College Writing Tips: Read the Question

My teaching career began in the fall of 1997 when a faculty member experienced a heart attack about a week before the semester began. During the intervening years between then and today, my peers, colleagues, and even those in business & industry, have noticed a tremendous decline in people’s ability to write.

Recently, I spent many hours grading writing assignments. These writing assignments ran the gamut from “short answers” to “essay” to 3 page response-type papers. My response papers are based on listening to two podcasts. One podcast is an economics podcast discussing the geographic traits of snack food. The other podcast is a mesmerizing account of a couple of Americans travelling throughout a South Asian country.

The more I read, the more patterns in writing emerged. Not just patterns in thought; writing involves considerable thinking. I tend to reason writing reveals thinking, how a person thinks, how a person organizes thoughts and information. Writing reveals a considerable amount of information about a person, and I can understand how writing makes people nervous. I’m nervous merely writing this post, but I’m dealing with it.

Writing in higher education doesn’t have to involve the level of stress people attach to writing assignments. Understanding some simple concepts, requirements, goals, and using the education which was provided from ages 6-18 (maybe 16 in Kentucky) can alleviate anxiety surrounding writing.

I am going to walk through some of the common errors I find in writing. Not only will I identify errors but I’ll explain how to adjust thinking processes to help direct attention to formulating better academic responses to writing assignments.

Writing Tip One:  “Read the Question”

One of the easiest ways to achieve better writing scores is simply to read the question. Qualitatively, I estimate about 1 in 4 students do not actually consider question details. The ratio may be higher, I’ll admit. Take an inventory of the requirements of the question. Look for key words, like “explain” or “discuss” or “describe.” Such words indicate a simple sentence or two will not pass the muster. Students tend to provide a list of objects, thoughts, or details and consider the list they have provided a “discussion.” Whether the items are provided in bullet form, or merely separated by commas, lists are not “discussions.”

“Describe the sources of information meteorologists use for collecting information about the upper atmosphere.”

A poor answer: Weatherpeople have lots of ways of getting info about the air. Planes, balloons, and satellites give them the info they need to make weather maps.

A better answer: Meteorologists have a few ways of obtaining information about the upper atmosphere. Aircraft can collect weather information, weather balloons are sent into the atmosphere to collect data, and satellites send images of weather systems back to Earth.

A good answer: Meteorologists have several means of obtaining information about the upper atmosphere. The upper atmosphere is the portion of the Earth’s atmosphere which includes in the troposphere, from the surface to about 60,000ft. Many commercial aircraft have on-board equipment which transmits data to ground stations. Radiosondes and rawinsondes (weather balloons) collect weather data near major airports. NOAA and other countries place weather satellites in orbit which collect images of the Earth which track storms, measure water vapor, and measure atmospheric temperatures.

Students frequently make the mistake believing their audience is their professor. Yes, the professor may grade the short answer, essay, or paper but thinking the professor is the intended audience can mentally trap a student. If a student believes the instructor is the intended audience important, relevant information may be omitted. I have had students tell me or email me, “Why do I need to be so detailed? Don’t you know the answer? I thought you know this?!”

Whether I know, or do not know, the “answer” is not the real issue. The real issue relates to the informational content of the response. Students should not write as if the instructor is the intended audience. The audience should NOT be thought of as the professor but rather some ignorant individual who needs to learn about the topic. When the student can think of themselves as the educator, then real learning begins. I tell my students “write as if you are educating me, not writing to me as if I know something.”

Simply put, the student’s job is to communicate the breadth and depth of their knowledge to the professor.

Provide enough details, facts, evidence, and examples for us to evaluate.

Next: “Use The Lingo”

5 thoughts on “College Writing Tips: Read the Question

  1. Oh, this rings so true.

    Just yesterday students in my f2f Physical Geography class were taking an exam that combined a Google Earth .kmz file and a Canvas quiz. Exam items were about the fluvial landforms viewed in my Google Earth .kmz file’s placemarks. One placemark showing an oxbow lake, meander, cut bank, etc. along the Neches River (TX) asked students to “describe the fluvial landforms you see in this satellite view…” (they type their answers into the Canvas quiz).

