10 Reasons Why Your Students’ Writing is Bad — Part II (6-10)

In Part I of this blog post I discussed the reasons why our students’ writing can be bad that may be under the control of our own teaching methods, attitudes or ways we present our assignments. Part II will discuss 5 more causes of bad student writing that are as a result of perceptions, decisions, or knowledge deficits that the students may bring to the writing project.  The solutions are tricker in these cases but they do exist. As with Part I, inspirational credit must be given to John R. Hayes for some of the general points given here.

6. Luck vs. Skill 

The student believes her writing skills are fixed and that everyone’s writing skills are fixed and other students who get good grades are just lucky.  This point is straight out of Hayes’s article but one cannot mention role of the perception of ability being related to luck vs. skill without giving credit to the Mastery component of Bandura’s self-efficacy theory. Students who believe writing is a skill they can improve upon will seek help. Those who believe that writing ability is innate and something you are born with will plod along in isolation without asking questions and hand in substandard work without attempting to improve and probably never reading the feedback you give. (Although, I must acknowledge that very little is known about what students actually do with our feedback after we return their papers).

The only way to connect with these students is to somehow force interaction prior to the paper being due via a proposal meeting, a discussion about sources, or an outline.  Having pre-assignments to the main assignment does increase your workload in the paper preparation phase, but it will be worth it when you are grading more pleasant reading papers later on.

7. Someone Else Wrote the Paper (maybe)

Every once in a while I will have a student hand in a paper that just isn’t my assignment.  It usually comes from a known weak student and is usually someone who attends classes most of the time but huddles in the back and runs out the door immediately upon dismissal. The first thing I do when I get a paper like this is I start Googling passages, especially passages with jargony terminology or unusual phrases. A student who hasn’t been able to follow instructions isn’t likely to be able to come up with  either the jargon for their topic or complex ideas.  Funny thing is, I’ve never had anything come up in my search of key phrases in these situations so my suspicions then turn to the possibility that the student enlisted someone else to write the paper or they bought it from a paper mill (and not a very good one), or handed in a paper written by another student for a similar course at another institution hoping it would suffice. Because the paper failed to meet numerous content criteria, I can usually grade it appropriately with an F and carry on. That F grade often means a failure in the course as well.

This is a tricky situation to be in. As much as your gut tells you one thing, you have no solid proof and the student really could have been that clueless. If it is a case of plagiarism, it would be impossible to catch without a confession from the student. Do students confess to these transgressions? Not in my experience. You could also quiz them about the content and see how well they know what the paper says. If they wrote it, they should be able to talk about the paper fluently, but even inability to talk about what they wrote is proof of nothing specific. I generally chose not to question the student. The important factor in ensuring that a student who did not write their own paper does not get a good grade is to make your paper unique enough that only someone who attends class is sure to keep the paper solidly within the assignment guidelines. Having those pre-paper submission requirements, mentioned in #6, built into an assignment will also be a check and balance on the student doing their own work.  I’ve also required students to hand in portfolios of their paper preparation (outline, notes, rough draft) as evidence that they did their own work.  These portfolio components aren’t graded but they are there if I choose to look at them as an audit trail of the students’ work.

8.  Lack of Knowledge about How to Fix “Global Problems”

Most students know that they need to edit their drafts of their paper for grammar, spelling, and sentence structure but, for some students, this is as far is their editing goes. I’ve read many grammatically correct readable papers from students that lack cohesion or completeness of thought, or presents information in a random order without logical connections. Global problems is a phrase I borrow from John R. Hayes and refers to other major problems in a writing assignment such as clearer phrasing, more well developed ideas, a better ordering of information, and other higher level writing tasks. A student who revises their paper for grammar can usually successfully create a readable paper. Most first drafts of papers suck. Mine certainly do, and I would never let anyone read a paper I haven’t globally edited, at least once, first.

Having contact with these students by inviting them to share their drafts prior to the due date via a one-on-one appointment or peer review with strong students, may help these students understand the global editing process. Rewriting is the best writing of all.

