Weekly Teaching Note
Feb 08 2011
Helping Students Write Better in All Courses


Few faculty members would deny the importance of writing in their academic discipline or the role writing plays in mastering material, shaping ideas, and developing critical thinking skills. Writing helps students learn the subject matter: they understand and retain course material much better when they write about it.

You don't have to be a writing specialist - or even an accomplished writer - to improve your students' writing skills, and you don't have to sacrifice hours of class time or grading time. The ideas that follow are designed to make writing more integral to your courses and less onerous to you and your students.
View the improvement of students' writing as your responsibility. Many faculty erroneously believe that teaching writing is the job of the English department or composition program alone. Not true! Writing is an essential tool for learning a discipline. Helping students improve their writing skills is therefore the responsibility of all faculty. 

Let students know that you value good writing. Stress the importance of clear, thoughtful writing. As Elbow (1987) has noted, you can require competent writing without knowing how to teach composition. In general, faculty who tell students that good writing will be rewarded and poor writing will be penalized receive better essays than instructors who don't make such demands. In the syllabus, on the first day of class, and throughout the term, remind students that they must make their best efforts in expressing themselves on paper. Back up your statements with comments on early assignments that show you really mean it, and students will respond. (Source: Elbow, 1987)

Regularly assign brief writing exercises in your classes. Writing is a complex set of skills that requires continuous practice. You need not assign weekly papers to give students experience in writing. To vary the pace of a lecture course, ask students to write for a few minutes during class. Some mixture of in-class writing, outside writing assignments, and exams with open-ended questions will give students the practice they need to improve their skills. (Source: Tollefson, 1988)

During class, pause for a three-minute write. Periodically ask students to write for three minutes on a specific question or topic. Tell students to write freely, whatever pops into their minds without worrying about grammar, spelling, phrasing, or organization. Writing experts believe that this kind of free writing helps students synthesize diverse ideas and identify points they don't understand. You need not collect these exercises. (Source: Tollefson, 1988) 

Have students write a brief summary at the end of class. Give students two or three minutes to jot down the key themes, major points, or general principles of the day's discussion. If you give students index cards to write on, you can easily collect and review them to see whether your class understood the discussion.

Provide guidance throughout the writing process. After you have made an assignment, discuss the value of outlines and notes, explain how to select and narrow a topic, and critique first drafts. Define plagiarism as well; see "Preventing Academic Dishonesty." (Source: Tollefson, 1988)

Use read-around groups. Read-around groups allow everyone to read everyone else's paper. The technique works best for short assignments (two to four pages). Divide the class into groups of four students, no larger, and divide the papers (coded for anonymity) into as many sets as there are groups. Give each group a set and ask students to read each paper silently and select the best paper in the set. Each group discusses their choices and comes to consensus on the best paper. The paper's code number is recorded by the group, and the process is repeated with a new set of papers. After all the sets have been read by all the groups, someone from each group writes on the board the code number of the best paper in each set. Recurring numbers are circled. Typically, one to three papers stand out. (Source: Pytlik, 1989)

Ask students to identify the characteristics of effective writing. After students have completed the read-around activity, ask them to reconsider those papers voted as excellent by the entire class and to jot down features that made each paper outstanding. Record their comments on the board, asking for elaboration and probing vague generalities (for example, "The paper was interesting." "What made the paper interesting?"). In pairs, students discuss the comments on the board and try to place them in categories such as organization, awareness of audience, thoroughness of detail, and so on. You may need to help the students arrange the characteristics into meaningful categories. (Source: Pytlik, 1989)

Don't feel as though you have to read and grade every piece of your students' writing. Since students are writing primarily to learn a subject, it is better to have them write than not write, even if you cannot evaluate each piece of writing. Ask students to analyze each other's work during class, or ask them to critique their work in small groups. Or simply have students write for their own purposes, without any feedback. Students will learn that they are writing in order to think more clearly, not to obtain a grade. Keep in mind, too, that you can collect students' papers and skim their work. (Source: Watkins, 1990)

Find other faculty members who are trying to use writing more effectively in their courses. Share the writing assignments you have developed and discuss how students did on the assignments. Pool ideas about ways in which writing can help students learn more about the subject matter. See if there is sufficient interest to warrant drawing up writing guidelines for your discipline. Students welcome handouts that give them specific instructions on how to write papers for a particular course or in a particular subject area.

  • Boris, E. Z. "Classroom Minutes: A Valuable Teaching Device." Improving College and University Teaching, 1983, 31(2), 70-73.
  • Elbow, P. "Using Writing to Teach Something Else." Unpublished paper, 1987.
  • Hawisher, G. E., and Selfe, C. L. (eds.). Critical Perspectives on Computers and Composition Instruction. New York: Teachers College Press, 1989.
  • Holdstein, D. H., and Selfe, C. L. (eds.). Computers and Writing: Theory, Research, Practice. New York: Modern Language Association, 1990.
  • Lowman, J. Mastering the Techniques of Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1984.
  • Petersen, B. T. "Additional Resources in the Practice of Writing Across the Disciplines." In C. W. Griffin (ed.), Teaching Writing in All Disciplines. New Directions in Teaching and Learning, no. 12. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1982.
  • Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education. Bright Idea Network, 1989. (For information contact David Graf, Iowa State University, Ames.)
  • Pytlik, B. P. "Teaching Teachers of Writing: Workshops on Writing as a Collaborative Process." College Teaching, 1989, 37(l), 12-14.
  • Tollefson, S. K. Encouraging Student Writing. Berkeley: Office of Educational Development, University of California, 1988.
  • Walvoord, B. F. Helping Students Write Well: A Guide for Teachers in All Disciplines. (2nd ed.) New York: Modern Language Association, 1986.
  • Watkins, B. T. "More and More Professors in Many Academic Disciplines Routinely Require Students to Do Extensive Writing." Chronicle of Higher Education, 1990, 36(44), pp. A13-14, A16.

To follow up on these ideas, please email me at fglazer@nyit.edu. This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from the hard copy book Tools for Teaching by Barbara Gross Davis; Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco, 1993. Used with permission.

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