Teaching Writing in First-Year Seminars

As you anticipate teaching a first-year seminar—or any other course in which writing plays a significant role—how do you approach teaching writing? Do you remember your experience as a student writer, sweating over assignments, staying up all night wondering what your instructors wanted, and never quite determining "the point"? Perhaps you are fortunate enough to remember positive writing experiences, and you might even look forward to teaching writing in your own classes, but you wonder how to teach something that is apparently an inherent talent. If you've had an opportunity to assign writing in previous courses, you might be frustrated with the work you've received and you may have resigned yourself to more of the same.

This guide is designed to help you and your students enjoy the benefits of writing instruction and to feel more positive about the writing students produce. The guide promotes a definition of academic writing that involves both instructor and students in a process that begins with formulation of course goals and preparation of related assignments and continues far beyond the last day of class. Sections within this guide address the following frequently asked questions:

How Do I Integrate Writing Into My Course?

Frustration with academic writing often stems from our understanding of what writing involves. Students tend to view academic writing as a grueling but necessary task performed for a grade and disconnected from the rest of their lives. As instructors we might lament the quality of student writing while approaching our own writing with the same distaste our students experience. This is generally because we share, at least to some degree, our students' definition of academic writing.

In contrast to a view of academic writing as an isolated task performed to satisfy the arbitrary demands of a single authority, this site promotes writing as an interactive and ongoing activity that engages a writer and an audience for a clear and significant purpose that helps determine the writer's focus. Purpose, audience, and focus are key elements of the rhetorical context for any piece of writing.

The following sections offer a discussion of rhetorical context as a foundation for making students' writing matter, connecting writing to course content, and reconciling academic and "real world" writing.

Rhetorical Context

Rhetorical context refers to the circumstances surrounding any writing situation and includes purpose, audience, and focus.

Think of a particularly troublesome writing assignment you've faced. You might have had trouble even knowing how to begin. Similarly, you may have heard students complain that they "don't know what to write." Such struggles frequently arise because the writer has not identified the assignment's rhetorical context. One of our jobs as instructors is to provide students with information that will help them identify an assignment's rhetorical context.

The following sections will give you a better understanding of rhetorical context and help you to incorporate that understanding into your writing instruction.


Purpose refers to why a piece of writing is being written. Paradoxically, if your students' sole purpose in completing a writing assignment is to receive a high grade by impressing you as an instructor, you will probably be disappointed in the work they turn in. More earnest students might accept the vague notion that engaging in writing will "be helpful later on," but general academic growth as a purpose does little to provide direction for a particular assignment. Students who write to gain a better grasp of class content, to further explore issues raised in class, to respond to class readings, or to add their voices to a debate surrounding a specific subject will find the writing process more satisfying and will likely produce writing that reflects their engagement. As instructors, we can structure classroom discussions and assignments to encourage such purposes for writing. It's important that we ask ourselves the purpose for any writing assignment and articulate that purpose to our students, both in class and in the assignment description.


Audience, the for whom of any piece of writing, is closely connected to purpose. Consciously or unconsciously, writers use their knowledge of audience in determining purpose. Much academic writing is tailored to an audience of one—the instructor. Do you remember justifying a low grade on a paper by claiming you "didn't know what the instructor was looking for?" The reality is that the instructor is an important member of the audience for student writing. But when we can expand the audience to include classmates, other members of the academic community, Internet readers, and other real or imagined members of the community at large, we add significance to our students' writing—a purpose that extends beyond the exchange of a paper for a grade. Investing our students with a meaningful purpose for an interested audience will help them, in turn, to establish focus.


Focus refers to what is being written about. It involves choosing and maintaining an appropriate topic and degree of detail for a particular purpose and audience. Lack of focus is a common complaint of instructors regarding student writing. If you have assigned writing in the past, you have probably encountered papers that stray from one idea to another without focusing on a single issue or claim. To help students establish focus, consider using an illustration from photography: In focusing a camera, the idea is to obtain a picture of something in particular, with sharp details and perhaps a little background or context. You might encourage students to imagine representing their writing in a photograph—or summarizing it in a single sentence. Remind them that since problems with focus often originate during the planning stage, they might begin the writing process by outlining or taking notes.

A caveat here is that many students entering college are quite familiar with the five-paragraph essay and will interpret focus as an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Emphasize to students that focus should be informed by purpose and audience and is not achieved through a formula. Remember that our purpose as instructors is to foster better writers, not to produce better papers or students who are proficient at reproducing only certain kinds of texts.

Even as students begin to consider purpose and audience, there's no guarantee they'll immediately achieve focused writing. In fact, they may initially lose focus as they depart from familiar blueprints. The suggestions in Making Rhetorical Context Work for You will help you help students through this process.

Making Rhetorical Context Work for You

See below for advice, activities, and writing samples designed to help you and your students understand and effectively navigate rhetorical context.

Introducing Students to Rhetorical Context

The following activities are designed to help students better understand purpose, audience, and focus and to prepare them to address rhetorical context in their writing.

Identifying Your Rhetorical Context As an Assignment Writer

As instructors, we engage in the writing process each time we prepare an assignment sheet for our students. The more effectively we communicate a writing assignment's rhetorical context to our students, the more satisfied we and our students will be with the writing process and the texts produced. This begins with our understanding of the rhetorical context for the assignment sheets we prepare.

A more detailed discussion of assignment writing appears under How Do I Write an Effective Assignment?. In this section, we briefly consider purpose, audience, and focus for assignment writing.

Purpose in Assignment Writing

Perhaps the most important question we can ask ourselves as assignment writers is Why am I administering this assignment? We often overlook the fact that identifying our goals before preparing an assignment sheet will help us to create an assignment that is suited to those goals. Experienced composition instructors recommend starting with a list of goals—a detailed purpose statement—and working backward to design an assignment. For example, if my goal is to enhance students' understanding of a particular reading, I will specify that reading in my assignment sheet. I will probably discourage the use of outside sources and will indicate that students are to focus on the reading's content rather than the quality of writing and on summarizing rather than responding to ideas. It's important not only to determine an assignment's purpose as an instructor, but to communicate the purpose to students in the assignment sheet and in classroom discussion.

Audience in Assignment Writing

Since our students are the audience for any assignment sheet we create, it's important that we consider everything we know about them as we write the assignment. What is their collective exposure to the skills and ideas they will be practicing and exploring in this assignment? What information do they need in order to complete the assignment? What are their concerns as a class? What are their backgrounds and how might those backgrounds affect their understanding of and response to the assignment? Factors such as age, race, gender, religious belief, and economic background can have a significant impact on students' response to an assignment. Putting ourselves in the position of our students will help us to frame assignments more effectively.

Focus in Assignment Writing

Even if we've communicated an assignment's purpose to our students, they'll most likely assess the focus of our assignment sheets in determining what and how to write. If, for example, I explain that an assignment's purpose is to engage students in a debate about a subject but focus on citation formats in my assignment sheet, I am likely to receive more research papers than argument essays. Similarly, if I focus on format issues such as margins, font size, and word count, my students will probably focus as much attention on these issues as they do on the content of their writing. As with any kind of writing, the focus of an assignment sheet should reflect the purpose of the assignment.

