How to help students in your courses become better writers


How to help students in your courses become better writers
How to help students in your courses become better writers
You don’t have to be an academic literacy practitioner or a writing teacher to create assignments and related
reading, writing and thinking activities that will help your students engage more deeply and effectively with
the knowledge they are learning in your course. Students need to learn the disciplinary writing, reading and
thinking strategies and skills from the people who have mastered them and use them all the time: their
lecturers and tutors. These are some ideas and strategies you can use in your teaching and tutoring to assist
your students’ learning.
Share useful strategies with students
Many of the writing strategies that experienced academics take for granted, like writing introductions, or
conducting successful research or literature surveys, are not at all obvious to students when they enter
university. And yet, students are often expected to know how to write, read and think in fairly specific and
specialised ways without necessarily being taught these ways explicitly. There are many resources that
academic lecturers and tutors can draw on to help their students get started with finding relevant academic
sources, doing literature surveys and conducting secondary research. The library has subject librarians for
each faculty, and they are all also to assist students with conducting literature surveys, evaluating sources
and with finding information needed for assignments. Working with the librarians by sharing your
assignments with them ahead of time can help, as they can advise on ways in which to make the information
literacy students need part of your assignments in more explicit and useful ways.
Here are some other useful strategies to share with students as part of giving out and working with course
content knowledge and written assignments. With all of them the key is to start discussions, and to make
these strategies part of the learning for the course in explicit and clear ways.
Idea 1: Task analysis
Do some task analysis with your students on a document camera. Print out the assignment you have
given them and place on the document camera. Take two coloured pens and highlight the words that
indicate what the ‘content’ of the assignment is, and with another colour the words that tell them
what to do with the content (e.g., ‘discuss, explain, elaborate). Then start working through some
questions you would ask yourself if this was your essay. What is this essay about? What have I been
learning about in classes that ties in with this topic? What are some of the main ideas I am going to
have to do some research on? Write these things down and try to draw the class into this task
analysis process. If they analyse and read the question for the assignment incorrectly, or
misunderstand it, the rest of the writing process is likely to flounder, so this is a simple yet
enormnousyl valuable exercise to take your students through with each assignment. Once you have
done it on the ‘board’ a couple of times, you can change the activities to make the students do more
of this work, using ‘think-pair-share’ or other small group work activities in class.
Idea 2: Freewriting
You can help your students to write in small and big ways, and often. Freewriting can be a very useful
tool for you and for your students. There are various ways in which you can use it, and you can share
your own writing with them in this way as well. One idea can be linked to task analysis. To help
students see that they do already have knowledge about the topic their assignment is on, set a 5minute freewrite, and join them in doing the writing. Ask them to write down everything they can
think about on the assignment topic (or a small part of it). They must be clear on what you are all
writing about. When you have written for 5 minutes, be brave and read your freewrite out to them, or
get them into pairs, and get them to read their freewrites to each other, and then to the pair next to
them. Ask them to share their freewrites with the class, and then share yours. The important thing
here is to show them a part of a writing process that can be useful so if they make point s that will be
helpful to their research and writing for the assignment, draw those out and show them where the
good ideas are.
Idea 3: focused critical reading
Many lecturers and tutors complain that their students don’t read. It may be because they are not
used to doing volumes of reading like those expected at university, but it may also be that they are not
able to manage the reading because they don’t understand the content or they are unsure of how to
make sense of what they are reading. Guided critical reading in class can help them, and can show you
where their gaps are that can then be followed up on in tutorials or lectures. Choose a reading that
has been prescribed for the class that students will likely need to use in their assignment. Set a few
focused questions that are aimed at helping them locate the main ideas in the reading and the
evidence that has been used to support these ideas. Set aside a lecture in which the students will
actually sit in class and read the reading, answering the questions and then sharing their answers with
peers. Peers can ten help each other to make sense of the text, and the lecturer can walk around and
listen to pairs and offer advice and help where needed. If repeated confusion or misunderstanding is
noticed, the lecturer can then teach that part of the reading by clarifying the misunderstanding so that
students will be able to continue with their reading. This kind of experience can be very empowering
for students who struggle with reading, can encourage peer learning, and provides a different way for
students to engage with course content knowledge. The key is to set the guiding questions that will
promote the active reading of the text. You could also pair the reading with a freewrite where they
can write down the main points and evidence that they recall from the text, and you could take them
in and read a selection to get a snapshot of how the managed the reading as a group.
