Campus News

Help students write to learn and learn to write

Students can learn about new subjects by writing about them. Faculty, as well as students, recognize the situation:  I start to write something—a report, a paper, an article—thinking that what I have to say is clear in my head. Yet as I write, I think of new points to consider, spot new connections among ideas and even change my mind on occasion. Most faculty remember a mentor from our own education who wouldn’t stop pushing us to produce good writing, and we feel gratitude that person was there to make our essay/report/proposal stronger or that first article publishable.

Yet UGA students tell us that they write relatively little, particularly in comparison to students at other universities like our own. The National Survey of Student Engagement results for UGA showed that in 2005 (just as in 2003), “UGA students continued to report a lower number of reading assignments, fewer writing assignments and studying or spending less time on academic work than their counterparts at peer and aspirational institutions, ” according to a Nov. 28, 2005, Columns article. President Michael F. Adams stated in his 2005 State of the University Address that “writing is the synthesizing exercise of an educated mind.” Currently, many students are not required to write a substantial paper after they complete the composition courses, English 1101 and 1102. Across the curriculum and across all four years of university education, the faculty must reinforce and sustain a commitment to excellence in writing. The good news is that UGA students and faculty alike told the 2004 undergraduate task force that students struggled with writing and wanted help. Our students invariably say that writing matters to them and that they want to be better writers. The University of Georgia community wants to help our students write to learn and learn to write.

So what can faculty members do? I have a few suggestions, and if you’d like to consider them idealistic, go right ahead. If an English professor at a major research university can’t be idealistic about a subject as important as student writing, then who can be?

If you do not ask students to write essays in your course, you can still get students to write. At the start of your class, have students take five minutes to jot down their ideas about that day’s topic or the assigned reading. You’ll find the class discussion goes better because they wrote about what they think. You also can ask for reflection about the topic at the end of the class: did their thinking change and if so, how? (Go ahead and take these responses up if you’d like a gauge of how they’ve understood the material or if they’ve prepared for class.) 

You also can tell them how important writing is when you go over the reading. Ask them what they think about the way the author of a chapter has presented the material. Would a different arrangement work better? What other examples can your students suggest?  Is one part of the reading more effective than the rest?  If you show students that everyone’s writing matters, they will take it to heart.

If you do ask students to prepare essays, you already know how hard it is to guard against the ineptitude of the last-minute writer or the misdeeds of the panicked plagiarist. A quick solution that also will improve writing is to sequence the assignment. Imagine you’ve assigned a paper that’s due in a month. A week after you make the assignment, ask students to turn in a clear statement of their specific topic and the focus that they plan to take.  At the end of two weeks, ask for an outline and working bibliography. In the third week, ask for a rough draft. Then when the paper itself is due, you can count on seeing any changes you’ve requested. This method doesn’t cut down on your grading, but it does spread it out over several weeks.
You also can remind the class that the two campus Writing Centers can offer them guidance if they will simply make an appointment. Not many campuses are fortunate enough to have two Writing Centers—one in Academic Enhancement ( and another in the English department (—so let’s take advantage of their services.

Finally, if your department doesn’t offer an annual award for the best piece of writing a student has produced this year, make it happen! Faculty can nominate their students’ work, a small committee can read and judge the entries and the department can award and publicize the winner. My own department makes the best examples of essays from first-year composition students models for other students to read in the handbook that students buy each year. If you tell students that writing matters, they’ll listen. More to the point, they’ll become better writers, just as you once did, because a trusted mentor makes them realize that they can do a better job.

If you’d like more ideas or have suggestions, please let me know:

Fran Teague is a professor of English at UGA.