Establishing Rhetorical Context Within Assignments

Having discussed rhetorical context in class, you may want to organize assignment sheets in terms of purpose, audience, and focus. This will reinforce rhetorical concepts discussed in class and will assist students in moving from those abstract concepts to concrete application. Students will be more likely to shape their writing according to purpose, audience, and focus than to start with a form (like the five-paragraph essay) and fill it with a set number of words or pages.

The following sample assignment demonstrates how an assignment sheet can be arranged in terms of purpose, audience, and focus.

Making Students' Writing Matter

Students are busy people. Many are trying to balance a full course load, extracurricular activities, an on- or off-campus job, and relationships with family and friends. Competing responsibilities require them to prioritize, and students are not likely to invest much time or energy in something for which they see little long-term significance. Our challenge as instructors is to make students' writing matter. When the rhetorical context of a writing assignment extends beyond the exchange of a paper for a grade, students see that their writing matters beyond an individual assignment or class. Consider the following suggestions for making students' writing matter:

Beginning with Course Objectives

Just as the best place to start designing an individual writing assignment is by identifying assignment goals, the best place to start making course writing matter is by identifying course objectives. Why does your course matter? Make writing matter for the same reasons. For example, if I am teaching a course called Science and Society, my objectives might be to encourage students to analyze what the media reports about science, rather than receiving all coverage at face value. I might want students to recognize science as something we have created and to which we have assigned meaning, rather than accepting science as a universal and unchanging truth. In my course, then, I am encouraging students to think critically, analyze arguments, and challenge their own assumptions. These same skills contribute to and are fostered by the writing process. By communicating course objectives to students and tying writing to course goals, we can help students see how writing supports lasting academic and intellectual growth.

Designing Rhetorical Contexts That Reflect the Real World

Tying writing to course goals will only motivate students if they accept the value of the course. Generally, this means seeing a connection between the course and the "real world." A well-designed writing assignment is one of the most effective tools instructors can use to connect course goals to the world at large. The rhetorical context of a writing assignment can demonstrate practical applications of course content and of skills developed through course activities, including writing. Our challenge is to design rhetorical contexts for writing assignments that reflect the outside world. Here are some examples of rhetorical contexts that connect various academic disciplines to the world at large:

  • For an engineering course, have students write a proposal, a user's manual, or an advertisement for a new product, targeting an audience of general users or a funding committee with only a basic understanding of design principles.
  • For a political science course, have students write a paper analyzing a political campaign for a particular group of voters—say, college-aged voters who will read this report in a nationally syndicated column published in campus newspapers.
  • For a philosophy course, have students write an opinion paper that will be read in a court case regarding an issue stemming from philosophical differences—privacy rights or intellectual property, for example.
  • For a physical science course, have students write an article explaining an area of current research to readers of a general interest magazine such as Newsweek or Life.
  • For a literature course, have students write a report to academic and public librarians explaining the worldview and cultural aspects informing a particular book and suggesting displays and programs that might help librarians promote and lead discussions about the book.
  • For a visual arts course, have students write a visitor's guide to a museum display of works by a particular artist, from a certain period, or representing a particular culture or movement.

Assigning Writing That Will Reach a Wide Audience

In addition to creating "real world" rhetorical contexts for writing assignments that will in reality be read by a classroom audience, we can give students' writing even greater immediate significance by submitting it to outside audiences. Depending on the nature of your course and assignment and on practical factors such as time and geography, you might assign specific audiences or allow students to select their own. Students might work individually or in groups to write letters to an editor or official, grant proposals for use by local organizations, articles for campus or community newspapers, reference guides for the Web, or public service announcements for television or radio broadcast. Cooperation with outside audiences will require advanced preparation on our part as instructors, but the benefit in advancing course and writing goals will generally far outweigh our investment.

Connecting Writing to Course Content

To make students' writing matter, an instructor must connect it to the content of a course and communicate to students why the course matters. Most instructors, particularly those with little experience teaching writing, have given more thought to why their courses matter than to connecting writing to course objectives. The distinctions we tend to draw between academic disciplines might make it difficult to see any connection between teaching writing and teaching a specific subject, and requirements to assign writing might be intimidating or frustrating. While it might be tempting to avoid teaching writing, remember that well-designed writing assignments are among the most effective means of advancing course goals and connecting those goals to the world at large. The following questions are provided, therefore, to offer guidance in connecting writing to course content.

Where Do I Encounter Writing as a Practitioner in My Field?

The writing we encounter relating to our fields can provide rhetorical context for writing assignments, particularly if we think beyond academic journals and other academic publications to sources students might encounter in everyday life. For example, consider writing that relates to your field in the news media, in advertising, on the Internet, and in brochures and pamphlets. Integrating these sources into the rhetorical context of writing assignments (having students write a letter to an editor, say, or a user's guide of some sort) not only shows students how writing matters outside the classroom, but it demonstrates how course content and overall course goals relate to students' everyday life.

Who in My Field Needs Writing?

In almost any field, there is a need for writing that is not easily funded by existing sources. For example, if I'm teaching a human development course I might know of a family services agency that needs someone to write a grant proposal or an informational booklet for clients. If I teach an environmental science course, I might know of an activist group that needs support in a letter-writing campaign. If an issue related to my course has been misrepresented in the media, I might see a need for editorial letters offering a more accurate representation. If I have noted the lack of a general reference site related to my subject on the Internet, I might recognize the need for a comprehensive Web site. Any of these real needs can translate into a real audience for student writing, while enhancing students' respect for the significance of course content.

Caveats in Assigning Writing for Real Audiences

Assigning writing for real audiences is extremely effective in making writing and overall course content matter to students. However, several caveats should be considered before administering such an assignment:

  • Be sure to do your background work before introducing the assignment to students. Contact outside agencies, if applicable, look into editorial guidelines, establish Internet space for a classroom Web site, etc.
  • Give students opportunities to write in support of their own point of view. For example, if assigning an editorial, allow students to express their own viewpoints relating to the subject under consideration. If assigning a grant proposal or letter for a letter writing campaign, allow students to choose from a list of previously contacted agencies representing a variety of perspectives.
  • If you can't guarantee publication of students' writing, don't imply otherwise. Give students relevant information for checking the status of their submissions while reminding them to respect agencies' time and personnel constraints and discouraging them from damaging the agencies' relationship with the class.

What Am I Asking Students to Read?

The reading you assign in class might provide a model for the writing you ask students to complete. Additionally, it will give students a better understanding of the complexities and implications of course content and can itself provide the focus for a writing assignment—writing about reading. Probably the most common type of academic writing assignment, writing about reading can enhance students' understanding of course concepts, can promote critical reading skills, and can prepare students for assignments that will require them to select their own topics. When assigning writing about reading, however, be careful to communicate the purpose of the assignment. Are they to summarize the reading? Respond to its content by agreeing or disagreeing? Compare the author's perspective to other perspectives discussed in the course? Also, don't neglect to communicate the rhetorical context of even such a traditional assignment. Consider asking students to summarize the reading for a future group of students or a campus publication. If they are responding to a reading, have them write a letter to the author or to another reviewer who has commented on the reading. For further advice on assigning writing about reading, see the teaching guide about helping students summarize and respond to texts.

Challenging the Dichotomy Between Academic and Real World Writing

Much of this guide addresses connections between academic and "real world" writing. Students, like many of the rest of us, will often subscribe to a dichotomy between academia and the rest of the world that includes sharp distinctions between academic and real world writing. In addition to the suggestions offered in previous sections of this unit, the following ideas will help you challenge these distinctions.

