Motivating Student Writers to Revise

writingby Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

Recently, I was invited to facilitate a workshop with faculty on working with student writers.  It’s a topic very close to my heart; for almost 15 years, I taught composition classes to undergraduates at all levels, and I served for a time as director of a composition program.  It’s also a topic many instructors want to talk about, for various reasons.

Sometimes, they’re frustrated by what they see as students’ inability and/or unwillingness to write appropriately for an academic setting.  Sometimes, they’re stymied by their own unmet desire to grade flawless, grammatically-perfect prose.  Sometimes, instructors are just at a loss about how to motivate students to take their own ideas and writing seriously.

For many of us, writing = thinking.  As Laurel Richardson has written, “I write because I want to find something out.  I write in order to learn something that I did not know before I wrote it.”  However, John C. Bean (in his wonderfully useful Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom), and numerous others, have pointed out that this is not the relationship most undergraduates have to writing.  Instead, they write in order to show their instructors that they “know” things, that they can provide the “right” answer; they don’t, as Bean says, see knowledge as dialectical, the way most academics do.

Perhaps one aspect of helping students to move to a more dialectical way of thinking about knowledge – and particularly, about what they know – is to motivate them to engage writing as a tool for thinking.  But this is hard to do when so few student writers revise in a deep way. For many of us, writing isn’t the act that matters; RE-writing is.

So, how can faculty promote a culture of revision for their students – and perhaps motivate student writers to revise more?  Here are five suggestions:

Scaffold writing assignments: Break down longer writing assignments into smaller tasks and ask for bits and pieces building up to the final deadline.  Providing a small bit of formative feedback on those tasks can help, too.

Allow re-writes: Maybe not always or without constraints, but for students who truly miss the mark – or who truly take up the call to revise – provide an opportunity for deep and substantive revision to improve their grades.

Share your work/experience: Often, it’s hard for students to believe that even professionals and academics write in messy, chaotic phases before the finished product is complete.  Sharing your own writing struggles or even drafts of your own works-in-progress can be valuable in promoting a culture of revision in your classes.

Set a “fake” deadline: On the day essays are due in your class, ask students to flip them over and write a quick self-assessment on the back: maybe 2-3 things they think they did really effectively in the paper and 2-3 things they would do to the paper “if only they had 2 more days.”  Then, give them two more days, and require them to make substantive revisions, based on the areas for improvement they’ve already identified.  (An alternative: ask students to identify “the one fatal flaw” in their essays; then send them away to address it.)

Grade “responsively”: When reading student essays, try to de-emphasize “correctness” and privilege instead responding to each writer’s ideas. Years ago, I read some wonderful advice: stop “grading” essays, and start “reading” them.  If we take students’ work seriously, we should try to inhabit a reader-ly perspective, rather than a grader-ly one.  Indeed, if we want students to better understand that they have readers, we must demonstrate that someone is actually listening to their writer-ly voice.

Of course, these are just a few broad suggestions.  You probably have other tried-and-true strategies for motivating student writers to revise.  If so, please share them in the Comments section.

If you’d like to talk about these (or any other) strategies for working with student writers, come see us in the Reinert Center.

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