March 16, 2019 at 4:07 pm

Faculty Learning Community Discusses Strategies for Improved Writing Across Disciplines

By Dr. Kim Thompson
Environmental and Plant Biology

A Faculty Learning Community on Improving Writing Assignments met last semester to identify strategies for improving student writing across disciplines.

Our group, led by Kim Thompson (Environmental & Plant Biology), included Matthew Barrile (Modern Languages), Christina Beers (Economics), Lindsay Dhanani (Psychology), Chris Griffin (Biological Sciences), Stephanie Miller (Biological Sciences), Elizabeth Thompson (English) and Kelly Williams (Biological Sciences).

We explored how student writing would help meet course objectives, identified the types of support that would help students improve their skills, and discussed manageable and effective assessment strategies. By the end of the semester, we felt we had improved assignment instructions, created more effective assessments, and had a clearer idea about how to support our students. We present a few tips gleaned from our process that may be useful to other faculty as they tackle similar issues

Student Writing Center

Megan Russell, the Interim Coordinator for the Student Writing Center in the Academic Achievement Center, discussed the most common problems they encounter and suggested how we could help our students make the most of the Writing Center.

  • Students should come prepared with well-defined expectations for the assignment. This should include the conventions for a discipline that you want them to follow.
  • Students do not always understand or remember what was said in class. Clear instructions help them avoid problems and give the writing center staff the information they need to help students.
  • International students often face unique barriers, particularly cultural mores that may make it difficult to adopt new styles of writing, such as giving opinions.
  • If you require students to attend the writing center, they should come with the instructions for the assignment and a first draft. The writing center does not simply proofread the papers; instead, tutors help a student identify areas for improvement. The goal of the writing center is to help students gain confidence over time as they see improvements. The message is that there is no final draft – writing can always be improved or modified.

Peer Review

How do we ensure that peer review leads to valuable feedback as students work through writing projects? Students are not experienced reviewers, so providing a structure that generates useful comments for the writer is key to making this a productive exercise.

An excellent resource is Improving Student Peer Feedback by LB Nilson (‎2003) which poses sample questions that students must answer in the review process. This helps the author understand whether their points were clear rather than simply correcting spelling and grammatical errors.

Another idea from group members was to present students with submitted scientific articles, written and shared by colleagues, to demonstrate how the peer review process works and why it is so important. The students might edit the paper themselves or comment on reviewed manuscripts.

These processes can help students appreciate that markups are a normal part of the process, even for professionals, and lead to improvements in our ability to communicate.

Using Technology

Blackboard allows you to create rubrics that facilitate grading, and these can be copied to new courses each year. These rubrics help to provide consistency and reduce bias. Once the rubric is created, you can check off levels in each category and the grades are calculated. Adding a disclaimer that the rubric is just a guide provides flexibility if the work falls between categories.

When students are expected to use technology for classroom work, we need to offer clear instructions. Students are not as experienced as we might expect in using technology. For example, using an Apple device might require using a different browser in order to use Blackboard successfully. Clear instructions on using SafeAssign or Turnitin will improve their ability to complete assignments successfully.

Shared experiences, struggles and accomplishments as we improved our professional skills made participation in this faculty learning community worthwhile. Support for the group was provided by the College of Arts & Sciences and Associate Dean Dr. Laurie Hatch.

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