Examining the Dichotomy

College undergraduates might not be consciously aware that a dichotomy exists between academia and the rest of the world. When asked to examine their assumptions about academia, they might be surprised to discover such a dichotomy in their thinking. Awareness of assumptions allows us to examine them, questioning their source and validity. Join students in asking where our distinctions come from and whether it's necessary or beneficial to conceive of academic and "real world" endeavors as separate. These questions might lead to conclusions that dispel invalid and unproductive distinctions.

Assigning Multiple Writing Forms

Many of the writing assignment ideas referred to in this guide offer students opportunities to write in multiple forms. While research papers and writing about reading remain among the most common forms assigned in college courses, forms such as Web writing, public service announcements, letters, brochures, and editorials can bridge the perceived gap between our course and real life, between academic and real world writing. Because these forms tend to involve rhetorical contexts that extend beyond the classroom, they invite students to consider that our courses are real life and academic writing is real world writing.

Integrating Journal Writing

Like other forms that provide alternatives to traditional academic papers, journal entries can help students see how their writing matters, connect writing to course content, and resist distinctions between academia and the rest of the world. The difference between journal writing and other forms is that students are more inclined to see themselves as a significant audience for journal writing, while the audience will generally not include persons outside the classroom. Without the expectation that journal entries will be polished and turned in for a grade, students are freer to reflect on course topics, departing from one train of thought to another as they develop a fuller understanding of issues and concepts. Often described as "personal" writing, journal writing invites students to make personal connections with course content and demonstrates how course content, writing, and personal concerns overlap.

If you choose to incorporate journal writing into your course, be sure to identify in advance how you will use this form. When will you as an instructor read entries and how will you keep students accountable for participating? Will other students read any or all of the entries? Will journal writing take place during class, as a take-home assignment, or a combination of both? How restrictive will you be in assigning journal topics? For additional advice on integrating journal writing, see the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Teaching with Journals guide. (This link will take you to another site.)

Introducing Opportunities for Ungraded Writing

Journal writing frees students to make personal connections to course content in part because it is ungraded. Consider introducing additional opportunities for ungraded writing to foster student reflection and to reconcile course writing and content with the world beyond the classroom. Here are some ideas:

  • Collect preliminary drafts of assignments. Provide comments and points for completion, but don't grade the drafts. (For more detailed discussion on the importance of assigning drafts, see the following section on effective assignments.)
  • Have students post to a discussion board or participate in chat sessions. Because they are likely familiar with these forms of writing, they will be less concerned with "getting it right" and more able to focus on course concepts. In practice, they will be crossing the perceived barrier between academic and other kinds of writing.
  • Assign short in-class writing assignments, such as reading summaries, group discussion notes, observations, or questions for future classroom visitors. Students might complete these assignments in their classroom journals or turn them in separately.

How Do I Write an Effective Assignment?

Students' successful completion of a writing assignment begins with an assignment for the instructor: the creation of a detailed assignment description. It is not enough to announce in class that students should write "a paper about one aspect of the Roman Empire" or to list in the syllabus: "Turn in research paper on Renaissance artist of your choice." Students' response to such vague instructions will be varied at best. At worst, students and instructor will be frustrated over the time spent writing and reading scores of pages that contribute little to course goals.

An effective assignment description contains as much detail as is necessary to communicate to students the assignment's purpose and the steps students must take to achieve that purpose and to receive a favorable evaluation. The following sections detail the assignment writing process and direct instructors to additional assistance and resources.

Assignment Writing Process: Working Backward from Goals

To create an assignment that is likely to produce strong student writing, composition instructors recommend starting with the ideal response to the assignment and working backward from those model papers. Although the process may seem awkward at first, students will welcome the specificity of the resulting assignment description and instructors will welcome the papers students produce in response. The following questions will help facilitate the process of working backward from goals:

What do I want my students' papers to look like?

Before designing a writing assignment, it is essential to articulate goals for the assignment as clearly and concretely as possible. For example, will the assignment help students learn course material or writing conventions in the discipline—or both?

Assignment goals will guide every choice regarding assignment design. A preliminary list of goals allows us to address such questions as:

  • What writing products (e.g., research papers, reading summaries, reports) will meet assignment goals and will suit my teaching style and preferences? Will formal or informal writing better meet these goals?
  • What specific skills will contribute to the final product and how can I foster those skills through classroom instruction and the assignment itself?
  • How can I sequence activities (e.g., reading, researching, writing) to build toward a final product that demonstrates progress toward particular goals?

You will notice that these questions suggest a broader understanding of writing assignments than we usually consider. A writing assignment can be understood as a series of stages that enhance larger course goals while moving students toward a final product that demonstrates progress toward some of those goals. This understanding is further explored in the following section on positioning an assignment within the class.

Where will this assignment fit among other parts of the class?

There are two major benefits to understanding a writing assignment as a series of stages that enhance larger course goals while moving students toward a final product that demonstrates progress toward some of those goals: 1) Greater appreciation of the relationship between course and assignment goals and 2) Closer attention to specific assignment details and their combined role in advancing goals.

The following steps will guide you in positioning assignments within your class.

  • Reviewing assignment goals articulated in the previous step, note how assignment goals contribute to overall course goals. If the connection is unclear, assignment goals may need to be revised.
  • Having identified the final product (e.g., research paper, reading summary, report) that best supports assignment goals, consider how the assignment might be broken into stages. For example, observation notes, reading outlines, proposals, and preliminary drafts might all represent stages on the way toward the final product.
  • Supplement the assignment with resources and activities that will contribute to students' progress toward assignment goals. For example, provide format models and samples of strong, average, and weak papers. Schedule peer review sessions, when students can exchange drafts and assist one another in the writing process.
  • Recognizing that writing is a process rather than a product, allow opportunities for revision. These opportunities are best scheduled before a final draft is due. However, thoughtfully assigned revision of graded papers supports an understanding of writing as a process and might ease students' frustration over sincere but unsuccessful attempts to master that process.
  • Consult the course syllabus to schedule due dates of all notes, outlines, proposals, and drafts, as well as the final product. Make sure due dates are preceded by necessary skills instruction and classroom discussions.

How can I translate goals into an effective assignment?

A key step in translating goals into an effective assignment is to communicate goals to students. The assignment description should include a statement of assignment goals and should indicate how those goals relate to overall course goals. In addition to instructions for assignment stages (notes, drafts, etc.) and clear statements of due dates, the description should explain how all stages work together to support assignment and course goals.

Having articulated goals to students, you can further develop an effective assignment by identifying a rhetorical context for students' writing. Imagine a real setting and a real audience for writing that achieves assignment goals. For example, if my goal is to deepen students' understanding of a controversial issue and to foster analytical and persuasive writing skills, I might ask students to write a hypothetical editorial column for a national magazine. If available, I might even provide a real audience for student writing—perhaps readers of a local or campus newspaper that publishes editorials.

To read more about rhetorical context for writing assignments, see the Rhetorical Context section of this guide.

What choices in style and format will contribute to the purpose of the assignment?

As instructors we are familiar with conventions of academic writing and writing in our fields. It's easy to assume that students will observe the conventions we take for granted, but such assumptions generally leave students floundering with style and format concerns that compromise their attention to larger assignment goals. The following questions will help you create an assignment description that details every element of the writing task.

