Not even the dog would eat this homework!

Dog not eating homework

I feel your pain.

What’s to be done?

There are solutions, but no magic wand…

Writing as a process, not as a product

A lot comes down to how we think about writing, and how much practice we get at doing it. Let’s face it, writing something like a journal article or a conference paper is never going to be easy, and it’s certainly not going to happen overnight.We all write several drafts and iterations, which are often bounced between co-authors until the paper is ready to submit, and then we make more changes based on the reviewers’ feedback. But often, we (accidentally) imply to students that writing is a one-off activity. We say: “just write up the results” or we don’t give them opportunities to practise writing in class. Yet we expect them to submit reports that are many pages long, with no review process.

Practice makes perfect better

So how much writing practice do your students get during class time? And by practice I mean just that: not assessment tasks, not work that is given a mark, but practice: like the worked examples they do in tutorials, or the models they work on in labs. Are they expected to take notes? Are they asked to write explanations of the technical problems they are solving? Do they get practice in writing justifications, alternative strategies, explanations of why a particular approach or method was used? Because if they’re not practising writing, they’re probably not going to get better at it, and are quite likely to get worse.

Writing for practice, NOT for assessment

Part of the problem is the expectation that all written work needs to be assessed, which means huge piles of marking. But when you think about it, do you mark all the problems that the students do in class? Do you check all their equations and calculations? Probably not, because they are just practice. In the same way, writing can be ‘just practice’.

Strategy 1: writing for concept checking in lectures & tutorials: 5 minutes

Halfway through your lecture or tutorial, ask the students to write a sentence about ONE thing they have learned, and another sentence about ONE question they have. Ask them to share with a fellow student nearby. (allow 2-3 minutes for this). Ask for volunteers to read out either what they have learned, or what questions they still have. You can then address any misunderstandings and questions in the remainder of the lecture/tutorial, or collect the responses and use them as a basis for the following session.

Benefits: Efficient use of time; students practise articulating their knowledge & uncertainty in words; they practise sharing this with fellow-students; it is less confronting for students to read out a prepared statement than to ask a question in front of 400 other students; you get a snapshot of what students know and what they’re still not sure of; there is genuine interaction in your classes…

Why not try it?

Next time: The Toulmin method for making claims…


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