Helping Students Write Better in All Courses

[From the hard copy book Tools for Teaching by Barbara Gross Davis; Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco, 1993. Linking to this book chapter from other websites is permissible. However, the contents of this chapter may not be copied, printed, or distributed in hard copy form without permission.]

Few faculty would deny the importance of writing in their academic discipline or the role writing plays in mastering material, shaping ideas, and developing critical thinking skills. Writing helps students learn the subject matter: they understand and retain course material much better when they write about it.

You don’t have to be a writing specialist – or even an accomplished writer – to improve your students’ writing skills, and you don’t have to sacrifice hours of class time or grading time. The ideas that follow are designed to make writing more integral to your courses and less onerous to you and your students.

  General Strategies

View the improvement of students’ writing as your responsibility. Many faculty erroneously believe that teaching writing is the job of the English department or composition program alone. Not true! Writing is an essential tool for learning a discipline. Helping students improve their writing skills is therefore the responsibility of all faculty.

Let students know that you value good writing. Stress the importance of clear, thoughtful writing. As Elbow (1987) has noted, you can require competent writing without knowing how to teach composition. In general, faculty who tell students that good writing will be rewarded and poor writing will be penalized receive better essays than instructors who don’t make such demands. In the syllabus, on the first day of class, and throughout the term, remind students that they must make their best efforts in expressing themselves on paper. Back up your statements with comments on early assignments that show you really mean it, and students will respond. (Source: Elbow, 1987)

Regularly assign brief writing exercises in your classes. Writing is a complex set of skills that requires continuous practice. You need not assign weekly papers to give students experience in writing. To vary the pace of a lecture course, ask students to write for a few minutes during class. Some mixture of in-class writing, outside writing assignments, and exams with open-ended questions will give students the practice they need to improve their skills. (Source: Tollefson, 1988)

Provide guidance throughout the writing process. After you have made an assignment, discuss the value of outlines and notes, explain how to select and narrow a topic, and critique first drafts. Define plagiarism as well; see “Preventing Academic Dishonesty.” (Source: Tollefson, 1988)

Don’t feel as though you have to read and grade every piece of your students’ writing. Since students are writing primarily to learn a subject, it is better to have them write than not write, even if you cannot evaluate each piece of writing. Ask students to analyze each other’s work during class, or ask them to critique their work in small groups. Or simply have students write for their own purposes, without any feedback. Students will learn that they are writing in order to think more clearly, not to obtain a grade. Keep in mind, too, that you can collect students’ papers and skim their work. (Source: Watkins, 1990)

Find other faculty members who are trying to use writing more effectively in their courses. Share the writing assignments you have developed and discuss how students did on the assignments. Pool ideas about ways in which writing can help students learn more about the subject matter. See if there is sufficient interest to warrant drawing up writing guidelines for your discipline. Students welcome handouts that give them specific instructions on how to write papers for a particular course or in a particular subject area.

  Teaching Writing When You Are Not an English Teacher

Remind students that writing is a process that helps us clarify ideas. Tell them that writing is a way of learning, not an end in itself. Let students know that none of us knows exactly what we think about a topic or issue until we put our views on paper. Also let students know that writing is a complicated, messy, nonlinear process filled with false starts. Help them identify the writer’s key activities:

  • Developing ideas
  • Finding a focus and a thesis
  • Composing a draft
  • Getting feedback and comments from others
  • Revising the draft by expanding ideas, clarifying meaning, reorganizing
  • Editing
  • Presenting the finished work to readers

Explain that writing is hard work. Share with your class your own struggles in grappling with difficult topics. If they know that writing takes effort, they won’t be discouraged by their pace or progress. One faculty member shares with students a notebook that contains the chronology of one of his published articles: first ideas, successive drafts, submitted manuscript, reviewers’ suggested changes, revised version, galley proofs, and published article (Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education, 1989).

Give students opportunities to talk about their writing. Students need to talk about papers in progress so that they can formulate their thoughts, generate ideas, and focus their topics. It is also important for students to hear what their peers have written. Take five or ten minutes of class time for students to read their writing to each other in small groups or pairs or to talk about what they plan to write.

Encourage students to revise their work. Provide formal steps for revision. For example, ask students to submit first drafts of papers for your review or for peer critique. Or give students the option of revising and rewriting one assignment during the term for a higher grade. Faculty who extend this invitation to their students report that 10 to 40 percent of the students take advantage of it. (Source: Lowman, 1984)

Explain thesis statements. A thesis statement makes an assertion about some issue: “The savings and loan crisis resulted from the relaxation of government regulations.” A common student problem is to write papers that have a diffuse thesis statement (“The savings and loan crisis has caused major problems”) or papers that present overviews of facts with no thesis statement.

