Thursday, September 2, 2010

Writing Assignments

I want my students to learn to write well. Good writing skills should be a requirement for any college education, regardless of the major. Writing well helps people think more logically. Sentences must follow sentences in a pattern that makes sense. Words need to be positioned so that ideas are clear. The message must be delivered in a fashion that can be understood by the intended reader. Today, the writings of many college students seem to be influenced heavily by Twitter and instant messaging.

How can a teacher assist students in developing good writing habits? I use a four-step approach. I grade each of these steps individually but I put the most emphasis on the finished product that comes from the final step.

First, students need something to write. I instruct them to create a problem or a question (within our discipline) that needs to be addressed. I give them guidance on arriving at their question. They then write a letter or memorandum to describe this issue in an understandable fashion. The reader must be able to comprehend the various aspects of the problem and the reason that it needs to be resolved.

Second, the students do the research necessary to arrive at a reasonable resolution for the problem they have created. Every person writes a response to explain the answer that they believe best solves the problem. Again, clarity is essential. The reader must be able to understand the recommendation and the rationale for following that approach.

Third, these first two writings assignments are collected in class and immediately given back, but to a different student. This second student is assigned to critique every aspect of the problem that was raised and the proposed solution. The critique should look at both the technical answer provided and the first student’s use of the English language. This reader must search for anything that prevents either of the first two assignments from being perfect. I have always felt that requiring an evaluation of this type makes both parties more careful. The original writer feels the pressure of having a peer assess the work. The second student must provide a critical evaluation of the technical answer and the written communication, a task not always encountered in school.

Fourth, the critique letter is given to the first student. Hopefully, the student will see the reason why some portions of the original letters were not clear or where the technical material was inaccurate. This student is given the opportunity to rewrite the first two assignments based on the advice provided in the critique. Students can make whatever changes they feel are needed. They have a chance, before they turn in the final letters, to have another member of the class provide advice.

I want each student to see the elements of what they wrote that were judged by their reader to be unclear and needing additional work. I am not an English professor but I have been well pleased by the improvements that I have seen between the original letters and the final versions.

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