WHEN THEY JUST DONT GET IT:IMPROVING COMPREHENSION AND QUALITY IN STUDENT TEXTS
Here are some of the most frequently voiced complaints about student writing and some solutions. These ideas come from a blend of educational research, psychology and my own research in the experience of insight in writing (and the lack thereof!). We offer handouts and individual conferences for your students in the Writing Center; you can also call me to arrange an individualized writing workshop for one of your courses (extension 6982).
WHEN STUDENTS DO NOT DO THE READINGS
Studies in education show that frequent quizzes improve both learning and the completion of assignments.
WHEN STUDENTS DO THE READINGS BUT DO NOT COMPREHEND THEM
Students model of reading is frequently a literary one: they read everything from page 1 as if it were a novel. Such a model uses up the short-term memory quickly and they will not be able to comprehend much. Ask students to set a specific reading goal in a set time period. The average attention span is 90 minutes (before needing a break). Have them preview the reading assignment visually, knowing where the end is. Ask them to read with a question that they pose for themselves. (A handout on college reading is available in the Writing Center, MC 321).
WHEN STUDENTS ARE UNWILLING TO SEE NEW IDEAS PUT FORTH BY AN AUTHOR
The whole point of many college-level texts is to introduce new ways of looking at things, yet students from an American educational system resist such novelty! Many students wish to cling to "facts" as if they were selecting tomatoes and green peppers to put into a shopping cart. They search madly for the definition of a concept found in the textbook and copy it verbatim hoping they have the "right" answer. We can help students by asking them the following questions: what dont you want to see, what dont you want to read, when do you glaze over, what do you think is "too hard" for you? As many of our students are adult learners, we can also help them by showing them the practicalitythe relevanceof thinking in new ways.
WHEN STUDENTS ARE NOT ABLE TO SYNTHESIZE
Two things are missing from an essay where students have not synthesized materials: a focus and some significance. The K-12 emphasis on factuality (fill-in-the-blank educational materials) leads students to be less able to do sophisticated reasoning. A pre-writing activity might help, where you tell them to write on a sheet of paper why their subject is so important and to whom. Another aspect they need to develop is the particular statement they are making about the materials (the focus of the paper). A focus comes from the integration of the materials with the values of the writer. Another pre-writing activity would help: ask students to articulate a question about the materials and answer it. The answer is the focus of the paper. If the focus has no significance, I badger students with endless "so what?!"s. (Workshops on this particular subject matter are availablevery underdeveloped skill in students today.)
WHEN STUDENT TEXTS ARE POORLY ORGANIZED REVEALING POOR THINKING
Many students have no knowledge of the forms of academic discourse. Every semester in my teaching for many years Ive had students call me telling me theyve never put a quote in a paper! The answer is modeling. If possible, provide students with a sample paper from an unrelated class so that they can see what an "A" paper looks like. Providing them with real-life models is very important as well: a published essay that has qualities you admire, an article in a magazine that gives excellent coverage to some issue.
WHEN STUDENTS GIVE NO ARGUMENT BUT MERELY DESCRIBE STANCES
Argumentation is a skill that students can avoid by simply recounting various sides of an issue. What is usually missing is a focus. Students fall back into the "fact" mentality without being able to identify exactly what the overall issue is about. Modeling is one answer---provide a clear focus with citation of various points of view. The other technique is to give pre-writing activities that will ask students to form a question about the materials, answer it, and then structure a response that is focus-driven rather than side-driven.
WHEN STUDENT PAPERS HAVE POOR GRAMMAR, SPELLING AND PUNCTUATION
Dont accept it. Many teachers set limits on how many errors they will tolerate on a final version. Peer review groups help eliminate many errors. These peer groups can meet in or outside of class. Students can make appointments at the Writing Center to learn how to punctuate and spell properlywe are happy to help them correct errors. We wont, however, simply proofread their papers without giving instruction.
WHEN STUDENTS CANNOT EVALUATE
A frequent assignment in upper-level courses is evaluationa challenging and important assignment. One technique for improving student performance is to ask students to set criteria for a "good" whatever. For instance, a "good" city plan for Akron would meet the following 5 criteria (and the students figure these out). Some criteria might be affordability, beauty, ease of use. Once criteria are set, it becomes much easier to evaluate something.
WHEN STUDENT PAPERS HAVE NO DEPTH
Sometimes a student text remains at the surface level of the readings and never seriously engages the issues the author and the teacher wishes. American culture favors what Carl Jung termed "extraverts" meaning people whose energy comes from others and activities. (Note the Miller-time commercials where "fun" is configured as being with many people.) College-level work favors the "intravert" whose energy comes from within and who has developed significant abilities to concentrate. The other tendency American culture favors is "sensing" rather than "intuition" which also limits students ability to deal well with abstraction. The "sensing" function prefers details and the here-and-now; the "intuitive" function prefers abstraction, the future, and possibilities. Teachers can help American students if they articulate these preferences and demonstrate the need to develop what is not familiar. An office of dentists, for instance, who are all frequently intraverted-sensing types, had a business fail: they did not have any intuitives who could do long-range planning about where they placed this business.