Writing to Make a Difference
Composition Professor, Kaplan University
I have been teaching composition for over 20 years in a variety of settings, both at brick-and-mortar and online schools. One constant across the years has been the oft-heard query, “Why is this class required?” That question is usually followed by a reason ranging from “My career field will not require me to write” to “I took this class at a community college 20 years ago, but they would not give me a transfer credit.” I can rattle off quotes from employers’ surveys stating that effective communication skills are a top priority and emphasize the value of being able to write clearly and concisely in personal, professional, and academic situations. However, some students will continue to resent the requirement unless they discover that writing can, in fact, be relevant to their own lives.
Because many students find the writing process intimidating–perhaps they have even been told they are not “good writers”–helping them to discover their inner writer can be especially challenging. This is even more true with nontraditional students who may not have written a paper for a grade in two or three decades. These are a few tips that can help students ease back into writing and discover its joys:
- Provide low-stakes writing opportunities. Journal entries, credit/no credit discussion prompts, and guided reactions to readings all give students the chance to write without the fear of a bad grade. If they can earn points just for writing, without fear of committing grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors, they may realize that they enjoy writing for writing’s sake.
- Postpone higher-stakes assignments until students have had time to settle into the class, get some feedback on low-stakes writing, and seek help if needed. Asking students to write a paper for a significant grade before they have had the chance to familiarize themselves with the course, get to know their teacher’s grading style, and find topics they are invested in will lead to greater frustration and perhaps more grade complaints.
- Give students the chance to explore topics they care about and discover new avenues for research, including interviews and other primary sources. Simply assigning generic pro/con topics, requiring them to find academic sources, or forcing students to analyze difficult pieces of literature will probably only reinforce their sense that the course is a box they have to check on their way to a degree.
The team that develops composition curriculum at Kaplan University used all of these approaches when revising the composition II course. Low-stakes writing prompts give students the chance to reflect upon past writing and research experiences and share insights with classmates. The first project is not due until the course is more than a third over, and students have been writing about their selected topic in the class discussions for three weeks prior to submitting this project; only the final project for the course is worth more than 10% of the overall grade.
Finally, the topic itself is as crucial to the class as the writing process. Students target a problem in their community and propose a strategy for tackling that problem. While the course emphasizes effective persuasion techniques, including the construction of an effective thesis statement, the avoidance of logical fallacies, and the importance of using credible research to support claims, students are also learning about an issue that impacts their day-to-day life. A parent of a special needs child may explore special education regulations and propose a needed change to the local school system, a future psychologist may examine new therapies for addiction, and an aspiring nutritionist may advocate the need for healthier school lunches in her child’s school district. Allowing students to select their topics and interview both specialists and those who might be affected by the proposal they are making helps them to see how writing and research can be a part of their daily lives and how, in fact, their voices can make a difference in their community.
Students given these opportunities to problem-solve and discover new ways to advocate for a cause often find that writing becomes less intimidating, and classes become an opportunity to learn from one another and shape more effective arguments.