  • What background reading, interviews, experience, or other preparation will expose students to style and format conventions, as well as preparing them to meet larger goals?
  • What do students need to know about citing outside sources? When they understand the purpose and importance of citation, what citation format are they to use?
  • What documents should accompany students' final written product? For example, should they turn in notes, outlines, drafts, or peer review comments (whether or not they've been submitted previously)?
  • How can I best support assignment and course goals through specifications about word and page count, margins, and font size? Does my assignment description clearly communicate these specifications (or my flexibility regarding these format decisions)?

Though it's important to inform students of style and format requirements, we want to avoid emphasizing the cosmetic over the substantive. Working backwards from assignment and course goals will naturally shift our focus from cosmetic concerns. The assignments we design should maintain a global focus by highlighting the process that will advance overall goals and downplaying style and format requirements. If the specifications we've indicated don't advance assignment or course goals, we might consider revising our specifications.

How Will I Evaluate Students' Completed Writing?

The section of this guide devoted to responding to student writing addresses this question in greater detail. For the purposes of this section, remember that our evaluations should assess students' progress toward the goals we've established for the assignment. In addition to communicating goals, our assignment description should tell students how their work will be evaluated and how this particular assignment will contribute to their overall course evaluation.

Support from the Writing Center

In addition to hosting workshops and online tutorials, writing centers typically offer services tailored to individual instructors' needs:

  • Consultation on writing assignment design
  • Consultation on curriculum design
  • Visits to individual classrooms to present workshops suited to class needs

Instructor Resources

The checklists and models that folllow are offered as additional guidance in designing effective writing assignments.

Assignment Writing Checklists

Select from the following list to view assignment writing checklists designed by CSU composition faculty and other writing professionals.

Sample Assignments

The following list provides access to sample assignments from a variety of disciplines.

How Do I Assign Research?

College-level instructors of all disciplines often choose—and, in the case of many first-year seminars, might be required—to assign research papers. Students and instructors alike are tempted to regard the research paper as a species entirely different from other writing assignments. While the research paper introduces additional skills such as library navigation and source documentation, designing a research assignment still requires instructors to work backwards from goals and to establish a rhetorical context that addresses goals and connects the assignment to the class as a whole.

That being said, an awareness of the particular challenges students might encounter in conducting and communicating research will help us address those challenges and enhance students' research writing experience.

The following sections contain suggestions on guiding students through the research writing process.

Framing the Assignment

In addition to establishing rhetorical context and positioning the assignment within the course as a whole, consider the following suggestions for framing a research assignment.

Outlining Objectives

Creating any assignment requires us as instructors to outline our objectives. In a research assignment, it is important that we communicate to students our research objectives, as well as objectives for more general writing and academic skills. For example, would we like students to learn to frame a research question? Would we like them to acquire library research skills, using online databases and other Internet sources? When research objectives are communicated among other assignment goals, students are less likely to approach research as the summarizing of collected information.

Establishing Research Questions

Most students entering college will understand research as collecting information on a topic and reporting their findings to an instructor. We can encourage students to engage in their research by prompting them to think in terms of a research question. Rather than starting with a topic and then conducting a search for any relevant information, ask students to start with a question that will guide the entire research process. For example, rather than researching the topic of inclusive education, a student might start with the question: Does inclusive education best serve students with disabilities? Even a research assignment that is primarily informative in purpose can start with a research question. Rather than starting with the topic of Elizabethan drama, for example, a student might ask: How was Elizabethan drama shaped by culture?

Helping Students Focus Their Research

Because the vastness of available information often intimidates students, it is particularly challenging for college writers to narrow their focus for research assignments. The research questions suggested in the assignments, for example, are a step away from the topical approach, but they are too broad for most college writing assignments.

How do we move students from Does inclusive education best serve students with disabilities? and How was Elizabethan drama shaped by culture? to, say, Does inclusive education in high school prepare developmentally disabled students for future vocational pursuits? and How did Elizabethan religious thought shape the tragedies of William Shakespeare? First, a clear communication of the assignment's rhetorical context will help students define a focus. In addition, we can emphasize the importance of such factors as accessibility of research sources, time allowed for research, and suitability of available sources to rhetorical context. Consideration of these factors will steer students away from preliminary research questions that are too narrow as well as those that are too broad.

As instructors, we can help students focus their research by not limiting their choices more than is necessary. For example, if we've limited the kinds of sources students can use, we should be certain that there are plenty of allowable sources available that are appropriate to the rhetorical context. If the rhetorical context asks students to engage in a current debate, we are unfair to require that students use only books as their research sources. With instruction on assessing source reliability, students can find information in an online database or on the World Wide Web that is more appropriate to some rhetorical contexts than what they can find in books.

Introducing Library Research

The following sections discuss suggestions on introducing your students to library research.

Bringing Students to the Library

The size of an academic library can inhibit students from even entering the building. Students are far more likely to access the library on their own if they have first visited and learned to navigate it as part of a class. As instructors, we can facilitate student library use by conducting tours and planning class sessions—research days, for example—that take place in the library.

Many libraries offer tours and orientation sessions tailored specifically to individual courses.

Recognizing the Library As More Than Just Books

Though the physical space of most libraries might still consist primarily of books and other print sources, these sources represent an ever decreasing portion of the information available to library users. In addition to physical book and periodical collections, academic libraries offer users access to the following sources of information that are essential to many research projects.

Electronic Databases

Thanks to electronic sources, researchers can quickly locate and evaluate articles relevant to their areas of inquiry and can often download the full text of articles not contained in their library's physical periodicals collection. CSU Libraries subscribes to a wide variety of databases indexing academic journals from multiple disciplines. These electronic collections provide timely access to current information that cannot be matched by physical collections.

Electronic Books

Through netLibrary, users of member academic libraries can check out electronic versions of books not contained in their institutions' physical collections. CSU Libraries participates in the netLibrary program, providing users electronic access to thousands of scholarly, reference, and professional books from major commercial publishers and university presses.

Interlibrary Loan

An early introduction to interlibrary loan programs will allow students to take advantage of these programs in the preliminary stages of research, when they can experience the greatest benefit. Students who wait until a few days before a draft is due to gather information, however, will seldom benefit from interlibrary loan.

Assigning Web Research

Awareness of the lack of controls and resulting unreliability of much of what is published on the World Wide Web might incline us toward prohibiting Web research altogether. However, some types of information are more readily found on the Web than anywhere else. Rather than precluding Web research, we can set parameters that will promote the use of reliable sources. For example, we might require that all Web sites consulted be connected to a reliable print source (such as Time or Newsweek), organization (like the Alzheimer's Association or PETA), government agency (such as the USDA or National Park Service), or institution (a school or medical research facility, for example). We might assign students to submit a source list for our approval before paper drafts are due, allowing us to review the appropriateness of sources and to redirect students if necessary.

In addition to the above suggestions, we can provide instruction to build students' Web research skills. The following links contain suggestions for providing Web instruction.

Conducting a Web Tutorial

If possible, arrange to a conduct a class session in a computer lab or bring a laptop and projector into class. Before class, prepare a list of links to good, average, and poor Web sources. Ask students to evaluate pre-selected Web sites in class, focusing on their appropriateness as research sources. When students have completed their evaluations individually or in groups, lead a discussion highlighting various indicators of a Web source's reliability, such as: connection to a reputable print source or affiliation, the site's citation of other sources, links to other reliable sites, and endorsements by professional organizations or Web monitoring groups.

