College Writing Tips: Explain Yourself

My teaching career began in the fall of 1997 when a faculty member experienced a heartache 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 traveling throughout a South Asian country.

The more I read, the more patterns in writing emerged. Not just patterns in though; 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 for 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.

Below, 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.

College Writing Tip Nine: Explain Yourself

“Geography is important. I live in a town with many industries. Several restaurants serve ethnic good. I see people from different cultures at stores around town. The town does not have an airport. If I want to fly somewhere I can drive to a larger town and use the airport there. Flying from that airport is expensive, and there are only a few flights to a couple places. If I want to fly some place nice, I have to drive a while to the closest city. Now, that airport can take me anywhere I want to go.”

What have I said?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. A student writing the above for me is likely to get a zero; maybe a “1” for providing me with prose without grammatical errors.

Let’s try this assignment again.

“Geography is important. I live in a small town, Busbyville, Ky. Busbyville, Ky., has a population of about 20,000 people, which supports a variety of businesses and industries. A major auto part maker, Awesome Auto Parts, has a factory here. Their parts are transported by rail all over the United States to automakers, and part supply stores. The Busby County Airport is a local airport with one runway; connecting to other cities is basically non-existent unless a local pilot is hired. Residents of Busbyville can drive to Paducah, Ky., and fly out of Barkley Field to Louisville, Ky., or maybe St. Louis or Memphis. Flying from Paducah can be expensive, and the choices of destinations are limited. Busbyville residents often drive 2hrs to Nashville, Tn., and fly from Berry-Nashville Airport to cities all over the United States, like Atlanta, or Detroit. Atlanta and Detroit are common connections for flying to Europe, the Caribbean, or South America.”

See the difference?

Writing MUST include examples, real, explicit examples of knowledge. Students have no choice but to provide evidence of their knowledge. Faculty are obligated to grade based on the use of examples. Students are obligated to provide real, explicit details of their knowledge which provide faculty evidence of a student’s ability to apply knowledge.

Perhaps “obligated” is too strong. Obligation implies a lack of choice. Students always have a choice about how they choose to approach their homework, their work ethic, setting their own priorities. College students are adults. Many college students, fresh from high school, are still in their “high school state-of-mind” and fail to realize they have become adults once they reach college. Some students fresh from high school are also parents. I’ve not run across too many freshman men who admit to being fathers. The mothers are easy to spot; she is the one left holding the child, or children. But, being a parent and student is not an excuse for not paying attention to assignment instructions.

Welcome to adulthood.

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