Provide examples
Use examples of good student writing to discuss with your students what makes these pieces of writing
effective. Use actual examples from previous years if you are setting similar types of assignments, like essays
or reports. Anonymize the students’ writing and share these examples with students, talking through the
essay or report, or parts of these, using a document camera so that you can annotate the text if necessary
and show exactly where certain strengths and weaknesses can be found and what could be done to
overcome the weaknesses and build on the strengths. This helps students identify the elements of good
work for particular assignments within particular disciplinary domains that, in turn, helps them become
conscious of these elements in their own work. Diverse models of student work also illustrate that there are
different ways to approach the same assignment, thus offering students some sense of creative scope.
Model your own writing process
It may also be helpful for you to share with students your process in approaching writing tasks. This is helpful
in terms of sharing helpful tips and writing strategies with students, and it also shows them a writer in
progress, because you are also learning and growing as a writer, even though you are further along that
journey than they are. Students really appreciate hearing that the people they look up to also struggle from
time to time, but that they keep working until they get through the struggle.
For example, you can tell students:
 What questions you ask yourself before you begin (you might, for example, ask: Who is my audience?
What am I trying to convince them of? What do I want to say, and what evidence can I use to back it up?)
 How you go about writing (Do you sketch out ideas on scrap paper? write an outline? hold off on writing
your introductory paragraph until you have written the body of the paper?). Can you show them work in
progress and explain to them how you are shaping your writing as you go and where you are stuck. If you are
stuck, explain what you think you will do to get unstuck, so you are also sharing your own writing strategies
which they could perhaps try themselves.
 How you go about recognising problems and making revisions in your writing. (Do you ask a friend to read
and comment on your work? Do you step away from the paper for a day and return to it with fresh eyes?).
Why do you choose certain strategies at certain times?
This is not always easy: it means we must become aware of and then make explicit the processes we engage
in unconsciously and automatically. However, illuminating the complex steps involved in writing and revising
to both you and your students is a useful exercise. As you help your students to develop as writers, you will
likely also gain new insight into your own writing process.
Design assignments that offer appropriate practice with feedback
One of the best ways for students to become better writers is through practice – it may be the only way that
any writer becomes more capable and successful. However, not all practice is equally effective. An important
way to help students develop as writers, even in a course not solely designed for this purpose, is to match
the writing assignments to the students' skill level and offer practice (with feedback) on the aspects of
writing where they can benefit. This means designing assignments that are aligned with your learning
outcomes, and that offer students opportunities to work on the different disciplinary thinking, reading and
writing practices they need to master, like summary writing, or summary and synthesis writing, or
argumentation, or description and analysis of results… the list goes on. Try not to cram too many different
practices into one assignment; rather focus on developing their mastery of the elements of writing with
feedback and smaller, more focused tasks and then gradually build on these foundations by putting those
elements together into larger or more demanding assignments that will allow them to demonstrate that
IDEA: You could also break a larger assignment down into small parts, so that students can write drafts,
and write for an assignment more consistently. You can use peer feedback exercises to get students to
comment on one another’s’ drafts, and give feedback, or this process can become part of the tutorials for
your course if that option is available to you. This will help students to avoid leaving the whole
assignment to the last minute, and will give them repeated opportunities to get feedback, and to practice
their writing. You can set deadlines for the component parts, so that students don’t get left behind.
Require drafts
Few people are able to turn out high-quality writing in first drafts. For most people, good writing requires
rereading, rethinking, and sometimes fairly extensive revising. Many students, however, misconstrue or
underestimate what good writing involves, believing that it's a simple linear process when, in fact, it is
complex and iterative. Many students leave writing assignments to the last minute, expecting to be able to
sit down and rapidly turn out a good paper. Thus, they may not give themselves enough time to re-examine
premises, adjust the organizational scheme, refine their arguments, etc. Requiring drafts forces students to
build in appropriate time frames for their work.