As an alternative to designing your own tutorial, consider scheduling a Web evaluation session through your library.

Administering Source Evaluation Assignments

To provide additional practice in evaluating Web sources, prepare a list of sources and design an assignment requiring students to evaluate them. The assignment might ask students to rank the sources, evaluate them in terms of certain criteria, or answer true or false, fill-in-the-blank, or short-answer questions regarding the sources' reliability. Whether or not the assignment receives a grade, provide feedback regarding each students' responses. Those responses might be used to facilitate further classroom discussion on evaluating sources.

Introducing Documentation

Before we ask students to observe the conventions of any documentation style, it is important that they understand why documentation is necessary and how to determine what to document. Without this background, many students will approach documentation either as a pointless activity designed to increase grading opportunities or as an entirely new language indecipherable to unpublished writers. With sufficient background, on the other hand, students will more readily grasp the mechanics of source documentation. View the following for suggestions on increasing your students' fluency in documentation.

Teaching Students Why to Document

Perhaps the best way to familiarize students with the importance of documentation is to call their attention to the use of documentation in course readings. As they read, ask students to note reasons the author might have had for documenting his or her sources. Possible reasons might be to give proper credit, to create a context for his or her ideas, to demonstrate the quality and quantity of his or her research, to build credibility with readers, to distinguish his or her original ideas from the ideas of others, and to avoid plagiarism. Allow students to complete their own lists and then ask them to share their observations as a class. Supplement the class list with suggestions from above or with ideas from your own list.

Teaching Students What to Document

Just as reading the writing of others can help students appreciate the importance of documentation, engaging in such reading also familiarizes students with general documentation protocol. In addition to noting authors' reasons for documenting, ask students to list the kinds of information documented—information such as quotations, paraphrased or summarized ideas, debatable or little known facts, statistics and other quantifiable data, unique phrasing or terminology, and others' opinions or assertions. Again, lead a classroom conversation on students' findings.

Point out to students that the reasons for documenting and decisions regarding what to document are closely related. As students better appreciate this relationship through exposure to and practice with documentation, they will more easily avoid common mistakes such as dropping quotes into their papers without context. They will also move more readily toward mastery of a particular documentation style.

Teaching Students How to Document

Once students have a general understanding of the need for documentation, the criteria used in determining what to document, and the way the relationship between these two factors guides the incorporation of documentation into their writing, they are ready to practice their understanding through the use of a particular documentation style. See below for suggestions on teaching specific documentation styles.

Documentation Styles

Just as our overall course goals guide our designing of assignments and other course materials, our goals for students as they relate to documentation will guide our decisions regarding particular documentation styles. If all or most of our students have chosen similar majors, one of our goals might be to acquaint them with the documentation style most commonly used in their discipline. In that case, we might require all students to use MLA, APA, Chicago, or another specific style. This approach has the additional benefit of allowing us to evaluate a style with which we are familiar and to utilize one set of standards in evaluating students' use of documentation.

If, on the other hand, our students represent a variety of academic backgrounds and potential majors, our goal might be to provide further practice with a documentation style to which they've already been introduced and/or to equip them for their individual academic and professional writing goals. In this case, students will benefit from our willingness to allow them to choose the documentation style with which they are most comfortable and that they are most likely to encounter in future writing situations.

Whatever our decision regarding documentation style, it's important that we make our students aware of the various styles available and of the importance of audience in selecting a style. Encourage them to ascertain the style required by whatever situation they're writing for and show them how to find guidelines for each style. The writing guides referred to later in this guide are a good place to start.

In-Text Documentation

In general, documentation consists of two parts: in-text documentation and end documentation.

In-text documentation alerts readers to the referencing of borrowed information. Common methods of in-text documentation are parenthetical references, footnotes, and endnotes. Students should know which method is appropriate to their chosen documentation style.

Classroom assignments can help students practice the use of in-text documentation. Giving students a paragraph or two of text and a list of research gathered from various sources, ask them to incorporate documentation into the prepared text. This same assignment can help students practice end documentation (discussed in the next section) by completing a works cited or references page corresponding to the sources they've documented in the text.

End Documentation

End documentation usually appears in the form of a works cited, literature cited, or references list page. Again, students will need to know which method is required for the documentation style they've selected. We should also help students to see the correspondence between in-text and end documentation. An assignment like the one described in the previous section will help students see this connection and practice the conventions of their style.

Students are likely to be particularly concerned about documenting Internet sources, information retrieved from online databases, and other alternatives to traditional print sources. As instructors, we should be sure to include these kinds of sources in practice activities and to familiarize ourselves with corresponding documentation conventions. A print or online guide (such as those listed in the next section) can help us and our students properly document alternative sources.

Documentation Guides

The following documentation guides are available online to help us and our students apply and evaluate documentation conventions:

Discouraging Plagiarism

Discussion of documentation creates an opportunity for us as instructors to discourage plagiarism in our students' work. Students often plagiarize because they are unaware that what they are doing qualifies as academic dishonesty, and our introduction to documentation—emphasizing why and what to document—can increase their appreciation of intellectual integrity.

Plagiarism might also occur when students are intimidated by an assignment. The suggestions contained throughout this guide will help you to create an environment in which students feel confident in their ability to respond to a writing situation. In addition, the following ideas will further discourage plagiarism:

  • Acquaint students with a comprehensive definition of plagiarism. Students have often received the idea that plagiarizing means quoting verbatim without giving credit. A broader understanding acknowledges that extensive paraphrasing or claiming someone else's ideas can also qualify as plagiarism.
  • Teach students about rhetorical context to discourage them from lifting someone else's ideas or even turning in an entirely plagiarized paper. Students are less likely to resort to these measures if they realize that someone else's writing is less suited to the current assignment than to the rhetorical context in which it originally appeared.
  • More importantly, teach students about rhetorical context to equip them to address a writing assignment that might otherwise seem daunting. We want students to view writing assignments not as traps, but as part of a process in which they are equipped to engage.
  • Require documentation of the research process and assess students' progress. This creates opportunities to head off intentional and unintentional instances of plagiarism before they occur.
  • Refer students to any of the online guides listed below for further discussion of plagiarism and how to avoid it:

All links listed on this page will take you to other sites.

For additional advice to instructors, visit Penn State University's guide to detecting plagiarism.

What is Peer Review and How Do I Use It?

One way for instructors to move beyond assigning writing to teaching writing is to allow students to read and discuss each other's writing in peer-review workshops. As you create writing assignments, plan for peer review. As suggested in the discussion on assignment writing, preparing peer review guides along with the assignment sheet itself will allow both to work together to promote the same goals.

Peer Review Why

Peer-review workshops serve many useful functions for student writers, most notably:

  • They provide writers with real readers who must make sense of the writing.
  • They help writers improve their reading/critical analysis skills.
  • They, most obviously, help writers improve their writing skills and final products.

Peer Review How

Use the strategies and sample worksheets provided through the following links to help your students get the most out of peer review.

Specifying Peer-Review Tasks

Open review sessions, in which students imagine themselves as members of the target audience and give "reader response" reactions, are not recommended. It's most effective to have students review particular features of a paper. As instructors, we need to make sure those tasks are clear and precise. Although tasks can be listed on an overhead or board, students often prefer a worksheet that notes specific objectives. If students can compose their commentary on a word processor, they are likely to write more extensive comments. Take advantage of computer supports whenever possible.

