain logic—the more students get into the habit of writing, the better their writing skills should become. But often, that’s not the case.
Factors affecting the writing skills of students have been examined in detail by Dr. Irene Glendinning and her colleagues. The most frequently cited reasons from around 3,950 students included:
- Running out of time
- Being unable to cope with the workload
- Thinking their written work is not good enough
- Assignment tasks are too difficult or not understood
- Unclear criteria and expectations for the assignment
Basically, everything boils down to teaching students to write regularly and setting clear expectations.
Let’s figure out whether there are more things to consider and explore the advice of Dr. Dawn DiPeri, who has been into teaching, writing, designing, and developing courses for the online, face-to-face, and hybrid modalities since 2012, and Holly Owens, M.Ed., the Assistant Director of Instructional Design with Online Education at Touro College and University System with over 13 years of experience in education.
Teaching Students to Write Begins with Assignments
The truth is writing has very complex mechanics. It requires communicating ideas clearly, originally, and logically, analyzing external sources, applying correct grammar and syntax—the list goes on.
If a few skills are missing, students become too overwhelmed by writing assignments and meeting deadlines. Consequently, they become more inclined to plagiarize, since being original demands a much bigger effort.
To successfully develop writing skills in students, researchers often suggest following a simple model: vary writing assignments + provide constant feedback. However, it’s not enough.
Everything starts with assignments. As Dr. Susan Nash once pointed out, the biggest stumbling blocks are “unclear instruction” and a “boring prompt that has been used many times before (How does Shakespeare treat the theme of revenge in Hamlet? What kind of narrative technique does William Faulkner use in As I Lay Dying?).”
In Assignments across the Curriculum, Dan Melzer examines the various genres of writing skills activities for students. He stressed that the biggest pain point is the vague purpose of potential assignments. They’re either too limited, asking students to inform the reader about the lecture or reading, or confusing—giving much instruction about spelling or grammar errors to avoid, but sharing little information on what exactly should be done and how it will be evaluated.
Course design managers often advise preventing unclarity in these ways:
Create assignments that spark students’ interest and imagination. A boring prompt should be avoided at all costs. If assignments repeat year after year—requesting nothing but time-consuming research of literary studies—writing turns into a heavy burden, pushing students to search for shortcuts.
Set up clear assignment goals and align them with the learning objectives. Each assignment is a milestone for a student, helping them hone writing skills and acquire new knowledge. So, if a student is supposed to learn how to disagree with the argument, suggest a writing model that would encourage students to share their opinions and provide reasoning logically.
Make sure the goals set resonate with students. Becoming familiar with your students throughout their learning journey is tough but definitely worth the effort. Knowing what they love, hate, and wish for will help increase involvement. Students should understand why they need to accomplish this and how this may help in their future endeavors.
Sequence assignments to improve students’ writing skills. Developing a sequence of writing assignments ensures that students gradually become more skilled at what they have learned. Experiment with formats and length as well as media formats (audio/video + writing pieces). It’s also crucial to communicate what students are expected to demonstrate in each assignment, since evaluating students’ writing skills will largely depend on that.
Communicate clear grading criteria and expectations. This ensures fair assessment and shows students in what direction they should be moving. It’s also a good idea to post them somewhere to ensure everyone is kept in the loop and attach discipline-specific writing standards.
Update students on their successes and failures. Provide them with timely feedback that shouldn’t give “correct answers” or sound “accusatory,” but rather get students thinking and exploring. Questions instead of edits often work best here.
Designing writing tasks based on the GRASPS (Goal, Role, Audience, Structure, Product, Standards, and Criteria) strategy will help you keep focused on all the task elements.
Some Instructional Basics That Often Slip Out of Sight
After planning assignments, the next big thing is arranging the writing process of students and providing them with timely guidance.
As an educator, you’re probably quite often buried in writing, working on dissertations, statements, scripts for webinars, presentations, and whatnot. You, of all people, understand how hard it is to organize yourself, juggling multiple tasks at a time. So, your students would definitely appreciate time-management advice, and actionable writing prompts.
Admittedly, it does take precious time to contact everyone in person, which is why sharing FAQs and pre-recorded videos with some helpful writing strategies might be the way to go.
