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?