The Consistency Conundrum Part II: How to build Flexibility into Writing Instruction

We learned in Part I of this blog how attempting to fix apparent lack of consistency in writing instruction and grading through rigid practices of standardization, actually had the opposite effect and seemed to increased perceptions of inconsistency. Standardization also caused students to disengage with writing and created inequitable circumstances for minority and other disadvantaged student populations. So how can we build flexibility into writing instructional practices and reduce perceptions of inconsistency?

What does flexibility benefit? 

Flexibility allows for adjustments in requirements and even expectations from student to student depending on topic choice needs or support needs. The student with a difficult to research topic who has exhausted all avenues to find that 5th required source, but is so passionate about the topic they don’t want to abandon it, will be provided with an alternative. The student who did not have a clinical experience that is a good match for the assignment will be allowed to draw an experience from another domain.  

Flexibility also takes student focus off the question of, What does my teacher want me to say exactly so I can get an A, and redirects focus to the writing act itself. 

Some contexts require more structure than others.  You still have to create an assignment that helps the students learn something critical to their discipline or the substantive area of your course, whether that be how to argue, define a threshold concepts, or how to compare and contrast theories. If one of the objectives in your course is teaching students how to be concise, then stricter rules on word count and other format issues might be necessary. Students new to university might need more structure than students who are closer to graduation.  Loosening the reins does not mean no structure at all, in most cases. But, the caveat is, if you choose structure in some part of your assignment it needs to serve student learning or be an element of scaffolding.

Disclaimer: Writing is disciplinary. My experience is nursing education so my examples necessarily fit what I’ve witnessed in nursing education. You may have to make some metacognitive leaps for how things work in your own context.

The five assignment components that are the most frequent victims of standardization

I see five main parts to assignment structure and from within those 5 key areas you pick and choose, like an à la carte menu, where the structure will be most helpful to guide students through the assignment. 

  1. The framework for the writing, thesis, or guidelines
  2. The content topic of writing.
  3. The process and/or research requirements
  4. The rubric
  5. The mechanical format

Wherever possible, choose a flexible option. Ask yourself, How much scaffolding does your particular class need? Fexibility-Inflexibility is also not an absolute dichotomy.  Often the line between flexible and inflexible is also about faculty mindset. You can ask for structure but hold a flexible mindset in how that structure is applied. You can demand the student use 5 primary studies to explore research results on a topic (this is almost always possible to achieve in any topic) but be open-minded because for certain topics, the perfect studies may not exist. Negotiate with the student who’s topics do not neatly fit your prescribed structure. 

Be honest with yourself about your ability to hold a flexible mindset. Give your class the benefits of the doubt in terms of what their capabilities are. Always, always assume they are capable of more than you think they are. Be prepared to do the work to get them to that level of capability. Be mindful. Choosing more structure over less, often benefits the teacher and their control needs more than it benefits the students. 

So, let’s talk about what might be flexible vs. inflexible options among these 5 key areas.

The framework for the writing, thesis, or guidelines

Inflexible: Providing students with the exact headings they need to use and the detail of exactly what should go under each heading. Or providing a theoretical framework that students should follow to structure their writing. There are varying degrees of structure here as well, from providing headings that are more akin to pointing out genre form (such as IMRAD — introduction, method, results, and discussion) that they may not be able to recognize on their own. IMRAD or traditional review of the literature ordering (e.g. background, source inclusion, themes from the literature) is a structure, but one with much room for creativity. But if you are pointing out specific detailed content expectations or specific questions that need to be answered, you may be giving too much structure. Most of the time, what goes under the headings will be specific to the student’s chosen topic. 

Flexible: Providing a general prompt that allows for student development of their own organizational structure for the writing that tells the story of their topic in a way that makes sense to them. Let them find their own applicable frameworks to guide their writing based on their own explorations of a topic.

The content topic of writing

Inflexible: Assigning every student the exact same content topic or providing a short list of limited topic choices. This might also include providing the same case study for every student to examine within the thesis of the paper or a limited set of case studies. It is a common practice in literature courses to give the same content topic to every student (the theme of eating in Great Expectations), but usually the flexibility comes in under variations for process approach or research requirements. 

