Observations on Student Writing

As I shared before, my students did very poorly on their first essay. They did so badly that I couldn’t even give grades for their papers. So today we spent the entire class meeting rewriting the essay together. The students started rewriting their papers by hand, while I came up to each of them individually and discussed what was wrong in the paper and how it could be fixed.

And a very strange thing happened. A student who had produced a jumbled mess of God knows what in the paper he handed in, crafted a really outstanding piece of work by hand with almost no help on my part. It was original, profound, and a pleasure to read. Another student wrote a completely different paper, and it was so superior in quality to the original essay that I started wondering if the same person was the author of both pieces. And it was like this for almost single one of the students.

So now I’m wondering: how did this happen? Does writing by hand help them to write better? Or is the secret simply that in class there are no distractions, no noise, no Internet, no television, no music, and this helps them write well?

I am very surprised right now. After reading the papers, I felt quite desperate because I thought that this was a hopeless group where nobody was capable of writing a grammatically correct sentence. It turns out, however, that most of the students write very well.

Does anybody have an explanation for this strange phenomenon? And also, what should I do for our future written assignments? This is a Freshman Seminar that, of necessity, has a very strong writing component. We will write several more papers in this course. How do I ensure that no more poorly written papers are handed in to me by students who, apparently, are perfectly capable of writing well?

20 thoughts on “Observations on Student Writing”

  1. Interesting. I know that when I have to write about complex ideas hand writing works better for me. I feel that when writing I have a better “hold” on my ideas. I have always thought that it was because of my generation. I started high school hand writing and I finished it with a computer.

    I think that your students were lazy and were not expecting university to be so demanding… or maybe I am writing this because I am so upsert with some of my lazy students today. Regardless of my own frustration, how many students do you have in your seminar? I have tried the concept of the writing workshop for the first time in my life this semester. In these workshop, students comments about the form and the content or their peers’ essays. When my students receive feedback from two or three students, they rewrite the whole thing. So far I can see it really helped. And this can be done in a fairly big class.


    1. This is a fairly small group, 22 people. So i could give individual attention. Today, however, my 44-student group handed in their essays. If they all messed up, I will not be able to go over the paper with them individually. I can’t even do that during office hours because these are my last minutes in my office. For the next 2 weeks, I will be homeless on campus. I am so not looking forward to that.


  2. I’ve noticed that when I write a paper my first draft–and the first few revisions–is completely worthless. I’ll often start again from scratch, but keep some elements that I like (they’re often just concepts).

    Maybe something similar is happening here?


  3. I certainly write better when I write by hand. But I have an irrational, joyous love of writing with a fountain pen with an interesting color ink. (Think red, violet, brown, emerald green, etc. Not black and definitely not blue.) It slows me down enough that my sentences end up with more flow, and I relish the æsthetic experience which can never be matched by a keyboard.


  4. Why don’t you assign them a writing assignment all about their particular writing process? And you could offer incentives for those who truly exhibit an effort (really reach down) and discover something about themselves…Since most students hate to write, the ones whose papers really stand out could substitute their next writing assignment with a reading assignment, along with an oral report, for example.


    1. The strangest thing is that I never saw them right the bad versions, so I can’t know where those came from. But the good versions were created right in front of my eyes.

      Is it possible that they plagiarized the initial horrible versions from somewhere? That would be a huge joke on them.


  5. In response to your inquiry for an explanation, I’m sorry to suggest a darker picture here, but most likely the students knew how poorly they did, and subsequently think about what they did. That extra thought about a known topic this time may have done it. In any case, kudos for your students who could pull it up. In fact, I don’t think that it is a darker picture anymore, it is great that they are able to do it, even if it is with a second chance!)


  6. Sounds to me as though the difference is that the standards were given concrete presence. These are freshmen in their first writing class, looking for cues on what effort to make, and you personally showed them. (I see this with my daughter, who’s learning piano: simply telling her “no, that’s not good enough, and your teacher won’t think so either” had quite an effect, at least once.) Doesn’t mean they’ll keep the new standard, of course, but they’re getting the idea.


  7. Personally, I always wrote better in class because there were less distractions, a set time limit, and the presence of a teacher implying direct feedback. When I am working on an assignment without any feedback I always get anxious about whether I am doing it right, which leads to procrastination and less engagement with what I am doing.


  8. First, Clarissa, I think you’re discounting the influence of the initial discussion you’ve had. As we were discussing on Z’s blog the other day, most schools are demanding less and less of students these days, and students, consequently, are demanding less of themselves. As a writing instructor, I can vouch for this. Simply showing them the ropes works wonders for many of them, because you’re giving them tools they had no idea existed (others might need more structured help).

    Secondly, and in complete contrast to my first comment, you’re perhaps also overlooking the very probable case of them having filched stuff off the internet or other people’s papers and pasted them onto theirs. Writing by hand, in class, precludes the easy copy-paste option, and makes them alerter about the work they’re producing.

    Finally, and I speak about this from experience — writing in class makes a lot of students feel more accountable. You may not necessarily remember what each student was doing during the wriitng session, but they might very well feel you would, if they were visibly slacking. Plus, openly not working when the teacher is making such an effort wouldn’t sit well with most kids. And so they put in more of an effort when being supervised by the person who will grade their work.

    In short, making them write in class was a fabulous idea, Clarissa. You should take a large chunk of credit for the version 2.0 of the papers 🙂


    1. I think you are right in everything. The problem is that while I can organize these writing sessions for my smaller group, I don’t know how to do that for my 40+ student group. I haven’t read their essays, though. So I don’t know what the level there is.

      Cheating on this particular paper wouldn’t have been easy (although not impossible) because the topic was “The most surprising thing I have learned in this course.” Only one kid tried plagiarizing, and I caught her immediately.
      Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T


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  10. And also, what should I do for our future written assignments?

    In addition to what others have mentioned, does your school have a writing center on campus? Would it be possible and/or beneficial to require all students to meet with a writing tutor prior to handing in their papers? Barring that, would it be possible to teach your classes how to give one another feedback? Since the smaller class has already received personal instruction from you, would it be possible to convince a few of those students (maybe ones who seemed to respond particularly well and/or who seemed especially interested in what makes good writing) to help offer feedback in the larger class?


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