9.  Issues of Audience and Voice

Early in my teaching career I had a student come into my office to discuss how I had graded her paper.  I explained to her what my comments meant and what was lacking. She disagreed and proceeded to paraphrase for me what she wrote — which wasn’t what she actually wrote but rather what she should have wrote and what would have got her a higher grade. Hayes notes that most undergraduate student think of themselves as their own audience when writing their papers. Problems can emerge from this perspective of audience because if you are writing for yourself, you can leave out points or make leaps of faith in your argument that are perfectly understandable to you, the author, but not clear to others or the person grading the paper. Other fallacies of audience students make include assuming they don’t need to clarify a point or include a definition because their teacher will know it, writing as if their paper is a magazine article or newspaper, and writing in the second person which leaves the impression that the information is intended for an instructional pamphlet.

Advise students to share their paper with someone who will understand the terminology but also be able to tell them if their writing or points are not clear. Grasping what the audience will and and will not understand in your writing is something that even advanced writers struggle with. When I share manuscripts with co-authors, or read reviewer comments, I often pay attention to questions asked that seem to indicate that the person editing the paper missed the point and saw something different than I intended. Rather than get frustrated with the critique, I take this to mean that what I wrote lacked the clarity I intended to some small degree.  All students of writing need to pay attention to those questions that seem to be off the mark as they are a strong clue to where your message may not be as clear as intended.

10. Poor Reading Skills

They may have had to pass an English language test to get into your program (our students do!) but academic articles are in a class of their own. Some students reject high level primary studies or review articles in favour of lower level material like websites simply because of readability and digestible content that is a fast read. Other students can gather appropriate sources but may not know what parts of the articles are appropriate to gather their points to form their argument.  Misinterpretation of article information abounds in student writing which can contribute to a convoluted presentation of information in their papers.

To read well you need to read more. Students time is limited so sometimes they attempt to take short cuts. You can’t necessarily make better readers of your students; that is a problem only they can work on. You can however help students read smarter. Require specific source types for all writing assignments and indicate there will be a palpable grade loss if those requirements are not met. If you scrutinize a bad paper, as I had to do in the scenario I describe in Part I, item #3, you’ll find that students writing bad papers are often drawing all their facts from the first 2 pages of their peer reviewed sources (indicating that is probably all they read) and the bulk of their major citations is material paraphrased from (questionable) websites.  So because I am asking students to compare and contrast the results of 5 primary research studies, I tell them that this section can only cite information from the results or discussion sections of those articles. Teaching students to grasp the terminology of the discipline or sub discipline will considerably improve their ability to interpret complex academic sources.

And so wraps up the 10 causes of a bad paper. I’m sure this is not an all-inclusive list. Do you have any others to add?  I would like to note that I’ve left out 2 perhaps mythical causes of bad papers: ESL and writing anxiety.  Thus far, in all my reading of the writing literature, the evidence suggests that ESL and writing apprehensive students tend to have equal writing ability to their non ESL and less apprehensive peers.

If you missed Part I you will find it here.

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 …..


Why I hate (love), no hate (no love!) APA Style

I created the above “quiz” so to speak in hopes of getting to pose it in a workshop I was planning. What is APA format to you? The question asked.

  1. Does knowing APA make one a good writer?
  2. Does knowing APA prevent plagiarism?
  3. Does knowing APA make papers pretty?

Do you know the answer?

The quiz came about in a moment of frustration that had been building for years.  Comments from my colleagues saying, I’m grading papers and the APA is so bad. 

With further questioning I would always find out that what they really meant was the grammar was bad. Or the citations were all in the wrong spots. Or they weren’t critically analyzing their subject matter.  But somehow, all of this was the fault of APA or worse yet, as one person said to me, somehow this was all the fault of the fact our students were using a summarized manual describing APA and not the full Publication Manual.

So in other words. It was my fault.

Yes, we don’t make our students buy the whole publication manual.  There are a couple reasons for this, the main one being, if we required them to buy it, most of them probably wouldn’t anyway and what a disaster that would be.  So for the last 10 years, I’ve been writing, editing and revising (repeat x5) a summary manual that is about 50 pages long that pulls out the best of the best of APA, leaving out the mind numbing statistical stuff and publication specific details, and obscure document references, none of which are needed by undergraduate students in their papers (and if they do, I am happy to receive an email and help).

But I was getting the sense that somehow our faculty were putting APA on some kind of pedestal it didn’t deserve to be on.  When I first became the writing instructor in 2005, it started out as teaching them APA. I very quickly discovered that with a few tips and formulas, and a user friendly guide that boiled APA down to its essence, APA could teach itself. What they really needed was someone to teach them writing.

