Looking Back: On Raising the Academic Quality of Student Writing

No one learns to write spontaneously, and certainly first-year college students cannot attain advanced academic skills in a three-month semester.

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Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

My first-year writing seminars are grounded in two concepts — workshop structure (multiple drafts of essays combined with conferencing over long periods of time) and portfolio assessment (a portfolio of all course work is submitted for the final exam).

In that final portfolio, students submit final versions of all four essays, rank those essays in order of quality according to them, and submit a reflection that details the key lessons they have learned about writing as well as a few areas they need to continue improving.

This pandemic semester has added a significant and noticeable layer of stress to first-semester first-year students so I have adjusted the final weeks of the seminars this fall, ending in just a few days. One change has been to replace the usual Essay 4 assignment (an open assignment in which students submit a proposal for the type of essay and topic before submitting a first full draft) with the end-of-course reflection usually required in the final portfolio.

In class yesterday, we began brainstorming what key lessons my students have learned and what they see as areas still needing improvement. Over this past weekend, as well, I sent out an email that framed the organization of the semester, outlining how the essay assignments have been scaffolded in order to prepare these students to be academic writers (student writers) in the remainder of their college experience.

Included in those goals, I explain to them, is seeking ways to increase their agency as students/writers and their academic authority in courses when they are required to submit essays that will be graded (again, I do not grade assignments in my courses) and when students will not be allowed to revise (in effect, having to be their own editors before turning in any essay).

Here is the structure and scaffolding of essay assignments for first-year seminars, focusing on essay types, audience, and the role of the writer:

Essay 1: A personal narrative, what some people would call “creative nonfiction,” and the audience is the general public.

Essay 2: A public essay written for an online platform (using hyperlinks as citation); that audience is also a general public, but for some of the students (depending on topics) that is also a specialized public audience (readers who share interest in or experience with the topic, such as gaming systems).

Essay 3: A scholarly/academic essay in which the students are writing to an academic audience (readers/experts with high-quality knowledge of the topic). This is often what students will be asked to write throughout college, especially when required to cite formally (APA, MLA, Chicago Manual of Style, etc.).

Throughout the drafting of these three essays, we have focused on some common strategies across essay writing: crafting engaging and vivid openings and closings, matching diction and tone with the essay topic and intended impact on the audience, purposeful paragraphing and sentence formation, and nuanced approaches to choosing and including appropriate and effective evidence (in terms of disciplinary conventions for citation).

For students, even with the scaffolding and direct instruction (including two very effective textbooks — Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 12th Edition, Joseph M. Williams, Joseph Bizup and The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing, John Warner), writing an academic and formally cited essay was a significant challenge.

Since several students are still working on their first revised draft of the academic essay and since one of the foundational goals of our first-year writing seminars is students demonstrating proper citation (and the harsher negative goal, not plagiarizing), I included in my weekend email some tips for raising the academic/scholarly quality of their writing (especially as that applies to APA style guidelines).

One of the most significant hurdles for first-year students moving from primarily writing in English courses, often writing text-based analysis and conforming to MLA style and citation, is how to integrate evidence (sources).

For many students, providing proof in an essay for school is always including quotes, but we examine that quoting as evidence is primarily a convention of text-based writing (analyzing a poem or an essay in philosophy or the writings of a past president) common in the humanities. Evidence in the hard and social sciences, however, often includes incorporating a much more nuanced and complex body of research findings, challenging students to synthesis data and conclusions from multiple sources (and rarely quoting).

Quoting as evidence tends to be incorporating one source at a time while many disciplines synthesize multiple sources to give a sense of a body of research.

Here, then, are the strategies I provided in my weekend email for raising the academic/scholarly quality of their writing:

  • In academic writing, avoid writing like you talk (as contrasted with conversational language appropriate in creative nonfiction and public writing) and a flippant/light tone about serious topics. Do not say your topic is a “hot topic” or use “well” as a sentence starter, for example.
  • Focus your discussion on your topic and not your sources. Do not frame your claims around your source: “Johnson (2014) conducted research on grade retention and found that grade retention correlates with dropping out of high school, but not with higher achievement.” Instead address the content of your sources: “Grade retention correlates with dropping out of high school, but not with higher achievement” (Johnson, 2014; Van Pelt, 2017).”
  • Keep your claims at a scholarly/academic level. Stating that something has “been debated for decades” or “recently this has become a controversy” is not a scholarly or academic purpose for examining a topic; scholars typically do not consider (or care) if or not something is a debate or controversial. Related, avoid in academic/scholarly writing making claims of “throughout history” or “has recently become a debate/controversial” because these both are overly simplistic claims that make you look not credible or nuanced in understanding complex topics.

As the semester is winding down (or this year, grinding over us), I left my students with two important reminders.

First, no one learns to write spontaneously, and certainly first-year college students cannot attain advanced academic skills in a three-month semester. I cautioned them to be patient with themselves and see their learning to write well as a journey.

Second, and connected, I stressed that they should find a few key areas of their writing to address at a time; trying to revise and edit everything in any essay draft is likely counter-productive for students. I suggested doing read-throughs of drafts for one revision element at a time (and related to the issues they are identifying in their final essay of the semester).

In-school academic essay writing becomes more specialized and nuanced as students move through undergraduate and possibly into graduate education. First-year writing is the smallest of steps so we must be sure we are both demanding and encouraging — a nearly impossible goal to achieve as teachers of writing.

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