I said here that I didn’t feel my student’s writing was really all that bad at all. OK, I’ll admit, sometimes it’s bad. Really bad. Fortunately, the truly bad ones are few and far between. As multifactorial as writing is, so many problems can contribute to the perception that a paper is “bad” and not all of them are the fault of the student. I’ve read papers with poor grammar that are well researched and cohesive. I’ve read papers that are technically well written, but are poorly organized, not on focus, or skim the surface. Regardless there are always steps we can take to make sure the problems of bad student writing, at least those within our control (as some of them will be), are addressed before we have to grade their submissions. Whenever I am grading a student’s paper or reading portions of a draft with the student in my office, I have to come up with a diagnosis for why the paper isn’t working. Many of those diagnoses are preventable problems. Much of what I am about to write I draw from my own experience. Some of what I write, if you prefer a theoretical perspective, was inspired from the writing theory of John R. Hayes. Hayes doesn’t make these exact points in his theory but he certainly alludes to many of them.
In Part I of this blog I will examine the causes of bad student assignments that are under the control of the teacher via assignment creation, attitude, or instructional method. In Part II, I will cover the causes that require student intervention.
(n.b. the image that tops this blog is a doodle one of my students did during an exam she was writing for me. If I could name her, I would. But I can’t. Just know she is talented and self-aware, if not, grammatically perfect.)
- Other Priorities
Your academic assignment is in heavy competition with the assignments in the four other courses that the students may be taking, Netflix, social media, their friends, their family demands, Pokemon Go, their jobs, and any infinite number of competing distractions. Students simply may not do their best work because they are in survival mode and the work you assigned didn’t make the top of the list.
No matter what we do, or how much we may rant, the student has the right to choose what they put their most and least effort into. If it happens to not be your assignment, don’t take it personally. You will simply grade it accordingly. However, a relevant assignment that ignites a student’s passion may give the work you assign an edge.
2. Lack of Relevance
Of course you make awesome assignments and your students will be passionate about completing them. A great teacher likely creates the assignment that, if they had to sit through their own course, they would love to write themselves. A great writing assignment will take into consideration the key learning objectives of an entire course. But I’ve talked to many students about assignments they bring me from courses I am not teaching and sometimes I find they don’t see the relevance. Sometimes, sadly, I read the assignment guidelines and I don’t see the relevance either. We get so immersed in our own courses we think the relevance of our assignments to the big picture is obvious. But our students are immersed in many courses simultaneously all containing unfamiliar new knowledge, so relevance is more elusive.
Don’t take for granted that your students can see the relevance of your writing assignment. Tell them the relevance. Tell them often — like a broken record often. And if you can connect the relevance of your assignment within every individual class that you teach, even better. A writing assignment needs to be more than a description in a syllabus or in handouts that are rarely mentioned in class. You must teach your assignment. The fit of the assignment to the big pictures needs to be obvious and the reason why they need to write to learn, rather than do a presentation or an exam, also needs to be obvious.
3. Topic Boredom
The worst academic writing assignments I ever wrote as an undergraduate student were the ones where every student was writing a variation of the same thing. They were boring assignments where we had to write what the teacher wanted to hear or risk a bad grade. Creativity in these assignments was always perceived negatively. If a student can’t find a way to connect with the material they are writing about using their own voice, style, opinion or creative touches, they will likely write a substandard paper. For good writing to take place, the writer has to care about what s/he is saying. I once investigated a suspected plagiarism case where the student had written a paper for me the term before and earned an A. The paper I was investigating was so badly written I had to re-look at my file of her paper from the previous term to be sure I hadn’t been mistaken. Nope. It was still an A. It was not a perfect effort but it was very well done. What happened? The paper the student wrote for me was on a topic she personally connected with. The paper she wrote for my colleague was something she didn’t care about or see the relevance of writing.
(The paper wasn’t academic misconduct, by the way, it was just lazily written using frequent short cuts and bad paraphrasing. It was however, an undoubtably bad paper.)
Although the needs of every academic assignment will differ, giving students complete control over their topic choice is the best option, when possible. If there needs to be a finite choice of topics provided then give the students several to choose from. If possible, allow flexibility in how they manage the information for that topic. Worse than having no choice at all, is the academic writing assignment with guidelines that are nothing more than a fill in the blank questionnaire with heavily pre-scripted points to be made on a topic. The students will be bored writing it, and you’ll be more bored reading it.
4. Grading Negativity
I often feel I am the only teacher with a writing assignment in my nursing course where I feel impressed with how well my students tackle the task. I often hear from my colleagues that student writing is globally bad. They were all terrible. One teacher said to me this past year. And when I asked about the grades, they spanned the spectrum of A+ to F. They weren’t all terrible. They were, as they should be, “normal.” The bad papers can stick with you like sap on a windshield while you forget those glimmers of hope and moments of brilliance. (Or if they were really all bad, it was likely due to another problem on this list).
Remember the normal curve? Embrace it. As much as we would like all students to write papers that were A+ quality, (wouldn’t that be nice!), it just isn’t going to happen. Don’t fixate on the bad ones. Unless you are failing to explain your assignment in some major way, bad papers are likely not your fault.
5. Problems Understanding the Instructions
Assignment guideline clarity is critical to receiving good papers. Some say too much information is baffling but I find that more is better than less. In fact, I usually find ways to explain the assignment guidelines multiple times. But more critical than that, students often show evidence of not understanding what would seem to us like obvious terminology. Describe vs. Discuss. Critique vs. Analyze. Reflect vs. Detail. It is not uncommon to receive a paper where you asked the student to critique a source, and receive 30 assignments that use description only. In one of my assignments, students seem to have trouble with understanding the difference between nursing significance (why should we care about this problem?) and nursing implications (how should practice change based on our knowledge of the evidence?). A good proportion of the class thinks they are the same thing. I’m working hard to reduce that misperception.
Ensure that your students are clear on what they are being asked to do. One of the best ways to guarantee clarity is to provide sample assignments written by other students. If you work with large class sizes (like I do), not every student is going to approach you for help and if they all did, you’d be working 24 hours a day. Listen for misinterpretations of an assignment guideline during the conversations you do have. There may be a better way you can explain it. Watch when grading for common flaws in execution of a particular content item or focus. In the example I give above, many students would combine the nursing significance and nursing implications content into one heading, often inappropriately. I now make sure I take every opportunity to explain the difference. If a good proportion of the class makes the same error, make a clarification the next time the guidelines are presented to a group. There are teachable moments everywhere.
Proceed to Part II …..