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Student writing: Old school skill needs an updated approach

In recent conversations with faculty members, many have affirmed the importance of old school skills in higher education. One of these skills is writing.  Oftentimes, universities expect students to arrive with these skills fully developed and therefore, not much time is spent in-class helping students to practice and improve. The results, when assignments are handed in, can be disappointing.

So, what can instructors do to improve student writing? The answer: design assignments that promote student learning and build in opportunities for reflection and feedback.

There is no doubt that this takes time, but even short assignments can be a powerful way to help students develop these much-needed communication skills. The key is to plan assignments carefully and devote some in-class time to make sure students understand your expectations

Here are some strategies to improve student writing:

  1. Frame your assignment around a question or problem, not a topic.

Engage students in a meaningful task by asking them to address a question or investigate a problem. This type of assignment provides structure while introducing students to the type of issues common in your discipline.

Consider these ideas:

  • Pose a research question instead of presenting a topic. For example, instead of “Write about climate change and variability in weather”, you would ask students to argue why the cold winter of 2014 in North America is not a sign that the climate change is a myth.
  • Assign students a specific task rather than leaving the assignment open-ended. For example, giving students the freedom to choose their own research question promotes their autonomy but it also has its drawbacks: 1) you may need to do extra background reading to assess their papers fairly; 2) they may be too junior to choose a question that is appropriate in scope (an extremely challenging task, even for experts!)
  • Ask students to consider alternative points of view and reach a conclusion of their own.
  • Assign students a role and ask them to defend a particular position. Sometimes students are too unfamiliar with a discipline to take a well-reasoned position. Assigning a role may alleviate anxiety and allow them to focus on their argumentation skills instead.
  1. Select from a variety of types of writing
  • Academic writing is by scholars for scholars. It reflects the skills most valued in higher education:  citation, documentation, reasoning and evidence.  Examples: summaries, critiques, research papers, research posters.
  • Professional or Vocational writing is what you find in the world of work. Students use the forms of writing they are likely to encounter during their careers. This varies according to discipline. Examples: case reports, 2-page summaries, fact sheets, policy papers.
  • Civic or Popular writing is for the public. This type of writing seeks to inform opinions and decisions of the public. Examples: Newspaper editorials, letters-to-the-editor, open letters, speech at city council meeting.
  • Personal and Interpersonal writing reflects psychological or interpersonal interests. It can build connections with other people or satisfy an individual’s needs for expression. Examples: reflection journals, blog entries, interviews.
  1. Tell the writers who their readers are. 

Knowing who the audience is helps writers make decisions about language, tone, format and which information to include.

Consider these ideas:

  • Make it clear if you are the only audience (but don’t be disappointed if students are not that enthused)
  • Give students a real audience by having them prepare something for peers, or for an on-line audience
  • Give students a fictional audience by experimenting with the non-academic types of writing described in Point #2 above.

4. Clarify expectations to students.  

Students’ previous writing experience often does not prepare them for work in your class (especially if they are never given explicit writing instruction in your discipline). Therefore, taking the time to provide clear instructions is an investment that usually results in better writing from students. Consider these ideas:

  1. Explain why this assignment is important and why writing is important (if you don’t know then maybe you should consider assigning something else or talking to someone at your writing center!)
  2. Share assessment criteria & standards with students (rubrics, checklists).
  3. Provide models of published work and lead a discussion about their features.
  4. Provide examples of work from former students (with permission) and lead a discussion about their features
  5. Have students generate their own criteria for an assignment and discuss how they reflect or differ from your own expectations.
  6. Use class time to engage students in conversations about the assignment

By taking time in class to address writing assignments, you help students see how important they are. It can also be an opportunity for peer learning and allow students to test out ideas in a low-risk environment before committing them to paper.

Consider these ideas:

  1. Together, analyze the types of readings students are using.
  2. Ask students to share what they are currently reading for their assignment and how it relates to the topic of the day.
  3. Explain how expert writers construct any part of an assignment (e.g., the Introduction) and invite students to ask questions.
  4. Have students brainstorm questions to research for a paper.
  5. Structure in opportunities for revision

The only way for students to improve their writing is for them to keep writing. You can help this process along by giving them several opportunities to write, receive feedback and apply that feedback to their next assignments. 

Consider these ideas:

  • Students submit multiple drafts of the same assignment and you provide feedback for that pinpoints how they can improve.
  1. Encourage self-evaluation by providing a short checklist of criteria that students must fill in and submit with their assignment.
  2. Encourage peer-evaluation by coaching students on what you are looking for; focusing on a small set of criteria; promote peers giving each other comments, not grades.


Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: the professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom.

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