IDEA: This can feel like too much of a challenge for large classes where there is little help from skilled
tutors or colleagues. But well-designed and managed peer feedback exercises can assist students in
giving one another feedback, and you as the lecturer can read a representative sample of the drafts and
give the class global or group feedback in lectures based on what you have read, with the aim of making
the expectations of the assignment clearer. Peer feedback, when well-managed and designed, is very
effective and students are quite capable of reading and commenting on one another’s work. This also
helps them to become more aware of errors and also strengths in their own writing.
Create rubrics and Model a marking process
A detailed scoring guide or performance rubric helps students to recognize the component parts of a writing
task and understand how their competence will be assessed in each of these areas. A good rubric helps
students to see what comprises high quality writing and to identify the skills they will need to perform well.
It is recommended that you provide your rubric to students along with the assignment so they know what
the criteria are in advance and can plan appropriately. This is an important part of making your expectations
very clear to them, and you can explain the rubric to them by talking through it in class.
IDEA: Another idea is to model your marking process by putting up a sample assignment on a document
camera or overhead projector so that you can write on or annotate it. Mark the assignment ‘out loud’
telling students as you go what you are thinking and what kinds of comments you are making and why
you are making them. This can give them insight into how you approach their writing, and what you
expect from them for the assignment. If you don’t want to do this ‘live’ in class you can make a video of
yourself marking by putting a camera over your shoulder as you mark the paper out loud. You can then
edit the video and post it on your e-teaching. You could do this for a good, average and poor paper to
give students three different examples of your marking approach and thought process. There may be
examples of other lecturers who have done this on YouTube that could be helpful.
Recognize Cultural Differences
Besides the differences between skilled and unskilled writers, there are cultural differences that often
manifest themselves in the written work of non-native speakers of English. For example, Arabic speakers
may develop their arguments by restating their position rather than stating rationales. Japanese speakers
are inclined to argue both for and against an issue, and to be more tentative in their conclusions. Some nonnative speakers generally provide lengthier treatments of historical context, minimizing their own
arguments. Awareness of these kinds of conventions should be a part of your approach to your students.
IDEA: You could devise a small activity around this issue to get to know your students a little better. The
point of the activity, which could be done in class in small groups, would be to get students to talk to
one another and to you about how they approach issues that have bearing on their ability to write well
in your discipline. For example, how do they feel about critiquing established texts? What do they do
when established wisdom is critiqued in their culture? How do they construct arguments – do they
make their own voice very prominent, or do they lean very heavily on the words and ideas of others?
Why? This activity could have the benefit of giving students and you as the lecturer insight into a range
of culturally-influenced practices around writing and thinking that could either enable or constrain
disciplinary writing. It could also make you more aware of why students might be approaching tasks
you set in certain ways and how to help them move forward.
Be explicit with students about the behaviours of skilled writers
Understanding the behavioural differences between skilled and unskilled writers can help us work more
effectively with students, even to "warn" them in advance of potential pitfalls to be avoided.
Skilled/successful writers
Conceive the writing problem in its
complexity, including issues of audience,
purpose, and context.
Shape writing to the needs of the audience.
Are committed to the writing.
Are less easily satisfied with first drafts.
Think of revision as finding the line of
argument. Revise extensively at the level of
structure and content.
Often tried to do everything well on the first
draft. Are mindful of and working on word
choices or on punctuation, even at early
Tend to believe that the more you write and
work on your writing, the more competent
you will become over time.
Unskilled/unsuccessful writers
Conceive the writing problem narrowly,
primarily in terms of topic.
Have little concept of audience or who they
need to write to.
Care little about the writing.
Are more easily satisfied with the first draft.
Are able to pay selective attention to various
aspects of the writing task, depending on the
stage of the writing process.
Think of revision as changing words or
crossing out and throwing away. Revise only
at the level of single word or sentence.
Are less mindful of how punctuation and
word choices can affect the meaning of the
text, and tend to neglect these issues.
Tend to believe that writing well is a gift you
either have or don't have.
Sharing this information with students in advance of writing assignments can aid them in the writing process.
This guide was adapted from and expands on the following document from Carnegie Mellon University. This
can also be found under ‘Resources’, which is on the ‘General Pages’ sub-site. It is available online at:
[Accessed September 2012].