Navigating Undergraduate Academic Writing: Guess What? It Depends on the Professor

It happened in one of my early student interviews. The student read the item on my developing questionnaire that asked them to self-assess their ability to adapt their writing to meet the needs of the assignment. The question was supposed to be getting at switching from genre to genre. If they were writing a reflection, did they sound reflective? If they wrote an academic assignment, did they get their point across in the form of an argument and address a specific question? But her response was, “I’m meeting the needs of the professor, not necessarily meeting the needs of the assignment.”

And it kept happening over and over – sometimes with the same question sometimes with other questions – the students in my sample talked about needing to figure out the teacher. It wasn’t just a handful of the students in the sample. It was 100% of the students in my sample. They pondered issues such as: What were her preferences? What biases does she have? Is she an easy or hard grader? How approachable is she? How open is she to re-interpreting assignment guidelines with uncertain students? How well does this teacher actually understand academic writing themselves?

There is a novice to expert continuum with guiding writing as there is a novice to expert continuum with becoming a writer. Students can tell when faculty are not confident in their own skills to assign and evaluate writing – and this state is not uncommon in undergraduate nursing which can be taught by faculty who aren’t required to write and publish themselves. Novice instructors are far more likely to hold tight reigns on their assignments and rubrics and be overly focused on surface textual features.

Navigating the writing context is like a journey down the yellow brick road in search of the great and powerful Oz (the teacher) who can solve all their academic writing needs. When they get to know Oz, they sometimes find Oz is not the all-powerful being that they’ve hoped to find. Oz is flawed and fallible, but Oz does have the power to help students recognize that the true power of being a good writer was within them all along.

Students had various strategies for success in this mission of “figuring out” the teacher such as: paying attention to a teacher’s overt opinions on a subject and matching them; noticing what words teachers like to use and slipping them into their own writing;  talking to their classmates on how they saw the assignment; talking to classmates who had already been through the class to see how they perceived the assignment and the teacher; testing out ideas about topics with instructors and peers; judging their relationship with the teacher to see if she can “take it.”

Other students seemed to never be able to figure out teachers no matter what they did. Or they felt they could learn to read the teacher if they ever got the opportunity to write for them more than once in a term — which rarely happened.  Their biggest faux pas in this area seemed to be that many of these students would never actually approach a teacher to ask questions, or they felt that when they did, their questions were misunderstood or brushed aside. Often these students were the ones that you would most want to come and speak to you – immigrant students, students where they learned English at an older age such as when a teen or an adult, and, in nursing, it was also often male students.  These are our students who perhaps struggle to feel like they belong because they don’t fit the stereotype of who a nurse is – passive, polite, white females. And for those who may be thinking, It isn’t like that anymore — implicitly these traits in nursing are still the most highly rewarded and have an easier journey navigating the nursing world.

The opinionated students don’t fit in well either as they often insist on maintaining their own opinion and making things their own. They are the ones that twist assignment criteria to ensure they can say what they want to say. Sometimes these behaviours are highly rewarded, but other times it means they fail the assignment.

It depends on the professor.

What concerns me most is what this means for writing as a pedagogy. If the strongest students are graded highly because they are able to spit back to the teacher exactly what they want to hear, if the writing that is most highly rewarded is the writing that fits into a nice little box where the number of checkmarks on a rubric is the only indicator of learning and quality, we have a problem. It means higher education is not about independent thinking. It’s not about recognizing where boundaries can be stretched and alternative perspectives are valued.

The undergraduate students in my sample spoke about a very problematic culture of writing in higher education. I will speak broadly to this because while I think nursing has some work to do, I don’t think some of the problems I see in the reports I heard from nursing students specifically are exclusive to nursing contexts. Students spoke about “bullet-point” assignments, “fill-in-the-blank” style assignment guidelines. A few students – and this especially came from students who had experience as students in other disciplines such as psychology, English, or gender studies – recognized that the writing was different in nursing.  It was more “simple.”  It was certainly often inflexible. You must “stay within script”. You can be creative but only “within the dimensions they want us to be.” There are boundaries. Being creative, depending on the professor, could mean losing 10% of your grade. There are far too many assignments where there isn’t enough choice and students are forced to write about topics they do not care about. For those students, in those moments, writing becomes a functional and robotic task.

Why do we not have enough faith in our undergraduates to be able to give them free reign to go where their ideas and passions take them?

Are we afraid that we can’t fairly grade if our 60 students aren’t handing in 60 cookie cutter assignments all answering the exact same question using the exact same literature? Who wants to grade those? We lament grading because of the things we do to ourselves in assignment guidelines. I’m asleep already just thinking about it.

Are we afraid if we don’t know the topic to the same degree an expert would know the topic that we aren’t capable of accurately assessing writing?  I don’t know about that – I know when someone has written something in a way that is accessible to me and when they’ve caught my attention and I learned something. Without knowing much about the topic, I am also capable of being sceptical when the accuracy seems “off” or there seems there is another side of the story that isn’t being presented. I am an astute reader. I assume all faculty are astute readers too.

Do we tighten our rubrics into minute details because then we are able to be more reliable in our grading across students or between raters?  But what are we sacrificing in terms of assignment validity in the process? Are we still able to capture the objectives we are hoping our students leave our classroom with at the end of the term? Seriously, just feed them a multiple-choice test if you want strict criteria and one correct answer.

I’m getting a little ranty. I can feel it.  But this is a hill I am willing to die on.  If you are not giving writing assignments that students can get excited about – and I mean every student – your students are learning you, not the threshold concepts of your subject matter. Students are equating their success at writing with their ability to be successful in navigating the writing context, teacher preference, and their levels of writing self-efficacy are impacted as a result. Papers are not about one correct answer. Writing is not about the text produced, I mean, yeah, you want it to be readable and not “messy” – students get that.  As one of my student participants said, “It almost becomes part of your identity. Like you care more about that subject when you go to other places. And then you’re also looking into the literature, so what do other people know? And you’re sort of building yourself and your knowledge base.”  A student walking away from your course should feel that about every assignment.

This little rant is courtesy of a preliminary analysis emerging from a secondary analysis of Congitive Interviews conducted with the primary objective of editing the developing Situated Academic Writing Self-Efficacy Scale.