I’m teaching a ‘foundations of educational technology’ course this fall. One parallel emphasis of the course will be improving students’ skills in reading and writing about research and theory, as this is their first graduate course. Last February I ran across a dissertation by Susan Kanter that had a really nice summary paragraph about how to let students write research papers without killing their enthusiasm or interest in the process:
Analysis of these data led to the following findings: students are more engaged when invited to select their own research topics; many students are particularly challenged by reading source materials and building connections between these authors’ ideas and their own, while classroom instruction typically places greater emphasis on locating appropriate sources and drafting the research paper; students compose their research papers to meet teacher expectations, whether explicitly modeled or implied, making engagement difficult to infer from student texts; and, student engagement increases when professors place primary emphasis in grading on content and rhetorical quality, rather than on accuracy of form or documentation style. These findings suggest that alternative approaches to the research paper assignment may increase student engagement, especially when students have autonomy in selecting and developing their research topics.
A few extra things missing from that paragraph that I’d mention too are: revisions, stress, audience, and time. Writing for a grade is stressful. Is your professor anal about certain grammatical errors? Does your professor actually disagree with a point of view you are advocating, which might in turn hurt your grade? How many of us really write perfectly in the first draft? I learned a great deal about writing when my undergraduate advisor marked up a chapter of my thesis with how she would have written the ideas I was trying to convey. So I’m trying something similar in our course this fall. It takes more work on the part of the professor, but I think it is something that can be very helpful to students and should be done at least once. Students turn in a draft of their papers, get them marked up with revisions and suggestions, and then turn in a final draft later that counts for the majority of the grade. Hopefully that will eliminate some of the stress of writing. In later writing assignments, students can review and mark up each others writing, especially if you are using a shared writing tool such as a wiki or google docs.
Also, blogging has been shown in various studies to increase one’s practice and interest in writing. You are writing for a greater audience than just your instructor. Real people can actually view what you write. Also blogging is a bit more of an informal writing environment, where you can focus on meaning and content, and let style and grammar issues from practice rather than be the primary focus (which can hurt student engagement as mention in the above dissertation excerpt).
Lastly, writing, like programming and many other skills takes years not weeks or months to really learn well. I’m not expecting students in my java course either to be master programmers after 3 months, but have a starting point, a grounding upon which they can continue to learn on their own if they choose.