    I walked around the room looking over students’ shoulders to see what they were writing (this is a rather novel assessment method after all). Sure enough, item 10, “describe” the landforms…students were listing what was in the placemark image:
    -oxbow lake
    -meander scar
    -cut bank etc……

    I felt obligated to point out the obvious…read the verb. It reads “describe, not list.”


    • Do you find this form of responses occurring more frequently than, say, 2, 5, 10 years ago? I have no data to support my contention but I ‘feel’ as if more students today do not read and respond to questions in the same way as a decade ago. I could be mistaken, and probably am. However, on questions where I stipulate “explain” or “describe” or “discuss” I am more likely to receive a sentence fragment or some sort of list than I am fully-formed prose.

      I am troubled by high school administrators who espouse working towards graduating students with basic job skills, or college preparatory skills, and when these students appear in my classroom, they perform miserably.

      Students then fall into two broad categories, those who drop out of college, and those who ‘adapt’ their behavior and continue. Those students who elect to adapt usually listen to constructive criticism, or find a way to ‘game’ their education by plagiarism, hiring other students to do their work, or merely underperform.

      Thus, the high school administrators who claim interest in prepping students for college, don’t prep them for anything. Underperforming students then beg the question, what the hell is going in high schools, if we have to start over with algebra as a freshman? Or, English 101/102? What have these kids been doing from 9th to 12th grade where they cannot follow instructions later in college?

      But, in full disclosure, I’m about 85% convinced the U.S. 9-12 secondary education system and administration needs a complete and utter overhaul, with more buy-in from business and industry, more focus on vocational schools and trade schools, and a more granular, personal approach to helping identify each student’s own unique skills in order to help them find suitable employment after graduation or help them find an appropriate college/university.


      • I can’t say that I’ve seen a longitudinal trend in the lack of student thinking over the long haul as I started my academic career teaching at the masters level, then the doctoral. But, I ditched the “holier-than-thou-egomaniacal” regional university world for a community college (and sleep much better at night). Nonetheless, I’ve been teaching at the community college/undergrad level for six years now and don’t think things have become worse. They were bad when I got here.

        I differ with you on the possible impetus for the phenomenon though. I wouldn’t put the blame squarely on the shoulders of high schools. I’d spread the blame out a bit. For one, I think students today are well qualified to ace a multiple-choice exam on just about any topic. I attribute this skill to our exam-happy K-12 system that is today a product of our national high-stakes testing environment. Interestingly, Texas is now swinging back the other way. Granted this swing has just as much to do with the anti-Federal government agenda that is ripe in this State as it has to do with educators waking up.

        However, I think there is a growing willful ignorance that has perpetuated American society in general since about 9-11. Texting and tweeting are just symptoms, yet symptoms that perpetuate the root of the problem. There’s no reason to actually do the work to THINK when you can just share the latest Facebook posting that “others” some group in a snarky way that makes you appear as if you know what is going on, or espouses some “fact” someone else wrote…in 144 characters or less. Similarly, you could take the vendor-MOOC as a symptom of our “cheap and easy” educational system that is now perpetuating thoughtless America. This particular topic is fresh on my mind after reading this “Open Letter…from the Philosophy Dept at San Jose State”

        While I’m harping on, I think too that when a post-secondary institution’s faculty is running at 70-80% part-time adjunct taught it makes the situation ripe for dumbing down the students. I continue to hear comments like, “But Mr. XYZ doesn’t make us use APA formatting.” Or, “Mrs. ABC gives all multiple-choice tests,” and so on. Within the ranks of our own faculty when some allow a “list” when the question clearly asks for “define” or “explain,” then you can’t win.


        • First, thank you for the courtesy of a reply. I appreciate your discourse immensely.

