Friday, December 18, 2009

New, Improved Writing Guide for SNL Students

Just in time for the holidays, get your new, improved Writing Guide ( featuring examples of travel study externship journals, an interview with a prolific ILP writer, and so much more!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Got great papers?

As you finish up your grading, be sure to invite students who have written stellar papers to submit their work to the Writing Showcase (

Students Respond to Teacher Comments

Interviewers analyzed teacher comments and asked students at Frenso State University how they understand teacher comments, how they respond to teacher comments, what they think of peer comments, if they think race or gender influence they comments they receive, and which teacher comments they found most and least helpful.

Monday, November 16, 2009

DePaul University Writing Center Final Exam Hours

DePaul University Writing Center Final Exam Hours:
Writers, please note our deadlines and PLAN AHEAD!

LAST DAY of regular operations:  Tuesday, November 17, 2009 (the last day of classes)
LAST DAY to request Feedback by Email:  Thursday, November 19 (the second day of finals) – Due to the extremely high volume of requests, turnaround currently is 5-6 business days.

EXAM WEEK SERVICES, Wednesday, November 18 through Saturday, November 21:
LPC & Loop Offices:  Wednesday, November 18:  10:00 am to 5:00 pm
LPC & Loop Offices:  Thursday, November 19: 10:00 – 8:00
LPC & Loop Offices:  Friday, November 20:  10:00 am - 5:00 pm
LPC ONLY: Saturday, November 21:  11:00 am – 4:00 pm
LPC Library Outpost Hours, Richardson library Reference Desk area:  Friday 11:00 – 3:00

We must limit appointments during finals week, due to the volume of requests
You may schedule only ONE appointment in advance ( 
Subsequent visits can be made on a walk-in basis only.
If our online schedule looks completely booked, please know that we will have extra tutors on hand to accommodate walk-in visitors. 

The Writing Center will be closed after 4 pm Saturday, November 21.  The offices will reopen January 11, 2010.

Best wishes for a successful end to the quarter.  We appreciate your continued interest and support!

University Center for Writing-based Learning
Writing Center Office Locations:
Lincoln Park Campus Office: 250 McGaw Hall
802 W. Belden, Chicago IL  60614  773.325.4272
Chicago Loop Campus Office: 1600 Lewis Center
25 E. Jackson Blvd., Chicago IL  60604  312.362.6726

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Using WIMBA for an online writing workshop

If your online class requires writing and you want to help your students be better writers, you don't have to tackle the issue alone. Last Sunday in slightly more than an hour in the WIMBA classroom of my current class, Michelle Navarre Cleary held an informative, interactive mini workshop on writing strong essays.

The workshop was optional for students and for those who could not attend, it was archived so that they could review it at a convenient time. Michelle crafted the content to address particular issues from the first and second essays in the class and then used actual student papers (the students volunteered to have them used anonymously) to show examples of things done well, almost well and needing attention. She provided links to helpful resources as well.

In the session itself she took questions on the fly and really personalized the information provided to meet the needs of the students. And this was done while there were still several essays to submit so that the students would have the opportunity to improve their class work right away. In fact, I've just received the next group of papers so I can't wait to see how her ideas have been incorporated.

I'm glad I invited Michelle to do this workshop and plan to make it a part of every class from now on.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Helping your students understand what you mean by an essay

"Write an essay on . . . ." While this may seem like a simple request, many of our students have no idea what we mean by an essay. You can help them out by pointing them to this "Quick Guide to the 'Traditional Academic' Essay" from Elizabeth Coughlin, Assistant Director for the DePaul University Writing Center: 

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Morning and Afternoon Saturday Writing Groups now at Naperville

The Writing Center is leading morning (10:30 to noon) and afternoon (12:30 to 2:00) Writing Groups on Saturdays at the Naperville Campus. To learn more about these Writing Groups, see 

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A cool tool for getting words on the page

Many students tell me the hardest part of writing a paper is getting started.  "Writer or Die" ( is a tool for freewriting that helps writers get past the blank page and start generating material that they can later rework and revise. You might even require students to do a "Writer or Die" session after you first assign a paper. You don't need to have them give you this very rough draft, but you could ask that they e-mail you a copy of the "Bragging Widget," which tells how much they wrote in what period of time. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The struggle to “sound like” a college student

This is one of a series of postings reporting on the findings from my interviews and work with SNL students about their development as writers. These interviews started last fall. I continue to meet with some of the study students each quarter to follow their progress. All student names have been changed.

