Create learning opportunities for every type of student by using variable assignments.
If you have taught even a short time, you know that every class will start the beginning of the term with a variety of writing skills. There are students who could graduate from college without needing a writing class – they are just that well prepared. There are those who are adequately prepared for the college environment, but who can use some prep work to get into the upper levels of college-centered writing. And then there are those who are willing to learn, but who have been academically underprepared. The challenge for any instructor is to provide opportunities for all levels of students.
Let’s start out by addressing the needs of students who are very comfortable with writing. These are the pupils who can walk into a classroom, read through the syllabus, take notes, and hand in papers punctually and in virtually perfect shape. Sometimes, they may have a question about formatting something or seeking a source of deeper information. But writing, as a whole, is something that they know how to do, and they are comfortable and confident in their skills.
The challenge here is to make sure that these students are given ample opportunity to stretch beyond the normal confines of the course. How can they do something that gives them more of a challenge, that whets their appetite and sharpens their skills?
At my university, there is an honors department. This department holds some classes – honors math, honors history, honors chemistry, etc. While it is wonderful that the university provides these course opportunities, what is even better is the fact that the honors department allows students at or above a certain GPA to do individual honors projects if no honors course is offered for a class. If, for example, there is no honors writing course, the student can “H-option” his or her current course, and gain credit for it.
The beauty of this H-Option is that it allows the student to pursue something that interests them – and they can have fun with it, on their own time.
Now, the H-option is like an individualized research plan. This means that a student can do some additional research and/or writing about a chosen topic. If, for regular course work, the student is researching the life of Walt Disney, then he may choose to explore the creation of Disney’s EPCOT Center, and write an extra two page paper about that. A brief presentation may be given to the class, with an artifact (a poster, hand-made model, or student-made video) that goes with the project.
The beauty of this H-Option is that it allows the student to pursue something that interests them – and they can have fun with it, on their own time. It makes the process of research something greater than simply writing a paper and handing it in. It is a way to make the course mean something more than just an attendance/paper/pass routine.
Ready to Write
Students who have been well prepared for college are able to meet deadlines, assimilate instructions, and ask questions. They may have some challenges when it comes to nailing down the difference between a scholarly or popular source. And they may struggle with meeting a 10-page paper length requirement. But they are comfortable with writing, and they just want to know how to prepare for their next classes that will require even more work.
For these students, the challenge of a writing course is probably the number of new techniques and expectations they will be meeting. What’s the difference between an exposition and an analysis? How does something by the Founding Fathers translate into real-life meaning? Ethos, Pathos and… what was that other thing?
For these students, use as many sources for your lectures and class activities as is possible. Open up your own reading files, and hunt for interesting articles. Browse the internet for fascinating news pieces and interesting research. If you find something about pirate treasure and shipwrecks, that gives you a great opportunity to introduce concepts about good research practices. Get a video, do a worksheet where they fill-in-the-blanks with words from the interview in the video.
Preparation and practice are what these students need the most.
Students who are well prepared for the classroom want to know how to succeed. They have a lot of the skills they need, but they want to practice them, so that they are prepared for the next challenge. Give them that chance to stretch their wings. Make papers due in drafts, so that assignments aren’t an all-or-nothing proposition. There will be a few wrong turns taken; but if it’s in a draft and not the final copy of the paper, this can be corrected. It’s a lot easier to get a bad grade on a draft than it is to find a poor grade on a final draft. Preparation and practice are what these students need the most.
Getting On Board
Some students will arrive in class with the belief that they have been prepared to write for college. But then, they discover that that isn’t the case. This comes as a shock for them, and for you, and it creates a challenge that is sometimes hard to meet.
If you really understand the goals of your assignment, and the major techniques each paper has to demonstrate, then you can explain the assignment clearly.
Students who have been underprepared for college writing will struggle with things like understanding what it means to write with a formal tone (no me, I, or myself), or with assigning just one major idea to every sentence. Grammar, usage, and writing genres are challenging concepts that may discourage these students and keep them from progressing to the next level of college work.
The thing to keep in mind is that a student who has been underprepared is not necessarily unable to handle this work: he or she needs to know what steps to take in order to achieve the course’s writing goals. For this reason, you will need to make sure that you have the instructions for an assignment clear in your own mind before you work with an underprepared student. If you really understand the goals of your assignment, and the major techniques each paper has to demonstrate, then you can explain the assignment clearly.
As the instructor for underprepared students, your greatest asset is the ability to break down a complex idea into smaller parts.
What options may be most helpful to an underprepared student? First of all, look for sources that your college may have. Is there a writing readiness or remedial writing/reading course that is offered? Some students may be unaware of these classes. Some students may be terrified of doing poorly and they would really prefer to start out at a very basic level – even if it is a remedial course. They are very happy to begin with something that is less challenging than what their advisor may have recommended. If they can survive a basic English course, they gain confidence that they could pass an upper level course.
Is there a writing center, where one-on-one tutoring can happen? Because your time as the instructor is limited, the writing center can provide students with a wonderful resource of people who know writing and are willing to read through papers and give helpful feedback. Sometimes, all the student needs to know is that they are on the right track. At other times, a writing center consultant can explain things differently than the instructor does, and it makes more sense that way. Something I always tell students is that if one consultant doesn’t seem to be as helpful as the student wished, then try a different one. Personalities are unique, and some work well together while others do not. It is why we look for the right doctor, the right tax preparer, the right pastor – if it fits the first time, great. But if it doesn’t, we can go for a second opinion.
Lastly, check for any resources your course textbook may offer. Are there writing drills, or short practice pieces that you could suggest? Sometimes, there will be student examples in the textbook, with writing space below where your student can write in something. Or, if you have an e-book, there could be more exercises online that are offered by that publisher, included with the course.
As the instructor for underprepared students, your greatest asset is the ability to break down a complex idea into smaller parts. Keep things formulaic. Give examples. Use time to your advantage. This is another reason that you may have multiple drafts of a paper – students can try out ideas, test researching skills, and find out what will work before the final draft is due.
All Things Considered
The college classroom, virtual or brick and mortar, is a challenging atmosphere for any instructor. We have to provide enough information for students who may be over prepared, those who are prepared, and those who are underprepared without boring or discouraging pupils from any of those categories.
The instructor should have a firm plan in mind for the course: what they’ll be talking about, when assignments are due, and what those assignments’ criteria are before a student asks about them. The instructor has to be ready to answer questions, grade fairly, and explain how to correct mistakes.
The thing to keep in mind is that college is a place of educational opportunity. If the instructor is doing their best to meet these challenges, then it is the students’ obligation to try. A car can’t go anywhere when the engine is off and the brakes are on. It is the instructor’s job to make students aware of where the fueling stations are, and how to get to their destination. After that, you’ve done exactly what you were employed to do. The opportunity lies in the hands of the student.