The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that 44% of college professors feel that their students are not prepared for college writing. My experience with colleagues is that 100% of them feel that some percentage of their students are not prepared for the challenges of writing in college and that the work they hand in is below standards. That seems like a pretty dire problem. I also know from experience that most high school English teachers are doing everything they know how to prepare their students.
It also seems that it could be the luck of which schools and which teachers within those schools students end up with. For instance, my son is a junior in high school and has never been assigned a paper longer than three pages. My daughter, on the other hand, is in 9th grade, and she has just been assigned a twelve-page paper. Of course, she isn’t happy about this, but I’m relieved that at least one of my children has an opportunity to do the kind of work that will help her when she transitions into college. It’s not just the length of the paper that matters, though.
Here are some elements that make a good writing assignment:
Length: Length for it’s own sake is not enough. Students do need to have an opportunity to explore a topic in depth and to have to explore more than two or three ideas related to a topic.
Subject: Students should be able to write about topics that interest them. They should also be able to investigate new topics in order to build interest in new topics. Not only should the write about materials related to literature, as in most Language Arts classes. They should be writing in other content classes about science and history. Because writing on a subject creates expertise, students should be writing at length in all classes.
Research: Students should be charged with researching topics using academically valid sources. They should learn how to evaluate the credibility of various sources and they should become familiar with experts in the fields they are writing about. Students should be asked to synthesize related ideas from varied sources and to draw some of their own conclusions.
Citation: Students should learn when it is appropriate to quote or paraphrase information. They should learn how to attribute ideas and words to their original sources. Finally, they should understand what plagiarism is and why it is problematic.
Of course, this is just a brief highlight of four of the major issues that students should experience in high school to prepare them for college. But these are challenges that many students don’t face until they get to college, when the expectations can be a surprise and a source of anxiety. The opportunity to learn and practice writing in high school where they can receive guidance in these key areas could save many students from being overwhelmed in college.
Almost every high school student learns to write the Five-Paragraph Theme. Its basic structure asks students to write
- a one-paragraph introduction with a thesis that highlights three points
- three body paragraphs, each elaborating on the points listed in the thesis
- a conclusion paragraph that restates the thesis.
The problem is that most college professors hate the Five-Paragraph Theme. Here’s a story that illustrates why. I had a student come to me for a conference to plan her 10-page research paper. We discussed her topic and came up with about six ideas that she needed to research. She developed an insightful and sophisticated thesis. I felt we had done good work. As she left, she asked “How am I going to fit all of this in five paragraphs?”
Of course there was no way she could meet all of the requirements of the assignment in five paragraphs, but that model was so ingrained that she couldn’t think outside it.
The Five-Paragraph Theme offers an easy model for teaching and learning about writing. It can even be a good starting point—however, it is totally inadequate for longer and more sophisticated writing. Students need to learn it as a starting point for writing and then build on the paragraphs to expand their thinking and development of ideas.
Given the workload of many high school teachers, it’s easy to understand why the Five-Paragraph Theme is popular. A teacher who has 100 students throughout the day would have to grade 1000 pages each time a 10-page paper is assigned. Five paragraphs generally take up only one and a half to two pages. An even better reason is that it’s easy to teach—five paragraphs with a clear structure and content makes an easy to describe and define assignment. Also, it’s easy for students who are often frustrated by the abstract and varied guidelines of writing.
The trick, which the best teachers know, is to teach the Five-Paragraph Theme as a starting point and then teach students how to build it up to meet the more sophisticated demands of college and professional writing.
“I got A’s on all of my high school writing assignments, but now I feel like I don’t even know what I’m doing.” I’ve heard this lament or a variation on it for many years in my college writing classes. The transition from high school to college can be daunting for many reasons (being away from home, adjusting to new levels of responsibility, feeling anxious or insecure, getting lost on the way to classes), but the most difficult are the increased expectations for writing.