Amid all these countless strategies on how to develop writing skills in students, these seem to better contribute to writing fluency:
Take time to understand the topic. In his interview to EdSurge, John Warner, the author of Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, has put it this way: “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.”
Provide many opportunities for practice and revision. Emphasizing thoughtful writing may eventually put many students into even more stressful situations. Creating opportunities for students to practice low-pressure writing will bear fruit. Hold them accountable about the number of revisions they can make and assign different tasks for each stage of the process—first, have them focused on ideas; second, ask them to think about adding their experiences; next, help them improve the structure of writing.
Give choices and change the audience. Suggesting alternative topics/assignment formats and encouraging students to experiment with the audience (asking to write for other peers, parents, younger family members, etc.) may help them gain much needed fluency in writing. Here’s what Dr. Dawn DiPeri and Holly Owens, M.Ed. are also advising to do in the first place:
Dawn: Students should be encouraged to write and write a lot. Write for different audiences, and different topics. Have them find the thing that they are passionate about. Get them excited to seek out information through research. Encourage students to write a little bit every day or even most days. Teach about how to find trustworthy content and know the difference between empirical evidence and opinion.
Holly: Write on a daily basis whether it’s journaling or writing a research paper, students should make it a point to write frequently. Students should also make it a point to visit their campus’ writing center for assistance from other scholars. I would also encourage students to write in various types of genres like fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and explore areas outside of their writing comfort zone.
Offer various techniques and progress tracking. This can be left to students to self-upgrade and then report on their progress to the class. Writing for time: setting a timer and writing in two (25+25 minutes) iterations or more following a Pomodoro technique. Writing for better understanding: take some time to think about the concept and putting words to writing in a clear and structured way. Writing for distance: set more and more ambitious word count goals will foster students’ ability to write lengthy papers without being tempted to copy-paste.
Encourage students to be original thinkers.
Dawn: Have a student read something. Then cover it up (or close the laptop) and record an audio of themselves summarizing what they just read. Then transcribe.
Holly: Write a personal story. Have students interview an elder, do research related to their ancestors, something interesting yet personally gratifying.
To better engage students into original writing habit, our interviewees also suggested practicing these activities:
Dawn: Make writing and reading in front of peers fun. Try debates. Do open mic nights in the online classroom. Include writing in multimedia. Insert an audio of a written prose into a PowerPoint. Have students practice their elevator pitch and develop mock interview questions. Have a student research about a current event and then record a news story and report on it.
Holly: In the online course I teach I have students record podcasts episodes on various topics. Students work in pairs where one student is the host and the other is the guest. This requires them to do scripting and also prepare for answering interview questions.
Habits of Mind as a Method to Improve Students’ Writing Skills
The desire to learn as well as the desire and ability to write stem from the mind’s capacities and habits. Why not focus on building students’ habits of mind that would let them be better at writing? Dr. Dawn DiPeri and Holly Owens, M.Ed. shared their insights regarding this.
Dawn: Educators should encourage students to journal and do creative writing as well. Encourage them to read as much as possible. Have them seek out writing that is so good they can’t put it down and come back and tell us why. Practice structure. Teach how to use an outline. A topic sentence and supporting evidence. Use the MEAL approach. Encourage students to use an introduction and also a conclusion. Have students look for clear transitions between their sentences and self-reflect on their own writing and their peers. Use peer 2 peer teaching.
Holly: The writing process should also be scaffolded into digestible chunks. I remember learning the APA process during my masters programs, it was a lot of information to absorb and remember to use when writing research-based papers. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was a fluent writer.
PS: As a bonus tip for those of you who have read this long read up to the end, explore a detailed guide by Dr. Dawn DiPeri on transitioning face-to-face classes online:
DiPeri, D. L. (2020). How to spot a struggling student online and what to do about it. A guide aimed at helping face-to-face instructors who have recently migrated online. From https://higheredconnects.com/struggling-student-online/.
Contact Holly Owens for technology training, consultation, coaching and other professional services related to online pedagogy at firstname.lastname@example.org or by going to her site jollyholly.me for business-related inquiries.