Flexible: Allowing students to choose their own topic or develop their own case study. 

The process/and or researching requirements 

Inflexible: Providing students with the sources they must write from and limit them to those sources.  

Flexible: Allowing students to find their own sources. This can still mean they can be given guidelines for the numbers and types of sources they use, which is a little less flexible but ensures that they’ll use quality sources. Another flexibility alternative might be allowing students to discover their own process for researching the paper or gathering the information they need to write the paper, which might mean interviewing individuals or creating surveys, conducing environmental scans or field work, depending on the requirements of the assignment. 

The rubric

Inflexible: Constructing a content heavy rubric which lists specific content expectations such as, “must talk about 5 different ethical values in relation to the case study.” Or, your entire department is using the exact same rubric for every “academic writing” essay assignment. 

Flexible: Developing quality indicators of a successful essay to assess how content was addressed, the depth of critical analysis, the quality of the research done and synthesized into the writing. This is hard to describe as every essay will require rethinking how to describe the markers of high-quality writing and content presentation as applicable to that assignment’s needs. 

The mechanical format

Inflexible: Formatting demands in assignment guidelines are really managed through mindset. Requesting a specific number of paragraphs with a specific number of sentences in a particular order will cause students to focus more on structure than flow of writing. Mindset inflexibility includes grading approaches that require black and white correct implementation of a style guide format that allows for no errors to grammar or the style guide implementation; or, grading discourse errors as if they are grammar errors and rewriting student sentences. Heavily penalizing mechanical things defeats the purpose of using writing as a mechanism for learning and identity development and students in dozens of studies have talked about how they resent having their ideas ignored. And for you grammar pundits, I am in no way saying you should not be grading grammar or mechanics at all — just be sure you aren’t ignoring the other stuff.

Flexible: Providing general formatting requirements such as an overall page length or word count. Most of the time it serves no one (but the teacher) to be too demanding about sticking to those page guidelines. I always judged too short or too long papers on how well they addressed the assignment guidelines with depth and completeness or through writing about extraneous things. Page limits were just guidelines – but well-chosen page limits are based on experience and realism. Choose page limits wisely. I’ve seen assignments that requested tight page limits, students were told graders would stop reading at that page limit, and then the feedback pointed out numerous areas were students lacked depth. A student should be able to write an assignment with the appropriate degree of depth that matches your expectations within the given page limit. Style guide flexibility means expecting consistent implementation of a style guide but recognizing it is near impossible to be mistake free. Grammar flexibility means recognizing that grammar is subjective so one should avoid overly penalizing for errors that might be your personal pet peeves. Be aware of of how grammar evolves over time and how previously unacceptable practices can become acceptable (does anyone know what a split infinitive is anymore?). Allow students to have their own voice. Correcting discourse errors but don’t penalize through the grading process. 

Here is an example of a discourse edit where there is nothing grammatically wrong with the first sentence but the way it is said is just “sounds funny” for the nursing discipline:

Student Original: This paper will focus on five qualitative articles that discuss the experiences of adults with epilepsy seizure disease and how they can adjust themselves to have quality of life

Corrected at Grading: This paper will focus on five qualitative articles that discuss the experiences of adults with epileptic seizure disease and how they can achieve a sense of quality of life

It’s very difficult for me to visualize every possible assignment that exists in higher education. Much of what I wrote above is disciplinary and may fit my discipline better than yours. I hope the basics are clear here and you can see how to adjust for your own context.  If you’d like to see a specific example of mixing and matching structure and flexibility, I direct you to this blog that describes one of my own assignments. It is flexible in content topic choice, rubric style, formatting, and research/process direction (with specific direction on resource source types because at the level my students are at, they need guidance with that). It is inflexible in its framework/guidelines but on the level of providing genre-based headings to follow– my students needed lots of direction in defining what some research concepts meant, especially the concept of “practice implications,” so they could correctly address the content needed under that heading.