Stress clarity and specificity. Let students know that the more abstract and difficult the topic, the more concrete their language should be (Tollefson, 1988). Tell students that inflated language and academic jargon camouflage rather than clarify their point.

Explain the importance of grammar and sentence structure, as well as content. Don’t let students fall back on the rationalization that only English teachers should be judges of grammar and style. Tell students you will be looking at both the quality of their writing and the content.

Distribute bibliographies and tip sheets on good writing practices.Check with your English department, composition program, or writing center to identify materials that can easily be distributed to students. Consider giving students a bibliography of writing guides, for example:

Crews, F. C. Random House Handbook. (6th ed.) New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992. A classic comprehensive textbook for college students. Well written and well worth reading.

Lanham, R. A. Revising Prose. (3rd ed.) New York: Scribner’s, 1991. Techniques for eliminating bureaucratese and restoring energy to tired prose.

Tollefson, S. K. Grammar Grams and Grammar Grams II. New York: HarperCollins, 1989, 1992. Two short, witty guides that answer common questions about grammar, style, and usage. Both are fun to read.

Discipline-specific guides may also be useful. Petersen (1982) has a dated but good bibliography on writing in particular content areas. Other publications follow.

Science and Engineering

Barrass, R. Scientists Must Write. New York: Chapman and Hall, 1978.

Biddle, A. W., and Bean, D. J. Writer’s Guide: Life Sciences. Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1987.

Connolly, P., and Vilvardi, T. (eds.). Writing to Learn Mathematics and Science. New York: Teachers College Press, 1989.

Day, R. A. How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper. (3rd ed.) Philadelphia: ISI Press, 1988.

Maimon, E. P., and others. Writing in the Arts and Sciences. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981.

Michaelson, R. How to Write and Publish Engineering Papers and Reports. Philadelphia: ISI Press, 1990.

Arts and Humanities

Barnet, S. A Sbort Guide to Writing About Art. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989. Biddle, A. W., Steffens, H. J., Dickerson, M. J., and Fulwiler, T. Writer’s Guide: History. Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1987.

Goldman, B. Reading and Writing in the Arts. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1978.

Social Sciences

Biddle, A. W., Fulwiler, 1, and Holland, K. M. Writer’s Guide: Psychology. Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1987.

Biddle, A. W., Holland, K. M., and Fulwiler, T. Writer’s Guide: Political Science. Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1987.

Lanham, R. A. Revising Business Prose. (3rd ed.) New York: Scribner’s, 1991.

McCloskey, D. N. The Writing of Economics. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Steward, J. S., and Smelstor, M. Writing in the Social Sciences. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1984.

Tallent, N. Psychological Report Writing. (4th ed.) Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1992.

Ask a composition instructor to give a presentation to your students. Invite a guest speaker to talk to your class about effective writing and common writing problems. Faculty who have invited experts from composition departments or student learning centers report that such presentations reinforce the values of the importance of writing.

Let students know about available tutoring services. Most campuses offer individual or group tutoring in writing. Distribute brochures or ask someone from the tutoring center to give a demonstration in your class.

Use computers to help students write better. Faculty are beginning to use commercially available and locally developed software to help students plan, write, and revise their written work. Some software lets instructors monitor students’ work in progress and lets students collaborate with their classmates. Holdstein and Selfe (1990) and Hawisher and Selfe (1989) discuss computers and composition.

  Assigning In-Class Writing Activities

Ask students to write what they know about a topic before you discuss it. Before discussing a topic or lecturing on it, ask students to write a brief account of what they already know about the subject or what opinions they hold. You need not collect these; the purpose is to focus students’ attention. (Source: Tollefson, 1988)

Ask students to respond in writing to questions you pose during class. For example, at the beginning of a class, list two or three short-answer questions on the board and ask students to write their responses. The questions might call for a review of material previously covered or test student’s recall of the assigned readings. Asking students to write down their responses also helps generate more lively discussion because students will have a chance to think about the material. (Source: Tollefson, 1988)

Ask students to write from a pro or con position. When an argument has been presented in class, stop for a few minutes and ask students to write down all the reasons and evidence they can think of that supports one side or the other. Use these statements as the basis for discussion. (Source: Walvoord, 1986)

During class, pause for a three-minute write. Periodically ask students to write for three minutes on a specific question or topic. Tell students to write freely, whatever pops into their minds without worrying about grammar, spelling, phrasing, or organization. Writing experts believe that this kind of free writing helps students synthesize diverse ideas and identify points they don’t understand. You need not collect these exercises. (Source: Tollefson, 1988)

Have students write a brief summary at the end of class. Give students two or three minutes to jot down the key themes, major points, or general principles of the day’s discussion. If you give students index cards to write on, you can easily collect and review them to see whether your class understood the discussion.

