On Teaching Academic Writing
Stephanie Bell, Associate Director of the Writing Centre and Assistant Professor in the Writing Department
I am often told that there is no time to teach both course content and writing. Additional time would certainly ease this situation. In its absence, though, writing assignments do make writing part of the course content, a part for which there is often little instructional support.
The good news is that content and writing are interrelated. The best writing instruction will equip students to gain a better grasp of course concepts, helping them to emerge from courses as better writers who are more entrenched in the discipline of study. This approach demands that instructors focus on writing process over product.
In a strictly product-oriented approach, student writers receive feedback only as summative evaluation – a grade and, sometimes, comments on the work. This approach places emphasis on aspects of writing that seem incomplete or unpolished, like punctuation and syntax. Unquestionably, teaching such rules would be a distraction from course content.
Process-oriented approaches are marked by formative feedback during the writing process. Providing formative feedback can be a lot of work, but these opportunities allow you to push students along in their grasp of and engagement with course concepts.
To reduce the time commitment involved in providing formative feedback, limit comments to prioritized concerns. When looking at an essay draft, offer only feedback on the one or two concerns most important to the development of the piece, and refrain from marking up sentence-level concerns, doing so may encourage copy editing when substantive revision is required.
Formative feedback provides opportunities to model ways of speaking and constructing knowledge in the field of study or practice. Michael Polanyi’s theory of tacit knowledge suggests that such modeling has much more potential than direct instruction. Polanyi’s conceptualization of tacit knowledge is widely cited though frequently misunderstood. According to the theory, knowledge is ‘tacit’ because it is highly personal. We each understand experiences and things known to us in light of all our other experiences and known things. We are Incapable of extracting from this web of knowledge and recipients are incapable of receiving it except via their personal body of knowledge.
Knowledge, according to Polanyi, is not a gift that can simply be given; it is tacit.
What, then, does Polanyi suggest that we teachers are supposed to do? His answer is to mentor students through realistic experiences – ideally on-the-job apprenticeships. The goal is to create opportunities for students to gain experience and to help them understand those experiences in order to construct the sort of tacit knowledge of an member or practitioner in a field.
Polanyi’s theory of tacit knowledge points to the process approach in an experiential writing assignment as a particularly powerful for teaching writing. Experiential writing tasks – those with fully constructed contexts, purposes, and audiences (hypothetical or real) – have the potential to move students away from seeking rules to asking meaningful questions that lead to productive learning experiences.
In my experience teaching with a blend of process approach and experiential design, students typically feel uncomfortable with the lack of clear direction. They demand to know the rules of my game; they perceive me as the ultimate authority over their written work. However, by helping them work together to read the cues of the writing context – by analyzing model texts, ascertaining audience expectations, and delineating the demands of their topic – they come to see me as an ally and a coach and they begin to take control of their work as any author must. This is crucial for preparing students to tackle writing tasks beyond graduation – where there may not be anyone explaining the template.
Taken together, this post offers the following design principles for writing assignments that have the most potential to enhance students’ (A) grasp of course concepts and (B) ability to participate in disciplinary and professional modes of knowledge construction:
- Experiential – The writing assignment transcends the classroom by supplying context, purpose, audience – even if just hypothetical – appropriate to the intended learning outcomes
- Staged – The writing assignment is assigned in increments, involving formal assessment tasks and/or informal in-class activities
- Developmental – The writing assignment provides for opportunities to revise or move forward in light of meaningful instructor, peer, or additional audience feedback
- Formative – The writing assignment tasks the student writer to become the author of his/her work, in control of making informed decisions regarding structure, style, tone, argumentation strategies…
I’m very interested to hear about your approaches to teaching writing that overcome the limitations of our content-crammed courses and semester system.
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