Like with the nursing skills example in part I of this blog where I’m sure we all believed we were being consistent, it can be fairly easy to THINK you are being flexible when your students might feel otherwise.  Be self-reflective on that as you apply this framework to evaluating your own assignments. Pay attention to what they ask for when they ask if they can make modifications to your assignment. That might be signal as to them feeling their ideas do not quite fit the mold of your assignment.

How do you mix and match flexibility and structure in your writing assignments?

On Using the Media to Teach Research Writing and Critical Analysis

When I first started teaching research methods, I would have told you that having an academic writing assignment in my course was a bad fit. The only writing assignments that I had ever heard of being done were an article critique or a research proposal.  A research proposal was above an undergraduate level and an article critique got them to think about the strengths and weaknesses of research but only apply that knowledge to one isolated study.

However when our program was redesigned, my research methods course was updated to  include teaching the concept of scholarship in nursing. While I wasn’t looking to steer undergraduates toward publication by asking them to write, I did want to get them deeper into the scholarship of research. I had been having them analyze portions of research articles since I began teaching the course, but wanted to push it a step further and have them begin to critically analyze a small body of research on the same topic.  Imagine that! I wanted them to actually read research in a research course.

The First Assignment Plan

My first academic writing assignment plan asked them to find 5 primary studies on a researchable topic of their choice. I told them it was preferable if they chose 5 qualitative or 5 quantitative studies and not try and mix and match the paradigms, although I would make exceptions depending on topic. Hint: it really only works if their quantitative studies are purely descriptive. Undergraduates trying to compare the results of 4 randomized trials and a qualitative study is disastrous… one of these thing is not like the other.  They had to provide a background, nursing significance and explain the gap in knowledge on their topic as indicated by their 5 studies (and other sources as required). A compare and contrast of the findings of the 5 studies and a discussion of study limitations as indicated by the authors of those studies, was the bulk of the 5-7 page limit requirement. Their conclusion to their paper was the purpose statement for a future “hypothetical” study.

What followed, and ultimately what got me to modify the assignment, were 4 appendixes describing portions of a possible future study. Replicating a study in their pile was allowed but “difficulty points” (ultimately meaning I was more forgiving if they made mistakes) were awarded to students who developed the next steps in the body of the work, corrected the flaws in the studies in their pile, or developed a new intervention. I told them they had unlimited funds which resulted in more than a few brand new exercise facilities built.  The appendixes were to describe their study method (A), their sample (B), procedures for ethical protection of their participants (C), and to find and discuss the characteristics of one questionnaire  to measure a one variable, if their study was quantitative, or develop 4 open ended research questions if qualitative (D).

What happened was amazing. The students developed a great understanding of the methodologies they were writing about and using for their hypothetical study design. But the flaws were also huge. The ethics section became repetitive from student to student and the only students who did well on the questionnaire section were the ones who came to see me about their paper and we sat together to identify its characteristics and find reliability and validity information.

And there was one other, not insignificant problem — the assignment was labour intensive to grade. Each paper was 10-15 pages long including the appendixes.

Modifying the Plan: Research Versus the Internet

The decision to modify the paper was as a result of reading this Deitering and Gronemyer (2011) article describing the importance of getting students involved in the public discussion about research. Their arguments about why students should be examining more than scholarly work were compelling and I made them discipline specific by recognizing the following: Students have a need to understand the literature that influences public debate and the opinions of their patients. They are also in need of understanding the difference between a published study and a blog post/newspaper article related to the published study and be able to explain why the former is a more reliable source of evidence.

Let me state the obvious — obvious to us academic-types anyhow — the media gets health information wrong much of the time.  Media articles are rarely written by knowledgeable health care professionals or researchers and are instead written by journalists with no medical training who may never read the full research study but produces an article for their publication based off a press release which may give an incomplete picture. For example, this popular media story on wine drinking and its equivalence to an hour worth of exercise was conducted on rats who drank the human equivalence of 100 bottles of wine to show the effects the media article claimed.  The media report was so much fun it was emailed among my colleagues and we giggled about it wishing it were true (and later that term, a student tackled this topic for my scholarly paper assignment). Sigh… back to the treadmill.