Writing is one of the key determinants of success in college because so much of graded material is in the form of writing, even in classes like accounting or biology, where students expect to dodge writing assignments altogether. Most traditionally designed college courses base grades on one or two papers each semester, along with a mid-semester exam and a final exam—and many of the questions on exams are short essay questions.
The sheer volume of writing can be scary, and most students lack the time management and planning skills to juggle numerous writing assignments in different classes. Additionally, the level of critical thinking expected by college professors is beyond that faced by most students in high school.
From the beginning, though, reading probably poses the most overwhelming demand for most new college students. Many students are surprised to turn up on the first day of a college class and learn that they were already expected to read the first chapter or two of their new textbooks—they start off behind and struggle to catch up. It isn’t unusual for students to have to read textbook chapters along with supplemental texts, as well. Plus, if students have to do research papers, they must read the sources for those—often several articles and chapters or entire books.
If you read this and think the demands appear impossible, then you should also know that students spend significantly less time doing work in college than they did twenty years ago. And students twenty years ago did significantly less work than the students who preceded them by twenty years. When I was an undergraduate, I was told to expect about 4 or 5 hours of work for every hour spent in class. I could only expect about 2 hours for every hour spent in class from my students—and many of them did less than that.
It seems possible that we should just lower our expectations and give less work, rather than have students always feel like they are falling short. On the other hand, when the U.S. is facing dismal results on international educational studies, there might be another way to go—we could prepare high schoolers to manage the workload necessary for in-depth learning and success in college.
On my last blog, I described the default strategy that students use for writing papers. This time, I’ll discuss the ideal strategy that students should work on, one in which they use conscious decision-making for an effective process. This allows the writer to creatively shape the words on the page, making writing an art. Because writing can foster critical thinking and problem solving skills, the best approach to writing optimizes those skills. Generally, the writing process includes several stages.
The process looks like this:
- Prewriting: considering all aspects of the topic and using strategies that engage students in critical thinking—like asking and answering questions, developing a thesis that reflects an argumentative stance (one that considers the significance of a topic and how it can be used by readers) and organizing ideas into an outline that reflects coherent thinking on the topic. This is the point where students gather their materials, just as an artist gathers clay and sculpting tools and paints.
- Drafting: using the thesis and outline to develop ideas in writing, integrating explanation and evidence; and writing well developed introduction, body and conclusion paragraphs. At this stage, the writer is molding the clay and finding out what shapes it lends itself to.
- Revising: paying attention to the words on the page and how they will be interpreted by readers and making changes to enhance the writer’s control over readers’ experience of the writing. Here the writer will refine and reshape the draft, bringing out the beauty and harmony.
- Editing: using close reading to find and eliminate grammatical and sentence level errors that detract from a reader’s ability to understand the words on the page, often by knowing common errors and working to find and correct them. At this stage, the writer will put the final polish on the piece, paying attention to the tiniest detail.
Most of the professional writers I know spend a considerable amount of time prewriting. But this stage of the process is often invisible because writers review ideas and make connections in their minds. I often tell people that I wrote the majority of my dissertation for my Ph.D. while walking my dog. I would conduct research, locating the best sources by credible experts in the field and read and take extensive notes. During walks, though, I would mull over all of the new information I had collected, consider what it meant and try to find patterns and connections with previous research and with my own experiences. After hours spent contemplating information, it sometimes seemed like the drafting stage took almost no work at all.
For beginning writers, though, prewriting should take place in writing. Synthesizing ideas from various sources, teasing out patterns, recognizing inconsistences—all of this is easier when the writer can see the words on the page.
The stage that writers spend the most time on is revising. In revision, the craft of writing becomes art. Drafting provides the clay, and during revision, the writer shapes that clay, applying critical thinking skills to evaluate, rethink and rearrange until a beautiful sculpture emerges.
