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Writing Program

Best Practices for the Best Papers

  • Be Focused:  rather than assigning an open-ended question on a large topic (e.g. "write a reflection on the current political crisis in X"), have students analyze a particular aspect of the issue or text.  They might close-read a single scene in a novel from a particular theoretical standpoint, or analyze the meaning of a particular slogan or advertisement.  The assignment might have students utilize a particular research tool (e.g. a concordance, a set of annotated bibliographies, a handbook on medieval mythography).  The more focused the question, the more detailed the student response.
  • Aim for Clarity of Expectation:  often students struggle to produce a good paper because they don't have enough information about the assignment.  What you mean by "analyze" they may interpret as "summarize."  List the specific questions you wish them to address.  In many cases, they can use the list of questions as a rough outline for the paper. 
  • Model the writing process in class.  Many (most?) students entering college have never been shown the precise steps of writing a good paragraph, or a good introduction.  They have been told to write papers, and told what they should do, but they've never witnessed good writing, live.  We can't hold this against them.  Using a projector or a blackboard, write a good paragraph on their topic in class, having various students in the class feed you the evidence (with page numbers) you specify.  At each stage of the paragraph, show them how this Topic Sentence meets the criteria for a good topic sentence, and how this Quote supports this particular topic sentence.  Point out each transition from one bit of evidence to another. And so on.  You might also do with to model the revision process.  Take a student paragraph, and revise it, live, before their very eyes!  Done early in the semester, this simple lesson will work wonders for your students' writing. 
  • Do a thesis exercise for each paper.  Rather than covering Thesis once at the start of term, repeat the Thesis exercise/workshop for each major paper, re-enforcing the process throughout the term. 
  • Schedule Student Presentation Before the Paper, rather than after.  Rather than having students present on the papers they just wrote, have them present their research before they turn in the paper.  The presentation with prompt them to organize their ideas and evidence ahead of writing, and provides a helpful opportunity for them to get feedback on the project before they commit the ideas to paper.   
  • Use Short Assignments to Prepare for Longer Ones.  Shorter papers can be a good way to essentially break down a larger assignment into stages.  For a longer research papers, for instance, students might submit an annotated bibliography first, then a thesis and outline.  If the topic requires students to research the background of an issue, one shorter paper might focus only on the background.  They can then incorporate this material into the longer research paper.  
  • Team up with a librarian.  Since librarians are the ones who help students hunt down sources for papers, and decipher the terms of various paper assignments, they are a wonderful resource for honing and shaping good writing assignments.  Really. 
  • Take a Graduated Approach:  Make a list of writing skills to be covered over the course of the term.  For the first paper, target three of them (Thesis, Topic Sentences, Evidence).  For the second paper, add three more (Transitions, Active Voice, Introductions).  For the third paper, add the remainder.  Students get graded only on the skills you've covered so far. 
  • Start with a Kit:  Often the best way to learn anything is to get a kit, where all the pieces are cut out for you, and all you need to do is assemble.  The kit familiarizes you with the materials and techniques you need to start from scratch.  When applied to writing assignments, the kit may include a topic, a focused question, a set of required sources, such as scholarly articles and reference works, and perhaps a sample paragraph modeling effective use of secondary and primary sources.  The kit ensures they are starting with quality materials.  When used as a first research paper, the kit familiarizes students with the materials and process of doing college-level research.  For subsequent papers, students can start from scratch, compiling and assembling their own projects, using the kit as a model. 
  • Check in with Students Continually:  When discussing papers with students, either individually or in groups, ask them "What have you learned about good writing strategies so far?"  The more students reflect on their own writing process, the more likely they are to improve their practice.