The CSUSB Writing Intensive Program (WI) gives students opportunities to develop discipline-specific writing strategies throughout their undergraduate experience. The program offers writing-intensive courses in varying disciplines—from Art History to Biology to Management to Social Work. In our media-saturated age, writing is more important than ever. In the academy, writing is how knowledge is produced and distributed; and, writing plays an important role in how work gets done in virtually every profession.
QOTM (Question of the Month)
I have a student in my class this semester who shows a pretty good understanding of the content, but struggles with writing assignments. Their papers tend to be rife with grammatical errors, and even typos! What can I do to motivate my student to try a little harder to avoid these careless mistakes?
This is a very common question-- one of the first things we may notice when responding to our students’ writing is any grammatical or typographical errors. We may also notice stylistic issues that we may classify as errors, even when, strictly speaking, they are not errors. This is especially common when we’ve just started to increase or expand the role of writing in our classrooms.
Noticing, as the questioner does, the distinction between the quality of ideas in the written work and the more surface level issues is a great starting point, because it allows you to reflect on the purpose of the assignment, and the extent to which the errors are a sign the student may not be meeting learning objectives.
If the written work presents good ideas, insightful analysis, and an effective arrangement pattern, and the majority of issues are at the sentence level, then the suggestions below should help. If the draft does exhibit issues at the level of organization or concept, then it is best to focus your feedback on these issues before moving on to any sentence level errors.
Finally, keep in mind that these may not be "careless" mistakes at all, and may have very little to do with motivation. In fact, some studies have shown that as the complexity of the ideas in the text and the disciplinary involvement of the text increases, surface level errors may increase as well.
Try “minimal marking”
Avoid correcting, or even identifying, every error in a student’s draft. This can be highly time consuming for the teacher, and demoralizing for the student.Developed by Richard Haswell in 1983, minimal marking asks students to identify and correct sentence level errors, rather than the teacher correcting them on the student’s behalf. Instead of circling or underlining the error, identifying the type of error, and correcting the error, with minimal marking you simply place a checkmark in the margin next to the sentence exhibiting the error. Students then must identify the type of error and correct it.
Respond to error patterns, rather than individual errors
Another option is to identify the type of error most common in the student’s draft, and point out only errors of this type. Then, provide the student with any resources they may need to correct the error (owl.purdue.edu is a great place to find these), and ask the student to do their own corrections. Once you’ve seen progress with this pattern of error, you may choose to move on to another error pattern in subsequent projects.
Mark and correct every error, but only in a small portion of the draft
Sometimes it makes sense to identify and correct every error in a draft, but only in a small portion of it. Many of us have memories of ourselves as graduate students or advanced undergraduates, having gotten highly detailed sentence level feedback. For some these were highly positive experiences, providing tremendous insight into what it means to write as an initiated member of a discipline.
Distinguish between stylistic issues and grammar errors
Sometimes what we perceive as errors are actually stylistic problems, and not grammar errors. Grammar errors are instances where the writing doesn’t conform to established rules concerning things like pronoun cases, subject-verb agreement, and capitalization. Problems of style, on the other hand, range from wordiness to passive voice, and are rhetorical choices. The problems arise when there is a mismatch between the student’s writing style and the expectations of the discipline. Passive voice, for example, is frowned on in some disciplines but expected in others. Likewise, the use of the first person and/or contractions is acceptable in certain disciplines and genres, but not in others. Students often need help understanding these differences, and adjusting the overall level of formality as they navigate dissimilar academic contexts.
Our featured course design this month is MATH 3100, Mathematical Thinking: Communication & Proof, by Professor Shawn McMurran.
As you know, writing is not one-size-fits all. The WEC opportunity offers a faculty-driven approach to supporting effective and relevant writing and writing instruction within an undergraduate curriculum. Apply today!