The following sample handouts can help specify peer-review tasks.

Sequencing Peer-Review Tasks

When asked to examine particular features of a paper, students often feel most comfortable moving through a sequence from simply identifying a feature to evaluating it to suggesting revisions. Especially if you give students multiple peer-review opportunities, consider using progressive workshop sheets, building on tasks required in previous workshop sheets. Label the level of each task clearly so that students know if they are to identify features or suggest revisions.

The following items appear in sequence on a peer-review worksheet distributed to a freshman composition class. Notice how the instructions move students from identifying a thesis to evaluating it to suggesting revisions:

  1. Mark and label the writer's thesis in the draft. In the space below, "unpack" the thesis.
  2. Is the thesis clearly debatable? Suggest one way the thesis might be narrowed or focused, if necessary.

Modeling How to Use Workshop Criteria

Although most students will have had experience with peer review in writing classes in high school and freshman composition, students can still benefit from understanding each teacher's expectations of the peer-review session. One of the most effective techniques is to provide a sample student paper (either as a handout or on overhead transparencies) and to elicit class comments on each point on your workshop sheet. Instructors can then elaborate on points students bring up or clarify the writing skills the points on the workshop sheet are designed to help students review.

Modeling Effective Commenting

The least helpful comment to receive from a peer reviewer is "It looks OK to me." We want students to find strengths or positive features in a draft, but we need to encourage them to be as specific as possible, about both strengths and weaknesses.

Other points of which you should remind students as you model giving effective commentary in peer review:

  • Always point out strengths as well as elements that need more work.
  • Try to attend to larger issues first (audience, purpose, organization, detail, etc.). Talk about sentences, word choices, and punctuation only later in the peer-review process.
  • Be specific. Point to particular places in the paper where revision will be helpful.
  • Don't hesitate to respond as a reader, especially early in the review process; for example:
    • I got confused here.
    • I saw your point clearly here.
    • I was convinced by your example or analogy or argument.
  • If you disagree with the comments of another peer reviewer, say so. Not all readers react the same ways, and divergent points of view can help writers see options for revising.
  • Make comments in a spirit of helpfulness. Take comments in a spirit of helpfulness.

Modeling How to Handle Divergent Advice

Remind students that they are responsible for the final drafts they submit to you, but that they should carefully weigh each comment they receive from a peer reviewer. Comments that suggest radically different revisions of the same part of a paper generally help writers see various ways to revise but may confuse students about what to do. Students need not choose one of the suggested revisions, but they should note that multiple suggestions pointed at the same part of a paper typically highlight a place where some revision is necessary.

Thinking About Logistics

The logistics of peer review are generally simple, but they do require some forethought. If you want students to read papers in a round-robin exercise or to exchange papers with one other student, you don't need to require any photocopying. But if you want each student to read three other papers, make sure you remind students to bring three copies of their papers to class on the day of the exchange.

You can let students pick their own peer-review partners or group members, but you might also consider assigning peer reviewers based on your knowledge of students' writing and editing skills.

If you hold in-class peer-review sessions, circulate during the session to make sure students are on track and to intervene as necessary. Also, save a few minutes at the end of the session to discuss common problems facing the class as a whole.

The instructions below are part of a worksheet distributed during a freshman composition peer-review workshop. Note how the instructions on this sample worksheet address logistics:

Providing Adequate Time

The longer the paper or the more complex the criteria, the longer students will take to complete a thorough peer review. If you assign shorter papers, you can easily devote a part of a class to peer review or ask students to complete the peer review outside of class. But if you assign long, complex papers, consider breaking the peer review into several short sections. For instance, students might complete one peer reading looking just for problems with focus, another for weaknesses in organization and development, and still another on assignment-specific elements such as use of data or graphics. Finally, students might have an additional peer-review session devoted exclusively to mechanics.

Also, think about the big picture of your syllabus. Students need enough time to complete the peer review and revise before the paper is due, so work backwards from your intended due date to schedule the peer workshops.

Visit the following links to view how peer-review instructions might vary according to the time you have allowed for the peer-review process:

Building in Incentives for Helpful Comments

If students don't see the value of peer review, they are unlikely to spend much time reviewing others' papers or to take peer advice seriously. The most effective way to encourage students to take peer review seriously, both as the reviewer and as the writer, is to include effective peer review as part of the overall grade for the paper. As an instructor, skimming peer review comments will take just a few minutes (even for multiple reviews of complex papers), and you'll quickly see which students provided the most helpful commentary. Alternatively, you can ask students to rank their peer reviewers and base the peer review part of grade on peer ratings.

If you're uncomfortable weighing the quality of peer reviewing in the paper grade, consider dividing the course grade to include a separate class participation or peer-reviewing grade.

Handout for Effective Peer Review

Consider distributing or adapting the following handout to share with students to encourage effective peer-review strategies:

All writers, even professional writers, need others to read and comment on their writing. As writers, we're often too close to our work to spot problems a helpful reader can point out. In order to benefit from the insight of such a reader, follow these strategies:

  1. Come to the workshop with your best possible draft.
  2. Alert your reader to any concerns you have before they begin to read.
  3. Ask questions and take notes as you're discussing your writing.
  4. Try not to get defensive. Be grateful for your reader's time and attention.
  5. At the same time, don't feel obligated to take all of your reader's advice. Remember that readers' opinions may differ and that you're ultimately responsible for your paper.

Remember that your role as a writer is only part of your workshop contribution. The above strategies are most effective when your paper is reviewed by a helpful reader. You have an opportunity to be that kind of reader for others by observing the following guidelines as you review their writing:

  1. Ask the writer what you can be looking for as you read their essay.
  2. Read the writer's essay carefully.
  3. Respond as a reader, pointing out where things don't make sense, read smoothly, etc.
  4. Be positive. Point out strengths as well as weaknesses, and be sensitive in how you phrase your criticism ("Could you clarify this section?" rather than "Your organization is a mess.")
  5. Be honest. Don't say something works when it doesn't. You're not helping the writer if you avoid mentioning a problem.
  6. Be specific. Rather than simply saying a paragraph is "confusing," for example, try to point to a specific phrase that confuses you and, if possible, explain why that phrase is problematic.
  7. Focus on one or two major areas for revision.

How Do I Respond to Student Writing?

The prospect of responding to student writing might overwhelm us as instructors because we feel obligated to correct every conceivable error in every paper. This approach overwhelms our students as well and often denies us an opportunity to continue teaching writing through the evaluation process. The following sections will help you make the most of the time you spend commenting on student writing, benefiting you by increasing your efficiency and benefiting your students by directing them toward areas in which they can experience the greatest growth as writers.

Emphasizing the Drafting Process

Students and instructors alike tend to view a piece of writing as the final version, particularly if it will receive a grade. When commenting on an early draft it might be natural to emphasize changes that will produce more effective future drafts. But even when evaluating a so-called final draft, we can direct our comments toward future writing situations. Explain how the writing strategies that would have improved a particular paper will apply to other assignments and non-academic projects. It might also be beneficial to allow students to revise one or more papers for a potentially higher grade. While we don't want to stress the grade over the process, the prospect of a higher grade might be an incentive to engage in revision when students might otherwise abandon a piece of writing as soon as it's been evaluated.