I didn’t want to lose what I had observed to be the best part of the assignment — sending students off to search for 5 primary studies on the same research topic. While settling on 5 as the appropriate number of studies to locate was somewhat of a guess, it proved to be exactly the right number to be challenging for undergraduates, yet possible for most every topic. Some students were able to find more than 5 and have the flexibility to exclude an article that didn’t fit well with the others. Other students struggled to find that 5th article and developed some clever research skills as a result.  The requirement that they show me their 5 primary studies to ensure they were using the correct sources got me face to face with every student. I heard their stories of why the topic interested them. We had conversations on making the articles fit together for easier critical analysis. To this day it surprises me when grading the papers, how much I’ve learned about each student simply from these 5 minute conversations.

While the option to choose their topic based on the inspiration from a media, blog or other internet source remains the most popular option, two other routes to inspiration have also been observed as successful adaptations. Students can also describe a clinical experience they had where the practice they observed differed in some way from the practice they were taught — for example, alcohol swab versus no alcohol swab prior to glucose monitoring.  Personal experiences with the health care system have also been addressed such as a student who gave birth to a premature baby who felt her husband was ignored during kangaroo care. The point is to describe a practice, or relate what the media is saying to influence their readership, and see if the research literature matches the message. It works well with qualitative article sets as well, for example the media article of inspiration can be any first person narrative of their experience with a disease or other condition related to health.

The Assignment Guidelines

In brief, each student paper must contain a discussion of the following:

  1. Background to their research problem.
  2. Significance to nursing. Students are more than welcome to use research from other disciplines to support their research question but they have to explain (and cite) why nurses should care about that problem.
  3. A summary of their media article, clinical scenario or personal experience.
  4. Compare and contrast their 5 primary studies in terms of their research findings.
  5. Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the research studies reviewed.
  6. Discuss how the research findings compare with the media description (I’ve had students integrate this requirement throughout their compare and contrast and that works also).
  7. Practice implications. In what way, if any, should practice change given what the research says?
  8. A table summarizing their research studies with author, title, independent variable, dependent variable, population, sample size  for quantitive studies, and phenomenon of interest replacing the IV and DV in qualitative sets.

Students are able to construct their paper in the order of their choosing and in whatever way feels logical for their topic.


This assignment has been successful beyond my wildest dreams. Student engagement has increased. I get the chance to speak to every student about their topic which meets my requirement of looking them all in the eyes during the writing process. I strongly believe that having every student connect with you during the writing of their paper reduces the likelihood that they will plagiarize. By having a quick review of their primary studies, I also save myself a tremendous amount of time while grading because I know I am reading a paper amalgamated from the correct type of literature.

In the second year of implementation, due to feeling I was doing a little too much handholding in helping them identify qualitative versus quantitative research, I created a document which outlined the characteristics of various published articles (primary quantitative, primary qualitative, research protocols, review articles, discussion articles, and other). The students are now required to review this document and fill in a log sheet which attempts the article identification prior to approaching me to approve their articles. I no longer identify what their articles are for them which allows me to spend more time exploring how well their articles fit together as a package.

Implementing this paper is time consuming. The mini meetings I have with them about their topic take up all my mid class break time and I usually require another 20-30 minutes immediately preceding or following class to attend to every student who wants my attention on a given day.  I have to teach them how to synthesize their results and thematically analyze the themes from qualitative studies. But the upfront time I put in prior to the paper due date, is time I don’t have to spend frustrated with poorly conceived assignments while grading.

If you are interested in modifying the assignment for use in your own courses, you have my permission. I believe this assignment can work in multidisciplinary contexts. Just send me a tweet to let me know @academicswrite and I’ll be happy to answer questions.

10 Reasons Why Your Students’ Writing is Bad — Part I (1-5)

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.)

  1. 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 …..