Most students plunge into writing without really thinking about what they are doing. In the almost twenty years I taught writing, I saw students use the same strategies, year after year, even when they knew they were ineffective. Here’s a typical pattern that most student writers—and many adults who have to write for professional or personal necessity—follow:
- Make a cursory list or map of ideas to be covered in a paper.
- Stare at blank screen until a great opening line pops into mind.
- Explore ideas about the topic by writing an introduction that lists general statements about the topic.
- Take ideas from the list or map generated earlier and write a paragraph about each one by stating the idea and then repeating it or explaining it in different words, sometimes using quotes from other sources if required.
- Write a conclusion that restates some of the ideas from the introduction in similar—but not identical—sentences.
- Use spellcheck and grammar check to make any corrections that are indicated.
Students use this default writing strategy even when they can describe the writing process and when they say they are following it. The job of the teacher is in this scenario to find the mistakes and spots where the writing is unclear and grade the paper accordingly. And the default writing strategy will yield a paper—one similar to most of the other papers that other students write. It does not, however, encourage deeper knowledge about a topic or use critical thinking skills.
Next Time: Using the Writing Process
Every time a student tells me that he or she waited to the last minute to complete an assignment, I know I’m supposed to say that it’s much better to plan ahead and allocate enough time to do a really good job. While I often give this de rigueur response, in the back of my mind is the nagging reminder that I, too, am a procrastinator. Like my students today, I used to justify my procrastination by saying that I worked better under pressure. That last minute adrenalin rush fueled my creativity and forced me to really work.
The truth is, though, that even if I managed to get good grades with my last minute efforts, I realized as I matured that I could have done better with more time. When I got my papers back, I would see glaring errors, which I missed in my haste. Even if these errors seemed relatively small and had little effect on my final grade, I realize now that I could have learned so much more if I had taken a more balanced approached.
Procrastination is motivated by different reasons, and exploring those can help reform a procrastinator. Here are a few reasons why people procrastinate:
- They are uncertain about the project.
- The project is distasteful.
- The project is overwhelming.
- They need materials, ideas or support from others.
- Too many other demands take precedent (or are used as an excuse to put off the project).
Uncertainty: I still think there may be some value to procrastinating, as long as it doesn’t last right up to or past the deadline. When a project involves a lot of uncertainty, the time spent procrastinating can be used to investigate other similar projects, talk with people who may be able to give more information, conduct research and consider different possibilities.
Distasteful: Of course, we all dream of unloading our distasteful tasks onto a willing and unsuspecting victim. In college, though, having someone else do the work is called cheating. A lot of times, the task isn’t as bad as you expect, and the anticipation and anxiety about what it involves and what will happen if the task isn’t completed are actually much worse than the task itself. Doing the initial and least distasteful steps can make the task more manageable. Otherwise, you just have to suck it up and plow through.
Overwhelming: If a project is so large or the results are so important that you become overwhelmed just thinking about it, putting it off seems really appealing. The problem is, that large tasks are the ones where the penalties of procrastinating are the worst. If you put it off too long, it becomes impossible to even attempt. The best strategy is to break the project up into smaller tasks. I like to create a table with three columns (Task, Resources Needed, Completion Date) and work out each small step that will contribute to the final product.
Support from Others: Working with others can have two major pitfalls: you might feel uncomfortable about asking for help or people don’t always follow up and get back to you with the resources you need. Try to consider this an opportunity to build networking and people skills. Rehearse conversations and carefully craft emails that you can use to ask for the resources you need. Follow up with polite reminders when others are not carrying through with their tasks.
Competing Demands: Admit it: sometimes being busy is just an excuse to avoid doing a project you really don’t want to do. Sometimes, of course, we all get too busy. The best way to do this is to write a to-do list that prioritizes tasks based on importance and nearness of deadline. Then allocate an hour or two each day to take care of high priority tasks.