Have one student keep minutes to be read at the next class meeting. Taking minutes gives students a chance to develop their listening, synthesizing, and writing skills. Boris (1983) suggests the following procedure:

  • Prepare your students by having everyone in class take careful notes for a period, rework them at home as minutes, and hand them in for comments. Leave it to students’ discretion whether the minutes are in outline or narrative form.
  • Select one or two good models to read or distribute to the class.
  • At the start of each of the following classes, assign one student to take the minutes for the day.
  • Give the person who takes the minutes a piece of carbon paper so that you can have a carbon copy of the rough minutes. This person then takes home the original and revises it in time to read it aloud at the next class meeting.
  • After the student has read the minutes, ask the class to comment on their accuracy and quality. The student then revises the minutes, if necessary, and turns in two copies, one for grading and one for your files.

Structure small group discussion around a writing task. For example, ask each student to pick three words of major importance to the day’s session. Then ask the class to write freely for two or three minutes on one of the words. Next, give the students five to ten minutes to meet in groups of three, sharing what they have written and generating questions to ask in class.

Use peer response groups. Divide the class into groups of three or four students, no larger. Tell your students to bring to class enough copies of a rough draft of a paper for each member of their group. Give students guidelines for critiquing the drafts. The most important step in any response task is for the reader to note the part of the paper that is the strongest and describe to the writer why it worked well. Readers can also be given the following instructions (adapted from Walvoord, 1986, p. 113):

  • State the main point of the paper in a single sentence.
  • List the major subtopics.
  • Identify confusing sections of the paper.
  • Decide whether each section of the paper has enough detail, evidence, and information.
  • Indicate whether the paper’s points follow one another in sequence.
  • Judge the appropriateness of the opening and concluding paragraphs.
  • Identify the strengths of the paper.

The critiques may be done during class time, but written critiques done as homework are likely to be more thoughtful. Use class time for the groups to discuss each paper and critique. Students then revise their drafts for submission.

Use read-around groups. Read-around groups allow everyone to read everyone else’s paper. The technique works best for short assignments (two to four pages). Divide the class into groups of four students, no larger, and divide the papers (coded for anonymity) into as many sets as there are groups. Give each group a set and ask students to read each paper silently and select the best paper in the set. Each group discusses their choices and comes to consensus on the best paper. The paper’s code number is recorded by the group, and the process is repeated with a new set of papers. After all the sets have been read by all the groups, someone from each group writes on the board the code number of the best paper in each set. Recurring numbers are circled. Typically, one to three papers stand out. (Source: Pytlik, 1989)

Ask students to identify the characteristics of effective writing. After students have completed the read-around activity, ask them to reconsider those papers voted as excellent by the entire class and to jot down features that made each paper outstanding. Record their comments on the board, asking for elaboration and probing vague generalities (for example, “The paper was interesting.” “What made the paper interesting?”). In pairs, students discuss the comments on the board and try to place them in categories such as organization, awareness of audience, thoroughness of detail, and so on. You may need to help the students arrange the characteristics into meaningful categories. (Source: Pytlik, 1989)


Boris, E. Z. “Classroom Minutes: A Valuable Teaching Device.” Improving College and University Teaching, 1983, 31(2), 70-73.

Elbow, P. “Using Writing to Teach Something Else.” Unpublished paper, 1987.

Hawisher, G. E., and Selfe, C. L. (eds.). Critical Perspectives on Computers and Composition Instruction. New York: Teachers College Press, 1989.

Holdstein, D. H., and Selfe, C. L. (eds.). Computers and Writing: Theory, Research, Practice. New York: Modern Language Association, 1990.

Lowman, J. Mastering the Techniques of Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1984.

Petersen, B. T. “Additional Resources in the Practice of Writing Across the Disciplines.” In C. W. Griffin (ed.), Teaching Writing in All Disciplines. New Directions in Teaching and Learning, no. 12. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1982.

Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education. Bright Idea Network, 1989. (For information contact David Graf, Iowa State University, Ames.)

Pytlik, B. P. “Teaching Teachers of Writing: Workshops on Writing as a Collaborative Process.” College Teaching, 1989, 37(l), 12-14.

Tollefson, S. K. Encouraging Student Writing. Berkeley: Office of Educational Development, University of California, 1988.

Walvoord, B. F. Helping Students Write Well: A Guide for Teachers in All Disciplines. (2nd ed.) New York: Modern Language Association, 1986.

Watkins, B. T. “More and More Professors in Many Academic Disciplines Routinely Require Students to Do Extensive Writing.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 1990, 36(44), pp. A13-14, A16.