What Happens in Those Writing Support Appointments Anyway?

The paper you’re reading has lost you: the commas are out of control, the word choices are weird, and that last paragraph doesn’t seem to have a point. It can be hard to know if lack of time was the culprit or if the student has not yet mastered the writing skills needed to express their ideas at the graduate level. Either way, a referral to online writing support is something you may have already done after struggling through a confusing piece of writing. Sometimes the paper comes back greatly improved; other times you may have wondered what exactly was discussed in that appointment.

Students contact us for a variety of reasons. Often it is because an instructor has suggested or required it, but some students are aware their writing skills aren’t that strong and their papers would benefit from some feedback. Even very capable writers can learn from having an objective reader check for clarity, so writing support doesn’t have to be remedial.

Once a student does reach out to us, what happens?

We set up an online web conferencing appointment and ask them to send their assignment description, draft, and specific areas of concern ahead of time. We read the draft, note suggestions, and then meet with the student to have conversation about their paper. By replacing the previous method of providing written feedback and sending the paper back, these conversations have allowed deeper explanations and hands-on practice of revision (making major improvements, especially focusing/ developing ideas) and editing (fixing mechanics).

Most students, and sometimes instructors too, want to focus on mechanics because those errors are the most easily identified and can be addressed with specific corrections. However, a better starting point for improving thinking and writing is working on answering several questions. Does the paper address the prompt? Does it have a thesis? Do paragraphs have topic sentences and supporting evidence? Are transitions used to show the idea relationships? Once these higher order of concerns are tackled, the grammar, formatting, and citation issues are next in line.

Writing tutors make it clear to students we are not proofreaders and editors.  Instead, we help them identify the sentence error patterns in the first part of the paper: this is a comma splice, and here are a few ways to fix it; these word choices could be more academic; this type of citation needs a signal phrase for better source integration. After practicing a few corrections with them, we ask students to apply what they’ve learned to the rest of the draft on their own.

Usually they do; sometimes they may not. Most, however, are pleasantly surprised at how helpful it is to talk through the basics of writing a good paper and better understand the difference between revising and editing. They are learning the vocabulary needed to discuss good writing and how to use the writing process more effectively. Hopefully, on your end as an instructor, you see are seeing the positive results as well!

Lori Rand is an Online Writing Specialist for the Student Academic Success Center.

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Creating Effective Writing Assignments: The Discourse Community Framework

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Using the writing process – often a complex, messy and mysterious process for students–is crucial for graduate level success. Students not only need to grapple with understanding course concepts, they must be able to express them professionally and intelligently. Well-designed writing prompts, with the addition of writing support, can provide the extra guidance many students need. Anne Beaufort, in her text College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instructions, has researched and developed a relevant framework for creating graduate level assignments based on a “discourse community” concept. Assignments created with this framework can help students better understand the social work community/program context of their writing. Beaufort addresses four types of knowledge in assignment design: subject matter, genre, audience, and the writing process. Although most prompts used in this graduate program do already include these four types of knowledge in some way, Beaufort’s framework provides a fresh look at facilitating more sophisticated written work from students.

Subject Matter: Assignment prompts tend to focus on asking students to demonstrate understanding of critical concepts. However, does the prompt clearly state the purpose/objective in a summary sentence? Do a few essential questions focus on assessing relationships between ideas and applying critical concepts? Are students invited to create and answer their own research questions?

Genre: Effective prompts explain the features and parameters of the document (sufficient length to accomplish purpose, organization, and format). Is the assignment primarily a synthesis, application, proposal, evaluation, reflection, or analysis? Genres may be interpreted in different ways, so definitions of these terms will be helpful for students.

Audience: The instructor is usually the intended audience. How might this audience be expanded to include relevant and realistic readers?

The Writing Process: Understanding this piece of the framework is often where students struggle (and where writing support can also help). The process includes the planning, drafting, and revision stages, but does the prompt concisely state the steps of creating the specific document: research methods, source requirements, submission of topic summaries, partial drafts, or annotated bibliographies?

Students will continue working on their writing skills throughout their graduate programs, and designing effective assignment prompts with an emphasis on the context (or rhetorical situation) will facilitate their growth as engaged, writing members of the social work community. Take a look at a great example of a framework assignment here.

Woodward, A. (2015). Using a discourse-community-knowledge framework to design writing assignments. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from: http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/using-a-discourse-community-knowledge-framework-to-design-writing-assignments/

Guest Contributor, Lori Rand, is an Online Writing Specialist and has taught research and composition courses for over 15 years.

Feedback Focused on Revision

Lori Rand is a guest contributor this week. She has been providing writing support for UNE students since 2009 and has taught English Composition courses for over 15 years. In her current position as an online writing tutor, Lori uses web conferencing to help students practice independent revision and editing.

Today’s post relates to one of the most important ways tutors provide feedback on student writing.

Feedback Focused on Revision

Assessing students on two levels – comprehension of content and communication of ideas through writing – is challenging. Content feedback is usually concrete, but as Olga has written in a past post, giving feedback on writing is not as straightforward. Initial feedback focused on revision vs. editing can significantly help students improve the quality of their writing and thinking.

Instructors who provide feedback on early drafts know the benefits, especially if the writing project is weighted heavily in the final grade. Reviewing even a partial draft can help you catch comprehension and writing problems so you connect students to extra support if they need it.

However, reading those first drafts can be discouraging. Sometimes a paper has so many issues, it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s easy to gravitate toward commenting on grammar and formatting errors in that situation, but that is more editing, which occurs towards the end of the writing process.

Students also often come to us initially with requests for help with grammar and APA formatting. We do work with them to identify error patterns and show them editing strategies, but first we focus on “higher order concerns” or “global revision areas.” Focus, development and organization are three revision areas you are probably already familiar with, and tutors review initial drafts with these questions in mind:

  • Focus – Does the introduction include a thesis statement to address the assignment’s main objective? Does each paragraph explain one idea, and is this idea introduced clearly with a topic sentence?
  • Development – Does each paragraph address part of the assignment prompt with specific information, evidence, appropriately cited? Is more analysis needed?
  • Organization – Are ideas grouped in logical ways? Are transitions used to show relationships between ideas?

These questions may help you provide feedback as well when you are reviewing early drafts.

Feedback focused on revision first can point students in a more specific direction for improving the quality of their writing. As a result, final papers will likely be more thoughtful and better aligned with assignment expectations.

If you have a student who needs help with any phase of the writing process, please direct them to this link:

https://sites.google.com/a/une.edu/learning-assistance-une-portland/social-work-assistance

Feel free to contact Lori Rand at lrand@une.edu for any questions related to student writing.