Each year at the Writing Center, we work with thousands of students at all skill levels and from all disciplines. We’ve learned a lot about how their conceptions of academic writing can inform their responses to an instructor’s assignments, advice, or guidelines. Carolina students have had twelve years or more to accumulate conceptions about what writing in school and for teachers requires. That felt experience is a powerful, although sometimes ill-founded or misdirected, guide. Thus it may be helpful for instructors to have a sense of the range of starting points from which students may approach a writing task.

What follows is a broad range of possibilities, based on our conversations with Carolina students. It doesn’t describe all student writers. It does provide an overview of some of the points of view that may exist in any one classroom at any one time. Strategies for finding more about the writing experiences and attitudes of students in a particular course can be found at the end of the page.

Your students…

  • May always have written assignments the night before they are due.
  • May not be aware of what an “argument” is in the academy. When told that a paper requires an “argument,” “analysis,” “synthesis,” or a “critique,” they may be mystified.
  • May be avid writers on email, social networking sites, and listservs.
  • May not have a good sense of how to read an assignment. They may take the whole assignment as a topic suggestion rather than specific, carefully crafted, directions or requirements. They may ignore the assignment prompt and believe that any comment you make about the assignment in class is the “real” assignment and supersedes (rather than supplements or complements) the prompt.
  • May struggle with completing writing assignments because they are having difficulty digesting course readings assignments in the course.
  • May believe that they will not ever have to write because they are going into the sciences or business.
  • May believe that they are very strong writers—or that they are terrible writers.
  • May get caught up in doing research for a paper. They may have discovered an overwhelming amount of material and have little skill in organizing it.
  • May be seriously invested in becoming strong writers during their college careers and make quick progress as they gain confidence.
  • May dread your rewriting of their prose. They may avoid reading written comments on a paper. This attitude often develops out of past experience with teachers’ harsh, cryptic comments.
  • May be invested in maintaining what they feel is their personal, “signature” writing style. May see your attempts to guide them otherwise as disrespect for their individual voice or their ideas.
  • May not view their instructor as a writer. An instructor who describes his/her writing process and shows a draft of something to students serves as a powerful model and sends a strong message that writing is valued.
  • May seek to emulate the tone and vocabulary of a teacher or the assigned readings. These attempts often result in garbled prose that will make you question students’ basic writing abilities. Sometimes these attempts are actually signs of risk-taking and intellectual growth. Others times, these writers believe that “sounding good” or “sounding smart” is what they are supposed to do.
  • May write convoluted, awkward sentences as they struggle to express complex or new ideas. When their ideas become more sharply focused, their struggles with grammar and mechanics may significantly decrease.
  • May follow rigid “rules” about what they are “allowed” or “not allowed” to write in an academic paper that may not match your assumptions.
  • May have one well-developed skill (e.g. writing summaries or five paragraph themes) that they use as an all-purpose strategy.
  • May not believe that they have any worthwhile ideas on a subject or that they are supposed to express their own ideas in a paper.
  • May never have cited a source in a paper before. While they receive training in citation during required first-year English courses, some first-year students place out of these courses, and others may not yet have covered citation at the time when your assignment is due.
  • May use Google as their primary strategy for finding and sorting information and may not be skilled at evaluating sources.
  • May be simultaneously enrolled in two or more courses that have contradictory “rules” and assumptions about writing. The question “What do you really want us to do?” may be an honest one.
  • May wish they had a chance (or obligation) to get feedback on an early draft of a paper. May appreciate pre-set deadlines throughout the course for turning in topics, outlines, and drafts before the final due date.

Discovering Your Students’ Writing Perspectives

If you are curious about students’ writing experience in a particular course or how they might respond to a particular assignment, ask them about their writing lives. Here are some quick and easy ways to gather their conceptions about writing. Ask your students to:

  • Take five minutes to write an ending to this sentence: Writing is like…
  • Describe their best writing experience and why it was a good one.
  • Guess what role writing may play for them in the future. What kind of writing will they be doing and what skills do they need to begin practicing now?
  • Submit a list of things they’d like to know about you as a writer.
  • Describe what is most difficult for them about writing in school.
  • Tell what they like to write outside of class assignments.
  • Explain what a writing assignment is asking for in their own words.
  • Guess why you designed an assignment in a particular way.
  • Let you know how you could help them to become stronger writers. What have they found helpful? What doesn’t seem to help them as much?
  • Identify the person who has taught them most about writing so far and the most important thing they learned from that person.
  • Say what they think is special about writing is your discipline.
  • Discuss the writing style in the assigned course readings.
  • Make a list of the rules they think should never be broken when writing an academic paper.
  • Describe their ideal writing assignment.

This information gathering could happen a number of different ways:

  • Five-minute in class writing exercises (collect the results and read quickly for your own edification).
  • Questions posted to a discussion board for response.
  • Homework (ask them to write a paragraph response).
  • Asking students to write an answer in class then trade with a neighbor and discuss for 5 minutes.
  • Giving a writing inventory as one assignment during the first week of class.
  • Inviting students to share their “writing histories” in 2-3 pages.

For more information about student writing or to talk with someone about your writing assignments, contact Kimberly Abels kabels@email.unc.edu at the Writing Center.


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