Tip 47: How to Help Students Write Better

I teach developmental composition. In my class, I require 7 essays and 3 rewrites, with a fourth rewrite as optional. Most of the other faculty require between 4 and 6 essays and between 0 and 3 rewrites.

When I was much younger I required 14 essays in a 16-week semester.

I would like to encourage my students to write better, while not having to grade quite so many papers. So when I was reading the CHE forathis post, it caught my attention.

I assign a paper due on the first day of the second week. Five pages based on a unique set of questions over a short book. I mark the s*** out of the student papers and grade them fiercely, using only two grades–B, and Rewrite (sometimes I don’t give any Bs). I prepare a handout of the most common errors, and review them with the class. Then I hand around a piece of my own writing with tons of editor’s marks on it. As the students look it over I talk about the importance of rewriting to the writing process. At this point one student will say “This is going to be bad, isn’t it?” Then, with jokes and encouragement, I hand back the papers. If they got a “Rewrite” they must rewrite the paper, attach the original, and get it back to me in a week. If they got a B they can rewrite if they like. Only the grade on the rewrite counts. “You can all still get an A!” I tell them.

They nearly all do a fine job on the rewritten papers (except for the 10% of the class I lose–bonus!). This reinforces something I have long thought, that most students can write better than they normally do write. You just have to show them the fear.

I usually assign two more 5 page essays during the semester. The second essays are so much better than the first! I still grade them pretty hard and assign a handful of rewrites, but more As. The third essays I just glance and grade, generously.

I see dramatic improvement in student writing over the course of the semester, and even more so when students take multiple courses with me. And the policy has additional benefits–it drives the slackers out of my classes right at the start of the quarter, it causes the rest of the students to prioritize my course over their other classes, and (counterintuitive thought it may seem) it gets me great student evaluations. And nicely written ones as well.

I like this idea. I think I will institute it during my summer class with freshman composition.

It also seems that it would encourage the students to think of themselves as part of the academic discourse community, if I told them about revise and resubmits in publishing.

A different approach, and one I have used for the exact reasons specified, was recommended by another forumite:

One thing that’s worked well for me in the past has been to allow rewrites of papers, but to average the original grade together with the new grade. It works for two reasons: (1) students have an incentive to do well on the original draft in the first place, and (2) the slackers decide that it simply isn’t worth the effort for only a slight grade increase, but it still makes the grade-conscious students happy. In my class of 24 last summer, maybe six students decided to do revisions, and they all did a good job with it.

I require 3 rewrites for my developmental students. They need the help and the experience. I offer them an optional rewrite. I haven’t gotten those yet, so I don’t know how many took me up on it. Based on past experience, I would say not very many.

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