Well, knowing what to do to overcome procrastination and actually doing it are two different things. If you’re like me, you’ll be tempted to say, “Some day I’ll put my plan into action,” knowing well that I’m in no hurry to arrive at some day. I still procrastinate, but when I manage to follow my own advice, I avoid a lot of stress and anxiety—and I end up proud of my work.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have been watching the Olympics when I have a little free time. I absolutely loved the opening ceremony: literature and caring for children—what could be more significant? I’ve seen the athletes’ stories unfold as the commentators tell the audience about the struggles and challenges that many athletes have overcome to make it to the Olympics. I’ve waited for the starting gun, imagining myself on the blocks—I’m sure I’d jump the gun, my impatience palpable as I try to hold back. And then I have watched the competition unfold, one human striving for excellence pitted against another human also striving for excellence.
As enticed as I have been by the spectacle, I had to take a step back and wonder: Why? I mean, clearly I have nothing real invested in who wins the gold for diving or the silver in the high jump; as they say, “I have no skin in the game.” I haven’t spent hours in training or sacrificed time with family and friends or invested my life savings in gym memberships. Yet I find myself cheering for the winner and commiserating with the underdog. I watch the movement, precision and focus and the agony and triumph on the athletes’ faces with real empathy. I love the human drama. Why is that?
After thinking about it, I decided that what the Olympics show us is the pinnacle of human achievement. With basically the same biological factors as anybody else, these Olympic athletes surpass what an average person can do. They strive for the height of athletic perfection. As human beings, we are all elevated by the achievement; we share in the human moment. We see the possibilities, even if we ourselves will not reach them.
Most of us strive for excellence in some area where we feel we are endowed with talent. While it might be athletics, it can also be music or writing or needlepoint or volunteerism. For most of us, though, our area of excellence is not in the realm of world competition, television, lights, opening ceremonies and medals. We work because we feel value in what we do and we appreciate the beauty of what we create. The intrinsic rewards and feeling of self worth keep us working to attain higher and higher achievement in our fields. But every time we improve, every time we produce something wonderful, every time we move to the next level, we place another gold coin in the treasure chest of human accomplishment.
I feel the same triumph for an accomplished writer when I read his or her work as I do for an accomplished athlete. It’s easy to perceive the human race as bright and radiant after reading The Bean Trees, or Love Medicine or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When I read a student’s paper that shows real insight and knowledge, my faith in humanity is renewed. When I see members of my writers’ group pursuing the perfect sentence or the clear expression of a concept, I know the world is a good place. It helps me overcome my impatience with the human race.
Here’s to trying to be better and better still!
Writing involves numerous decisions, which can lead to decision fatigue. The CASE system of writing offers a way to manage the number and types of decisions to make writing more effective.
You sit at our desk with the blank white page of a Word document open before you. Your job? Fill the page, and then the one after that, and the one after that. It seems simple, but there are days when that task becomes so laden with doubt, fear, and apprehension that words just will not come. We call that writer’s block, and just about every writer has faced it.
Most skilled writers know that the feeling will pass and that the words will come again, even if getting them out onto the page is agonizing. Less skilled writers take this as the status quo—it will always feel impossible to write. They let a temporary state define their writing experience.
There are ways to get over writer’s block and get ideas flowing. Here are several:
- Take a break and think about something else for a while—though be careful not to let the break extend indefinitely.
- Go for a walk and think about your writing—movement will increase your brain’s productivity.
- Talk through your project with someone else.
- Read what others have done—though you must avoid the temptation to plagiarize.
- Read over your own work for inspiration.
- Write everything you can think of about your topic until something strikes you. Then take that and write about it until great ideas start flowing.
- Break the task of writing into stages and try to complete just one (such as coming up with a topic, brainstorming ideas, conducting research, writing an outline, or determining a focus or thesis).
Whatever your strategy, the most important thing is that you don’t let writer’s block stop you from enjoying the creative intellectual endeavor of writing. Once your ideas start flowing and you get into the zone of writing, there’s nothing better.