          Perhaps, I should clarify my comment where I mistakenly place the blame on secondary education. Secondary educators are not to blame. I am at Secondary Education merely because I see the issues evolving (or, devolving, as the case may be) in the 9-12 environment. I see Secondary Education as the experience where most of the issues I run across should be addressed. As with many problems, Secondary Education is simply a stop on the downhill slide of policies implemented at the top, and then pushed down-slope. Many high school teachers would like to be able to instruct using more “real world” examples, such as my math teacher neighbor. He would like to use more “real world” examples from finance and economics but is locked into teaching from a specific workbook. The workbook addresses the standardized test. Secondary education, then, more accurately, is not the core of the problem, simply on part of a set of symptoms which can be traced back to the state or federal government.

          I’m not sure I agree with you, in total, about students being able to ace MC exams; students do seem to do better on them without a doubt. I still have my share of failing grades, though. Students do prefer “bubbleology” rather than having to apply knowledge or information gathered during a classroom discussion (lecture). The concern of “listing” vs “discuss” then arises.

          I agree with you 100% about the growing willful ignorance perpetuated in American society since 9/11. I haven’t been exactly brave enough to put it in print, so kudos to you. But, yes, in my geography courses I find students extremely challenged by information which we discuss and have students tell me “I don’t know I can overcome my personal biases and feelings even though I see there are different explanations.” Then, why are you attending a university? You collected biases as a child, or a young adult, biases based on incomplete knowledge, or simply wrong or bad information. A person seeking to be a lifelong learner is obligated to challenge preconceived notions and subsequently replace those notions when faced with new, better, or more complete knowledge.

          Finally, due to budget cuts, my primary institution is running at less than 50% adjuncts. Students now have an increased benefit of having a full-time professor in the classroom. However, because of increase class size, faculty are using more objective types of exams. Less writing, less thinking, easier to grade – but, what are we evaluating, really? With such a broad spectrum of allowances, you are correct, “winning” is hardly an option. The silver lining might be the upper-level classes, 300+ and above. In my upper-level courses, I try to impress upon students their work will always be a reflection upon them, whether in university, or beyond. “Your work may get you a recommendation, may earn you an assistantship, may earn you a co-op. Conversely, the quality of work may prevent you from getting faculty letters of recommendation, being passed over for internships, and being passed over for promotions. Decide which camp you’d prefer to be in.”

          Again, thanks for taking the time to provide some valuable insight, and helping me clarify my position on high school education.


        • And to think, I landed here because I was looking for ways to use UAVs for geography and anthropology.

          I do think secondary education has its fair share of the blame, just like I think our part-time faculty who do not have a vested interest in student learning, AND increasing numbers of students in classes also contribute.

          My full-time colleague (there are 2 of us FT and 4 – 6 part-time adjuncts depending on the semester) and I had a long discussion about student evaluations that also plays into this “student devolution” question. At my former regional university pay raises within the Geography Dept. were based on your student evaluation “score.” I was above the mean, but only barely. The scores were measured on one question and to the 100th decimal place. The more “popular” you were, the more you got paid. So, why question “listing” vs. “a solid explanation or discussion” if popular is the aim (it’s not all the PT instructors’ fault either, mind you).

          Nowadays, at my community college, my student evaluation scores are just above 3.6 or so on a 5-point scale. There’s the occasional 4+. So too are my FT professor colleague’s. She and I teach the bulk of the day courses ranging from Physical to World to Cultural Geography. Our PT colleagues generally tend to “score” above us. After tracking this for several semesters (I coordinate the program, so I have to track these sorts of things anyway) we noticed the the two FT professors (she and I) are almost always below our PT peers…it wasn’t just a one off deal. After discussion we finally figured out it had to do with rigor. She and I, vested in the college, she working on tenure, I have it as of next August, are always holding our students up to a high standard. We want them to learn, this is our life, learning is our chosen career. Now, at this institution, student evals are a minor part of our promotion and tenure, so it’s okay to be more rigorous and maybe not as popular (as long as you’re not scoring in the low 1s, 2, 3s).

          My point…education gets what instructors are rewarded for. However, in the “teacher accountability pay scale” argument the day my paycheck is based on how many students pass my class will be the day everyone passes (thus lower rigor you see).

          So, there are so many issues at hand. And, yes, I was exaggerating about students passing any multiple-choice exam. But, dammit, “discuss” means “discuss.”


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