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”