So let’s answer my questions above:

  1. Does knowing APA make one a good writer? 

Probably not. There are whole chapters in the Publication Manual dedicated to helping a writer put together a structured paper describing a research study, something well beyond the purview of what an undergrad needs in her tool kit. It’s written in such a way to suggest they think you should already know how to write. There are some grammar sections that clarify some tricky issues like pronoun usage, capitalization, and hyphenation (as APA sees it) — keeping in mind that most grammar rules are things that grammarians in the days of yore just decided to make up to better mimic Latin and call it a day. But the Publication Manual doesn’t teach you grammar from scratch. It is there as a reminder of what somewhere, deep down, you already know. It isn’t a magical cure-all for your student’s writing problems. It won’t teach you critical analysis, argument, creativity, vocabulary, proper transitions, thesis statements, or how to do the best lit search possible either. Those you need to learn elsewhere.

2.  Does knowing APA prevent plagiarism? 

Good God no.  One year, back when I was a neophyte writing teacher, I believed that if students demonstrated mastery on an APA marking guide (defined as receiving at least 20/25) that we could rubber stamp them as having learned the skill of APA. We made them correct their APA till they demonstrated proficiency, handing their papers back to their graders until they achieved mastery.  It was a phenomenally labour intensive process, stressing out numerous graders, me, the students, and our academic coordinator. Many students never achieved mastery. So I decided to collect a little data. In the next term I tracked those students who’s academic integrity was called into question on their second academic paper (there were about a dozen of them). Probably 90% of the students who were called in for insufficient citation had achieved mastery the previous term. Most of them, on the first try. There was no correlation.

The Publication Manual tells you what plagiarism is and that you need to “give credit where credit is due” (p. 15). It gives a process for how to consistently cite the work of others (author(s) last name(s) comma year of publication) and tells you how to use quotation marks and page numbers when you use the exact words of others.  But none of these tips will prevent plagiarism.  It does not tell you when, where, or how often a writer needs to cite in a paper.  It vaguely tells you:

Cite the work of those individuals whose ideas, theories, or research have directly influenced your work. They may provide key background information, support or dispute your thesis, or offer critical definitions and data. Citation of an article implies that you have personally read the cited work. In addition to crediting the ideas of others that you used to build your thesis, provide documentation for all the facts and figures that are not common knowledge. (p. 169)

Then it gives an example. It also doesn’t tell you how to track all those sources you read so you can remember which source you need to cite for what piece of knowledge. It also does not define common knowledge and common knowledge is not what many undergraduate students think it is:  Common knowledge is everything I know already.

No. It is not. That is the knowledge effect at work.

It does not discuss the grey areas present in establishing plagiarism, e.g., how many words in a row is a writer allowed to take from another source? How many citations should be in a paragraph? What if the paragraph was paraphrased from a single source?

Well. It depends.

3. Does knowing APA make papers pretty?

Since we’ve already ruled out the previous two options, that leaves only one correct answer.  I had an epiphany recently while watching a tutorial on how to write statistical findings in APA format — since I don’t teach it to undergrads, this is a part of APA I do not know.  The President of APA was on the video helping with the the tutorial questions. Someone asked (and I paraphrase), “If I choose to ignore the rules of APA format when I submit to a journal, will my paper be automatically rejected.”  Her answer was, that depends on the reviewers and the editor…. But I don’t know why you would want to potentially put yourself out of the running for cosmetic reasons.

APA is about pretty. It is about putting together a readable manuscript that is free of distracting inconsistencies. Being a lover of consistency, I love it for that reason. And it really is easy (but perhaps a little annoying) to master if you can dial up that detail oriented part of yourself and follow patterns. But there are a lot of portions of APA that I feel are a useless waste of time and I would toss out the window if I didn’t feel there would be at least one lone purist who would prevent me from doing that. And the frustrations of working with instructors who think it is some magical recipe to make all student writing turn into A+, plagiarism-free work, has had me popping the cork on many bottles of wine over the years.

There are only two things that will make a student’s written work improve: A student who cares about what they are writing about and an instructor who is willing to support them in their work.  Yes you, dear instructor. If you have an academic paper in your course, I wave my magic wand.

You are now a writing instructor.