Writing and thinking are intricately bound. Whenever we learn to think in new ways (as students do each time they enter a new classroom or encounter a new subject), we also need to learn to write in new ways, and we learn both more fully when we are explicitly taught both, in concert. These “new ways” of writing include both new thought processes (for instance, learning to analyze a primary document, or to ask new kinds of questions about evidence) and new forms, or genres (for instance, a research abstract, grant proposal, ethnography, or literary close reading).
Students must juggle many new concepts and methods at once. New information and concepts, new methods of thought, new conventions of communication, often a somewhat new vocabulary, and new audience expectations factor in each time students begin to write in a new subject.
Students need to grapple with the “big picture” first as they write. Essential starting questions include, How do concepts relate to each other? What makes evidence effective for this kind of argument? How do I perform the methods of analysis in this discipline? How do I define a useful central question or issue to explore? Students need some clear instruction and focus at this “big picture”stage, and enough time to work through mis-steps and misunderstandings, usually with some feedback and guidance. Thus, assignments work best when they are sequenced or scaffolded, with larger conceptual tasks explained, and with adequate time for revision.
Writing is a process, not a product. In this regard, writing is not the end product of learning in the way that an exam is; instead, writing is itself the process of learning, and students require instruction, feedback, and support throughout the process.
Sentence-level problems often emerge from conceptual struggles. Conceptual confusions at the “big-picture” level often cause syntax and grammar problems at the surface level. This does not necessarily mean that students didn’t try hard, or that they have underlying grammar problems. It means that students are still in the early stages of learning the methods and concepts of the discipline, and that the twists and missteps of their thinking processes are reflected in the twists and missteps of their syntax. (Thus, responding to the “big picture” first, in your comments, will help students sort out these issues better than focusing primarily on the sentence-level issues).
Students need to revise thoroughly as a way of deepening their knowledge and understanding of the material. Revision should literally mean the process of “re-seeing”—re-envisioning—the purpose, structure, methods, evidence, etc. of the project. Deep revision takes time, and providing sufficient time and support for revision is necessary for this process of re-thinking to occur. If revisions are too rushed, students will merely edit and polish their papers, cleaning up the surface of a project that actually needs to be taken apart and put back together more effectively. Even very strong papers can be revised in this manner; no undergraduate is yet a master of the material.
Students need to recognize their audience. Because writing is an act of communication as well as an act of thinking, students need interactions with their audience in order to more effectively communicate their ideas. This means that instructors must provide detailed feedback, but it also means that students benefit from receiving peer feedback regularly, and from reading the kinds of texts that are expected to produce. As they internalize a sense of their audience, both through direct feedback on their own writing, and through analyzing the genre that they’re attempting to produce (and thus recognizing, as an audience themselves, what the expectations are), they become better able to internalize the “moves”—the means of introducing, structuring, developing, etc.—of this genre of writing.
Students need to write both informally and formally about the content. Writing is a tool of learning, and informal writing about a topic—in journal responses, forum discussions, lists, outlines, brainstorms, letters, etc.—allows students the room to develop, to try out ideas in written form. This kind of writing need not be graded for its quality; instead, it’s the sometimes messy process of idea formation and clarification, of learning, and a quality grade can potentially truncate that learning.