Why It Seems Like Your Students Can’t Write — Stephanie White

Whenever I talk with instructors here about how my job is to support them in their writing and communication instruction, I hear some version of the same response: “My students are brilliant, but they can’t write a sentence to save their lives!” No matter whom I’m talking to, regardless of discipline, job title, teaching experience, linguistic background, educational background, or teaching load, nearly everyone has the same anxieties around the role of communication in their courses. But I’m always glad to have the chance to talk about these concerns. If you’re one of those instructors I’ve talked with about teaching writing and communication in your discipline, you’ve probably seen my eyes light up as I eagerly launch into my spiel about the research on teaching writing and communication across the curriculum.

You: “My students are smart, but they can’t write!”

Me: I know what you mean about UWaterloo students! The undergraduate and graduate students I teach and work with here continue to impress me with their knowledge and abilities. But I don’t agree that they can’t write.

Your students are grappling with new concepts and new terminology in your classes. They’re writing in genres that are often completely unknown to them. They’re trying to take the five-paragraph essays and the foundational knowledge they learned in high school and adapt them to brand-new expectations where those basics suddenly don’t apply anymore—something they often don’t find out until they get their grades back on a final assignment. And then they have to adapt everything they know all over again for their next class, and the one after that.

So it makes sense that there will be some clunky sentences in your students’ assignments. It makes sense that the structure of their writing won’t follow what you know to be the ideal norm. And it makes sense that they’ll misuse terminology, muddle the conventions of your discipline, or explain concepts incorrectly. It even makes sense that they’ll make mistakes that they should know not to make.

And, no, it’s not language barriers that are the problem. Your students who speak and write multiple languages know English grammar rules inside and out, but as anyone who writes in a language they haven’t been writing in their whole lives can tell you, balancing vocabulary with syntax with challenging concepts and new terminology is no easy feat. Consider this: when we speak, we all speak with accents. Yet when our students write, we expect their writing to be “unaccented,” which means we spend our energy correcting their accents in their writing rather than guiding their ideas.

One of my favourite reports on how students learn to write in new disciplines came about in response to the common complaint from university instructors that their students can’t write. After examining writing by students who had top marks but whose writing skills frustrated their professors, two researchers at the University of Chicago concluded that we don’t learn to write in a straight upwards trajectory; rather, our writing knowledge goes up and down with every new context or genre we write in. Every time we learn fresh and challenging ideas and attempt to apply them or express them ourselves, all of our effort and time goes into those higher-order thinking tasks, and we have very little left to devote to the basics of communication. We also don’t know how to phrase concepts in what is considered conventional for a discipline if we’ve never written in that discipline before. So we make simple errors that we know better not to make, and we phrase our ideas awkwardly at best and incorrectly at worst. You can read specific examples from the study in the tried-and-true volume Programs that Work: Models and Methods for Writing Across the Curriculum (T. Fulwiler and A. Young, Eds. (1990) Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers).

In the meantime, think back to the very first grant proposal you ever wrote as a graduate student or even as an undergraduate. Find it in your files if you can and re-read it. The chances are slim that you used every term correctly, that you followed what you’d now consider an organized structure, that you knew what to explain in detail and what to assume your readers already knew, or that you followed grant-writing conventions to the letter.

There may even be typos in that proposal, if you were as busy and overwhelmed as your students are (imagine that). And we all know how important it is for credibility and professionalism that you proofread carefully. But we often get tripped up by simple typos in our students’ writing simply because we’re looking for them. We hold students to higher ideals than industry standard because we’re keeping our eyes peeled for mistakes. That means we expect our students’ writing to bear fewer errors than our own published research. And spending our time correcting those kinds of errors—they’re easy to spot and fix, after all—takes away from time we could be spending shaping students’ thinking—which would, over time, obviate the need to correct sentence-level errors anyway.

And, no, it’s not new technology that’s the problem. People have been complaining about the decline of young people’s writing and speaking for literally thousands of years. Check out Harvey Daniels’ (1983) breakdown of these complaints in Famous Last Words: The American Language Crisis Revisited. (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press)—it’s fascinating.

The takeaway from all this? Our students can write, and since they’re so smart, they can learn quickly. But we need to teach them not only what to write about in our assignments, but also how to write about it in a way that’s effective and appropriate for the particular field of scholarship we’re teaching. We need to invest our time in the aspects of our teaching that will pay off. Form and content are utterly intertwined—think of all the research and ideas that have been dismissed through the ages simply because they weren’t presented in what was considered a credible manner for the context!

To help our students understand course content, we need to teach them how to communicate it. So how do we teach students to communicate in our disciplines?

Well, building more communication assignments into our programs and courses is a good start, since doing so allows students to learn course content by communicating it. You know how it goes—you only know you really understand something when you can explain it clearly someone else.

Providing clear instructions to students when it comes to the structure, conventions, and logistics of written assignments also helps—that way, students can spend their time and mental energy struggling productively with how to put course concepts into words rather than trying to figure out the ins and outs of a new genre.

And giving students opportunities to get feedback on their ideas rather than writing quality alone helps too, since it allows students to clarify their thinking, which will in turn clarify their communication. Giving students feedback on drafts of communication assignments rather than final products alone is ideal, since doing so challenges students to revise—which is what all of us seasoned communicators do naturally.

By the time I was done geeking out, I’d have all kinds of questions for you. I’d want to know about the written assignments in your courses, where you see students struggling the most, how you talk about assignments with students, and what you find most challenging about teaching students communication skills in your courses. And I’d tell you that I’m here to help. I can consult with you on the design of your written assignments, how to build simple and low-stakes writing into your courses to scaffold students’ communication skills, how to give students effective but efficient feedback, how to use rubrics to teach students what they need to know about writing in your discipline, how to train your TAs to give students useful feedback, and how to talk with your students about what you know about how to communicate in your field.

So come find me in the Centre for Teaching Excellence or send me an email. Since I’ve already given you my spiel, we can get straight to work.


Image by Arild. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

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Stephanie White

Stephanie White is an Instructional Developer at the UWaterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence, where she focuses on TA Training and Writing Support. In addition to helping run CTE’s certificate programs for graduate students and supervising graduate-student TA Workshop Facilitators, she teaches workshops for faculty and staff on designing effective written assignments, consults one-to-one with instructors in any discipline about their written assignments, serves on committees and working groups about communications outcomes at UWaterloo, develops resources about Writing and Communication Across the Curriculum at UWaterloo, and consults with instructors on training TAs in their departments.

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