Becoming a Coach

Many students are intimidated by having their writing evaluated because they've so often encountered evaluators who assume the role of a judge. Students will be encouraged to take risks in their writing, such as breaking free from the five-paragraph model and trying new approaches, if they come to trust their writing instructor as a coach. A coach recognizes that there are more and less effective ways to accomplish a task, but instead of simply docking a student who chooses a less effective approach, a coach will guide that student toward a better alternative.

At the other end of the spectrum is the writing instructor who functions like an indulgent parent. While a parent might applaud from the stands, providing encouragement without direction, a good coach challenges students to improve on their strengths and to grow beyond their weaknesses.

Focusing Instructor Comments

With the previously discussed perspectives in mind, see below for practical suggestions on using comments as teaching opportunities.

Using Two Types of Comments

In general, there are two main comment types that we can use in combination to direct our students toward more effective writing. The links below provide discussion of each comment type.

Marginal Comments

As the label implies, marginal comments are those that are written in the margins and between the lines throughout the paper. Their primary purpose is to point out specific examples of effective and ineffective writing decisions emphasized in general by our overall evaluation. For this reason, it's a good idea to insert marginal comments after we've composed the end comments described in the following sections. Rather than marking up a paper on the first read, we can better formulate focused comments by reading it at least once with our pens laid aside.

Marginal comments might also mark errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. When this becomes their primary use, however, students will be confused about where to direct their energy toward growth as writers. For further discussion of addressing mechanical issues, see the section on avoiding the editor role.

End Comments

End comments are written in paragraph form and are used to direct students toward effective writing by highlighting one or two major areas on which they should focus their attention in future writing situations. The following components are suggested for end comments that will both encourage and direct students:

Descriptive Statement

A descriptive statement is a non-evaluative observation that reinforces students' awareness of what they've done in a particular piece of writing. Young writers seldom look back over a piece of writing with a clear sense of what they've produced. Opening with a descriptive statement like "You've written a detailed summary of Steele's essay" reacquaints students with the writing they've accomplished and prepares them for an evaluation of that writing.

Positive Statement

Our evaluation of students' writing is best received when we call attention to strengths as well as weaknesses. A simple way to incorporate both praise and criticism is through the sandwich approach, in which criticism—the meat of our evaluation—is served between two positive statements.

The opening positive statement is a comment on the paper's greatest strength. Even the most floundering paper will exhibit at least one strong point on which we can comment. For example, we might open by noting that the writer demonstrates a clear understanding of course content, is passionate about his or her subject, or has a good sense of audience. We might applaud an area of improvement from previous writing. We, like our students, are so accustomed to targeting weaknesses in academic work that we tend to overlook the strengths. Helping students identify their strengths not only builds their confidence as writers, but it gives them valuable information for continued growth. Knowing their strengths motivates students to apply those strengths to other writing assignments and often suggests an approach for addressing weaknesses.

Suggestions for Improvement

The bulk of our end comments, the constructive criticism portion helps students identify areas in which they can improve their writing. Remember that while we're assessing a particular piece of writing, our main goal is to create better writers. Our suggestions should contribute to students' improvement as writers and not primarily focus on ways to improve a particular piece of writing.

Criticism should direct writers toward one or two areas on which to work. Generally, we'll want to accomplish this in one or two paragraphs, depending on the length of the paper. A concise discussion gives students a sharper sense of areas for concern.

Closing Comment

In closing, offer students a comment on the strengths demonstrated in this particular piece of writing that will prepare them for future writing situations. For example, "Your ability to articulate a claim will serve you well as you continue to work on developing an argument in future writing situations." This allows you to continue encouraging growth in areas identified in previous comment sections while building students' confidence in their readiness to work toward such growth.

Avoiding the Editor Role

One way to send the message that we're more concerned with improving papers than writers is to become editors as we evaluate our students' work. Many of us remember receiving graded assignments that were completely covered in red ink. These marks were as often corrections as they were constructive comments, and they might have left us with little sense of how to grow as writers. We do want our students to have a command of mechanics, but we need to ask if this is should be the primary concern for each writer. A student who struggles to focus on a main topic, wandering from one idea to another without any apparent logic, should be encouraged to address broader issues before attending to word and sentence level concerns.

So how do we deal with mechanics? First, keep in mind that they're more appropriately addressed in the later drafts of a paper. If a student ends up omitting an entire paragraph in the restructuring of a paper, we've wasted much of the energy we spent editing that paragraph. Furthermore, mechanical errors generally decrease as students grasp the larger issues of academic writing. Finally, when we do comment on mechanics, it should be with the same goal that informs any other comment: to build stronger writers. Rather than simply correcting errors, we can look for the underlying problem these errors demonstrate. For example, if a student repeatedly shifts between past and present tense, we might indicate in the margin that there is inconsistency in tense throughout the paper. Emphasizing that such errors compromise a writer's effectiveness with almost any audience, we can assign reading from a grammar text (or provide photocopied pages) and require that the student correct the problem before receiving a grade. This will allow us to focus on larger issues in comments corresponding to the final grade.

Focusing on Goals

Our students are best served in the long run when we move from global to local in our evaluation of their writing. This means that the majority of our commenting time and energy is best spent addressing not mechanics, but larger goals for students' growth as writers. To identify the major writing skills to emphasize in our comments, it helps to read each paper at least twice. After the first read, we are less distracted by isolated errors and can better identify both a student's intent and the issues that are most significantly compromising that intent.

Consider some of the most common global issues student writers need to address. While this list is by no means comprehensive, the examples included illustrate an appropriate scope for our comments:

  • The ability to make a claim and to maintain focus on that claim
  • The ability to develop a claim logically and thoroughly
  • The use of evidence to support disputable statements
  • The ability to communicate a distinction between their own ideas and the summary of others' ideas

Recognizing Stages in the Writing Process

Our expectations and resulting comments should be informed by the stage of writing we're evaluating. If we're reading an early draft, we probably won't expect polished prose and generally won't comment at all on mechanical issues. Instead, our comments will emphasize one or two goals that will contribute to the student's growth as a writer while enhancing this paper in particular. In contrast, our comments on a final draft will use observations of the current work to direct the student toward future writing tasks. We will also have higher expectations regarding format and other conventions than we have of an early draft. We can address these in terms of how successfully the writer has assessed and addressed audience expectations, a concern that is present in any writing situation.

Acknowledging Revisions

Effective writing is a process of revision, yet as writers many of us are reluctant to engage in the revision process. In order to encourage students to revise their writing, it's important first of all to collect preliminary as well as final drafts of major assignments. Beyond simply collecting drafts, however, we should acknowledge the improvement we see from one draft to the next. After commenting on a particular area in a draft, we should always follow up on that area in later versions of the assignment. It's also appropriate to note areas not previously addressed in which the paper has improved since an earlier draft. This requires that we keep notes as we comment on drafts and/or ask students to turn in early drafts and attached comments along with the final version of their papers. The encouragement we can offer students more than makes up for the organization this demands on our part. Acknowledging revisions highlights improvement, reminding both students and instructors that even if problems still exist, the evidence of growth indicates a success.

