041316_Writing at the College LevelDuring my undergrad, I remember taking a biology class and having no idea what a lab paper should look like for our experiment. We based ours off a friend’s paper that had garnered an “A.” We got a “C.” How? I still don’t know. When I approached the professor, he said he would have given me a “D” instead of what my lab TA awarded us and threw it back in my face. What were his expectations? How were we to know what the paper should look like? Our grammar and structure were perfect (I edited it). What were we missing?

When I started doing this blog, I was wondering what other professors’ expectations of papers were. Do they emphasize the construction of a student’s argument or mention missing punctuation? How do they draw effective communication from their students? How do they guide them to create what they are looking for? Do they guide them at all?

Recently, I spoke with Dr. Martina Vasil, an assistant professor of music education at the University of Kentucky about her students’ writing capabilities and her expectations. She gave me one of the best quotes that an educator could use to emphasize how important writing is to education: “Writing is thinking.”

Martina tells her students this and expects them to be able to write well so they can be good teachers. She teaches a methods course for undergraduate music education majors that is writing intensive, as well as graduate classes on research methods. Most of her students are juniors, seniors, and graduate students. Her syllabi indicate that part of the grade for the courses is based on the student’s ability to communicate well.

When she’s grading her students’ first papers, Martina corrects errors and expects the students not to make those same errors on future papers. If they do appear again, then she lowers the grade for that paper. If the errors are distracting from the paper, then the student will also receive a lower grade. She expects her students to be able to write at a college or graduate level and grades them accordingly.

I think that one of the most effective techniques Martina uses to encourage efficient writing is modeling. To clarify her expectations, she provides examples from her dissertation, proposals, lesson plans, or other written pieces. “Providing samples helps me get the results I want from my students,” Martina said. She also looks at the group’s writing as a whole. If she isn’t getting the writing she’s looking for, then she considers if she needs to be clearer about her expectations.

She also mentioned that having her students submit earlier drafts and providing feedback to them has definitely helped improve their writing. She gives a lot of feedback on the first assignment and then expects a huge improvement. Cleverly, she gives feedback as a pdf on their online portal to keep them from accepting all the changes and not thinking about their writing.

When I asked her how she thought her opinion about writing is reflected by other professors and other disciplines, she said that she thinks they agree. From her experience, other professors seem to be diligent about the writing expectations. This was evidenced by the fact that only a couple of her students had big writing issues this past fall.

For those students who are having issues with their written communication, she suggested that they visit their campus’s writing center. Professors can send their students there if they are having serious problems. In one extreme case this semester, Martina has been meeting with a student every Monday for 45 minutes to work on writing assignments for the class. She noted, too, that professors are less likely to help those who aren’t putting forth the effort.

I realize that not everyone loves writing, but everyone needs to use it. I was thrilled to see that professors like Martina are modeling good writing and encouraging effective communication from their students. It isn’t her job to teach a student how to write, but sharing her expectations and encouraging the students to write effectively is an excellent way to emphasize the importance of writing.

I’m sure that many adults have discovered that they have indeed needed to use writing in their jobs, despite what their younger selves may have thought. They may not be composing a five-paragraph argument, but those skills that they learned in their English 101 and other courses are applicable to many written communications from emailing businesses to composing a grant for a new non-profit to many other things that they never expected they would be doing when they were eighteen. I think that we as adults need to impart this wisdom to the next generation, who likely have similar feelings to ours when we were headstrong teenagers busting down the doors of our high school and not needing no education.

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