10 Reasons Why Your Students’ Writing is Bad — Part II (6-10)

In Part I of this blog post I discussed the reasons why our students’ writing can be bad that may be under the control of our own teaching methods, attitudes or ways we present our assignments. Part II will discuss 5 more causes of bad student writing that are as a result of perceptions, decisions, or knowledge deficits that the students may bring to the writing project.  The solutions are tricker in these cases but they do exist. As with Part I, inspirational credit must be given to John R. Hayes for some of the general points given here.

6. Luck vs. Skill 

The student believes her writing skills are fixed and that everyone’s writing skills are fixed and other students who get good grades are just lucky.  This point is straight out of Hayes’s article but one cannot mention role of the perception of ability being related to luck vs. skill without giving credit to the Mastery component of Bandura’s self-efficacy theory. Students who believe writing is a skill they can improve upon will seek help. Those who believe that writing ability is innate and something you are born with will plod along in isolation without asking questions and hand in substandard work without attempting to improve and probably never reading the feedback you give. (Although, I must acknowledge that very little is known about what students actually do with our feedback after we return their papers).

The only way to connect with these students is to somehow force interaction prior to the paper being due via a proposal meeting, a discussion about sources, or an outline.  Having pre-assignments to the main assignment does increase your workload in the paper preparation phase, but it will be worth it when you are grading more pleasant reading papers later on.

7. Someone Else Wrote the Paper (maybe)

Every once in a while I will have a student hand in a paper that just isn’t my assignment.  It usually comes from a known weak student and is usually someone who attends classes most of the time but huddles in the back and runs out the door immediately upon dismissal. The first thing I do when I get a paper like this is I start Googling passages, especially passages with jargony terminology or unusual phrases. A student who hasn’t been able to follow instructions isn’t likely to be able to come up with  either the jargon for their topic or complex ideas.  Funny thing is, I’ve never had anything come up in my search of key phrases in these situations so my suspicions then turn to the possibility that the student enlisted someone else to write the paper or they bought it from a paper mill (and not a very good one), or handed in a paper written by another student for a similar course at another institution hoping it would suffice. Because the paper failed to meet numerous content criteria, I can usually grade it appropriately with an F and carry on. That F grade often means a failure in the course as well.

This is a tricky situation to be in. As much as your gut tells you one thing, you have no solid proof and the student really could have been that clueless. If it is a case of plagiarism, it would be impossible to catch without a confession from the student. Do students confess to these transgressions? Not in my experience. You could also quiz them about the content and see how well they know what the paper says. If they wrote it, they should be able to talk about the paper fluently, but even inability to talk about what they wrote is proof of nothing specific. I generally chose not to question the student. The important factor in ensuring that a student who did not write their own paper does not get a good grade is to make your paper unique enough that only someone who attends class is sure to keep the paper solidly within the assignment guidelines. Having those pre-paper submission requirements, mentioned in #6, built into an assignment will also be a check and balance on the student doing their own work.  I’ve also required students to hand in portfolios of their paper preparation (outline, notes, rough draft) as evidence that they did their own work.  These portfolio components aren’t graded but they are there if I choose to look at them as an audit trail of the students’ work.

8.  Lack of Knowledge about How to Fix “Global Problems”

Most students know that they need to edit their drafts of their paper for grammar, spelling, and sentence structure but, for some students, this is as far is their editing goes. I’ve read many grammatically correct readable papers from students that lack cohesion or completeness of thought, or presents information in a random order without logical connections. Global problems is a phrase I borrow from John R. Hayes and refers to other major problems in a writing assignment such as clearer phrasing, more well developed ideas, a better ordering of information, and other higher level writing tasks. A student who revises their paper for grammar can usually successfully create a readable paper. Most first drafts of papers suck. Mine certainly do, and I would never let anyone read a paper I haven’t globally edited, at least once, first.

Having contact with these students by inviting them to share their drafts prior to the due date via a one-on-one appointment or peer review with strong students, may help these students understand the global editing process. Rewriting is the best writing of all.

9.  Issues of Audience and Voice

Early in my teaching career I had a student come into my office to discuss how I had graded her paper.  I explained to her what my comments meant and what was lacking. She disagreed and proceeded to paraphrase for me what she wrote — which wasn’t what she actually wrote but rather what she should have wrote and what would have got her a higher grade. Hayes notes that most undergraduate student think of themselves as their own audience when writing their papers. Problems can emerge from this perspective of audience because if you are writing for yourself, you can leave out points or make leaps of faith in your argument that are perfectly understandable to you, the author, but not clear to others or the person grading the paper. Other fallacies of audience students make include assuming they don’t need to clarify a point or include a definition because their teacher will know it, writing as if their paper is a magazine article or newspaper, and writing in the second person which leaves the impression that the information is intended for an instructional pamphlet.

Advise students to share their paper with someone who will understand the terminology but also be able to tell them if their writing or points are not clear. Grasping what the audience will and and will not understand in your writing is something that even advanced writers struggle with. When I share manuscripts with co-authors, or read reviewer comments, I often pay attention to questions asked that seem to indicate that the person editing the paper missed the point and saw something different than I intended. Rather than get frustrated with the critique, I take this to mean that what I wrote lacked the clarity I intended to some small degree.  All students of writing need to pay attention to those questions that seem to be off the mark as they are a strong clue to where your message may not be as clear as intended.

10. Poor Reading Skills

They may have had to pass an English language test to get into your program (our students do!) but academic articles are in a class of their own. Some students reject high level primary studies or review articles in favour of lower level material like websites simply because of readability and digestible content that is a fast read. Other students can gather appropriate sources but may not know what parts of the articles are appropriate to gather their points to form their argument.  Misinterpretation of article information abounds in student writing which can contribute to a convoluted presentation of information in their papers.

To read well you need to read more. Students time is limited so sometimes they attempt to take short cuts. You can’t necessarily make better readers of your students; that is a problem only they can work on. You can however help students read smarter. Require specific source types for all writing assignments and indicate there will be a palpable grade loss if those requirements are not met. If you scrutinize a bad paper, as I had to do in the scenario I describe in Part I, item #3, you’ll find that students writing bad papers are often drawing all their facts from the first 2 pages of their peer reviewed sources (indicating that is probably all they read) and the bulk of their major citations is material paraphrased from (questionable) websites.  So because I am asking students to compare and contrast the results of 5 primary research studies, I tell them that this section can only cite information from the results or discussion sections of those articles. Teaching students to grasp the terminology of the discipline or sub discipline will considerably improve their ability to interpret complex academic sources.

And so wraps up the 10 causes of a bad paper. I’m sure this is not an all-inclusive list. Do you have any others to add?  I would like to note that I’ve left out 2 perhaps mythical causes of bad papers: ESL and writing anxiety.  Thus far, in all my reading of the writing literature, the evidence suggests that ESL and writing apprehensive students tend to have equal writing ability to their non ESL and less apprehensive peers.

If you missed Part I you will find it here.


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