Starting and Staying Positive

In the role of coach, not judge, we have tremendous potential to encourage students to invest themselves in the writing process in our classes and beyond. Students' investment depends largely upon our approach. If we are condemning, students will have little desire to pursue growth as writers. If, on the other hand, we are positive—emphasizing what can be improved rather than where students have failed in completed drafts—our students will more likely be motivated toward the attainable goals we've helped them identify. Remember that most students have at some point been labeled as either good or bad writers, and they likely have accepted that label as a lifetime sentence. Our encouragement can help students understand writing as a process in which they are equipped to engage. No matter how skilled they are when they enter our classrooms, we can help them identify and build skills that will support their growth as writers.

Determining Grades

Even when we manage to focus our marginal and end comments on overall goals promoting students' growth as writers, our students' most immediate concern will often be their grades. We might become hung up on this letter or number as well, as we attempt to translate our carefully constructed comments into a grade.

It will help us to start with an idea of what an A paper, a B paper, a C paper, and so on will look like. We might create our own evaluation sheets or rubrics, or use one of those available in the sample materials section. However, we should observe a caveat in using these resources: Evaluation sheets and rubrics are not meant to replace marginal and end comments, and they are not foolproof. They should be general enough to accommodate all the variations we might encounter in students' writing.

However we choose to determine grades, it's important to communicate with students how their writing will be evaluated. Whether or not we are using a criteria sheet, students should know the general criteria upon which we will base our evaluations. On the other hand, it might be best to avoid distributing detailed rubrics as these can involve students in a numbers game when we want them to concentrate on writing. If we choose to use a rubric, we might decide to keep the numbers to ourselves and simply to inform students of the major writing skills we intend to evaluate.

The skills we evaluate should correspond to the goals communicated in the original assignment description. If the goal of an assignment is to practice writing a convincing argument, our evaluation will assess students' claims, their development of those claims, and the quality of the evidence they've used as support. Likewise, classroom instruction surrounding the assignment will emphasize these skills and provide additional opportunities to practice them.

Note: Letter grades are generally preferable to number grades in evaluating writing assignments, as it is difficult and often inappropriate to quantify writing skills. Because an A, a B, a C, and so on will represent a range of proficiency levels, we will have greater incentive as instructors to articulate in our comments our specific concerns for each writer.

Working With the Writing Center

Writing center staff tutors and faculty are often available not only to assist your students with their individual writing concerns, but also to work one-on-one with instructors to help them integrate writing instruction into their classrooms. Their services often include assistance in focusing evaluative comments. While writing center staff typically offer general strategies such as those presented in this tutorial and in seminars and workshops, we recognize that general remarks might not prepare instructors for every question they will encounter as they comment on student papers. Particularly when applying these general concepts to early batches of papers, it can be helpful for instructors to work with someone as they walk through the process.

Sample Materials

The following materials are provided to illustrate the evaluation processes described in this guide. Instructors who choose to use criteria sheets or rubrics are strongly encouraged to develop versions tailored to their own course content and goals.

Sample Marginal Comments

The following marginal comments might be written on a student's paper after composition of the end comments listed in the next section:

Student's Observation:
"Assignments in the well-funded school were more challenging than assignments in the poorly funded school I attended my final two years in elementary school."
Instructor's Marginal Comment:
"Here is a spot where a concrete example would strengthen your overall claim." (Corresponding section in student's paper is underlined or circled.)

Student's Observation:
"To further illustrate the accuracy of Anyon's observations, consider two actual instructors currently teaching in public schools. We'll call them Instructor A and Instructor B."
Instructor's Marginal Comment:
"Here, it might be better to identify these instructors as your parents, as you did in earlier drafts. This is appropriate given your audience and would further distinguish your summary from your agreement with the author, supported by personal observations."

Student Observation:
"For example, Instructor A reported that teachers at the well-funded school were given days off to attend professional development seminars. Instructor B was the only instructor from the poorly funded school to attend any outside seminar, and he had to use one of his two yearly personal days to do so."
Instructor's Marginal Comment:
"Here is a good example of successfully using concrete evidence."

Sample End Comments

The following sample end comments correspond to the marginal comments listed in the previous section:

You've done an excellent job combining all of what we've discussed in Unit 1 into a strong ARE. Your revisions, in particular, demonstrate your awareness of academic writing conventions and ability to apply them to your own writing. The final draft of your ARE is well-structured and clearly connected to Anyon's text. Focusing your essay on Anyon's progression from observations to ideas, you state clear responses to those ideas and support your responses with relevant evidence.

In regard to that evidence, keep one suggestion in mind as you continue to write for academic contexts. Wherever possible, provide specific details and examples, leaving your reader with an image that supports your claims. This specificity would strengthen your second paragraph in particular. Your background as a student in two different schools is clearly relevant and gives you authority to comment on class-based differences in teaching styles. Rather than general statements about these differences, however, consider how a specific illustration or two would lend stronger support to your claim. You might, for example, recall a specific assignment in one school compared to a same-subject assignment in the other school.

You provide more concrete evidence in your third and fourth paragraphs by identifying experienced educators as sources. Your parents' comments work well in supporting your response to Anyon's essay. Considering your writing situation (your fellow student audience) you might want to identify them as your parents, as you did in your first draft. Doing so would help you more clearly define your unique position regarding the subject of Anyon's essay. You might explain to your audience that as a student of public schools and the son of two parents involved in public school education, you have strong reasons to agree with Anyon's ideas and implications.

Again, your efforts in revision and throughout this unit have culminated in a superb ARE. Consider the suggestions above as you approach future writing assignments, and keep up the good work.

Sample Criteria Sheet

An A paper

Consistently, clearly and effectively communicates its purpose to its audience in all areas of writing: consistently clear focus, sufficient development, and coherent in terms of organization and style. The ideas are also well thought out and have significance within the rhetorical context.

A B paper

Is strong in most areas but intermittently deficient in one area or contains minor problems in more than one area. For instance, the essay may be strong in all areas but have some problems with audience, portions may lose focus or be underdeveloped, or there may be some distracting inconsistencies or errors in style (coherence).

A C paper

Generally accomplishes the main job of the assignment--so it maintains its purpose. But it's either intermittently deficient in two categories or consistently deficient in one. For instance, there may be intermittent problems with both audience and development, or the whole essay may be consistently underdeveloped.

A D paper

Is consistently deficient in two areas--for example, consistently unfocused and underdeveloped--to the degree that the deficiencies undermine the purpose of the essay. An unfocused and underdeveloped essay, for instance, would not be able to convey its message to a reader in any significant way. The essay could also have enough serious problems in a combination of areas that the purpose is undermined. It could also miss a major portion of the assignment--like an essay which has no connection to the assigned topic.

An F paper

Is an essay that either was not turned in or is severely deficient in almost all areas. Or it could be an essay that completely fails to address the assignment.

Sample Rubric: Evaluation of Written Report


Possible Points








       relevant & important topic



objectives defined & possible



       scope suitably restricted









       amount of information



       accuracy of information



       value of information



       analysis of data adequate



       interpretation logical






Organization & Expression:









       arrangement of information






Format (Specified Style):



       citations and references in



         correct style



       tables and legends



       figures and legends












Grammar & Usage:












       word usage












       adherence to schedule



       initiative & originality



       other comments





Kim Kankiewicz. (2018). Teaching Writing in First-Year Seminars. The WAC Clearinghouse. Retrieved from https://wac.colostate.edu/repository/teaching/guides/seminars/. Originally developed for Writing@CSU (https://writing.colostate.edu).

Note: This guide is based in part on instructional resources developed by Kate Kiefer and other members of the faculty at Colorado State University