Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Helping students write better

 A colleague is looking at how to help students with their academic writing, and I contributed a few ideas. Here they are - any comments are very welcome! I included suggestions for giving quicker feedback too.
Helping students with their writing

1.     Include short writing tasks in your seminars: see QMUL’s priceless Thinking Writing website: You can also include short assessment tasks that focus on recall, understanding, application, analysis – typically the ‘lower-order’ cognitive processes.

2.     Read and discuss different genres of writing in your discipline and practice them.

3.     Practice marking work from a previous year. This will help students understand what’s expected of them and discussing what makes a ‘good’ essay may help clarify their conception of the task.

4.    Use peer feedback for formative assessment or for drafts. Peer feedback is authentic to all disciplines at all levels. (Why not use a reader report form from a journal like Art History to make the point?) Tools such as ‘workshop’ on Moodle can help organise the process.

5.     Literature: Zerubavel, Orwell, Strunk & White are all variously helpful (references below).

6.     Spend time with students going very carefully over a single paragraph of their work. Other sources of one-to-one support include personal tutors, Student Union initiatives, and Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellows (click here to see if your institution is part of the RLF scheme).

7.     Organise a one-day ‘writing retreat’ to help students get some writing done but also to model good practice in goal-setting and time management: see Murray and Newton (2009) below.

Giving quicker feedback

8.     Ask students to mark their own work. Remember self-assessment can be automated, eg. using ‘quiz’ on Moodle. These are good opportunities to assess the ‘lower’ outcomes such as recall of factual knowledge or performing basic-but-essential procedures such as references and citations.

9.     Ask students to write their own feedback sheets (see Defeyter and McPartlin (2007) below).

10.  Keep it verbal! Verbal feedback is invaluable for checking understanding, as you can be sure a student understands a topic if they can explain it in their own words.

11.  Ask students for two areas where they would like feedback (from Gibbs and Simpson (2004) – see below). Very useful as a way of checking that a student has an adequate conception of the task and ensuring that I’m spending my time efficiently.

12.  Write less! (and explain why you’re doing so). I have found this invaluable. Brief and timely feedback may well be just what a student needs, with an invitation to discuss further.

13.  Give feedback to the whole group, and then individual feedback for more specific points.

14.  Use electronic delivery for quicker return of essays (especially over Christmas and Easter breaks) - but note that many students don’t check their feedback on Turnitin, they just collect the marks.


- Defeyter, Margaret and Pamela McPartlin (2007), ‘Helping Students Understand Essay Marking Criteria and Feedback’, Psychology Teaching Review, 13 (1), 23-33.
- Gibbs, Graham and Claire Simpson (2004), ‘Conditions under which assessment supports students’ learning’, Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, 1, 3-31.
- Murray, Rowena and Newton, Mary (2009), 'Writing retreat as structured intervention: margin or mainstream?', Higher Education Research & Development, 28:5, 541-553.
- Orwell, George (1946), ’Politics and the English Language’. Short essay with practical tips at end.
- Strunk, William and E.B. White (2000), The Elements of Style (New York: Longman), 4th ed.
- Zerubavel, Eviatar (1999)The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations and Books (Cambridge: Harvard University Press)

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