Like many of the students I spoke with, Tiffany and Melina’s writing is weakened because of their anxiety about and attempts to sound like college writers. This posting shows how Tiffany and Melina struggle with how to communicate as college students and presents some ways you can help students like them.

Like many adult students, Tiffany and Melina have ample confidence in some spheres of their lives while being intimidated in others. Tiffany home schooled her sons and is a landlord who acts as a de facto social worker for her tenants. When talking with her one-on-one, it is hard to get a word in edgewise. In class, she never speaks. She says, “I’m like I know this stuff but why in class I freeze up? “ She reports doing better in a "more casual setting." Similarly, Melina wonders why she is a leader in her social circle, but at work and at school she is not. Friends and acquaintances come to her for advice and help, while at work and school she is afraid to speak up:
I’m the leader. I take charge of everything. I’m always in control of everything. Everybody comes to me for advice, for help, for anything. But then, when it comes to work or when it comes to school, I shut down. I’ll have things in my head when the teacher is asking questions like, “What did you guys think of the chapter I asked you guys to read?” I’ll have things that I want to say but I won’t say ‘em. I don’t know why that happens to me . . . And they’ll tell me, everybody’s like you know you’re so smart, you know what you’re talking about and you… speak well and blah, blah, blah but and I know that I do and… I always tell myself well why, why can’t I just come out and be that person in school? Or at work… It doesn’t happen, I don’t know.
While confident speakers in certain parts of their lives, Tiffany and Melina freeze up at school because they are afraid to say the wrong thing and to say it in the wrong way.

They both struggle with college writing assignments because they are unsure how to write like a college student. Although Tiffany journals for two to three hours a day as part of her spiritual practice, she feels “intimidated” and “inadequate” as a writer. She says “my stuff is like kindergarten . . . like children’s stuff.” To write more “scholarly,” she attempts to imitate the style and language of what she reads for class and she uses the thesaurus on her computer to make her writing sound “better.”

Like Tiffany’s journaling, Melina enjoys writing long letters to friends and family. However, at work, Melina labors over her e-mails to make sure they sound “businessy like.” For more important work writing tasks, she asks a friend with communications degree “how does this sound?” Like a number or students in this study, Melina fears that her writing will give away her lack of a college degree.

When writing for school, Melina has plenty to say. Her concern is that her readers will not “understand what I’m trying to say” because of “the way I’m writing it.” She also worries that her writing is not what she is “trying to put out you know?” The issue for Melina is not just with being able to communicate her ideas to an academic audience, but also with how she communicates and thus what messages she sends about herself.

Tiffany and Melina are in a bind. They want to communicate to their professors and peers as college students, but they have had very little experience as college students. Both first-generation college students, Tiffany relies upon her children and a college graduate friend while Melina turns to her co-workers with degrees for guidance.

The desire of students like Tiffany and Melina to sound like college writers can result in a multitude of problems including procrastination, writing that borrows too much from the structure and language of a source, and writing that is so wordy and convoluted as to be almost unreadable. For example, Melina strives to be more formal by using phrases like “structuralize the context.” When asked about this wording, she said she was trying to “sound like school.”

These problems are not unique to returning adult students. Scholars have shown that, in becoming college writers, students of all ages struggle to learn the conventions of academic writing and so sound like college students (for example, Carroll, Herrington and Curtis). Rebecca Moore Howard argues that this learning may involve imitation and copying that borders on or is plagiarism (for more on why students plagiarize and what you can do to prevent it, see Theresa Lillis shows how the taking on of an academic voice can be particularly fraught for working-class students like Tiffany and Melina who may find their home languages and cultures devalued by the academy.

For adult students, the stakes are arguably higher than for younger students. Melina knows that her ability to sound professional directly impacts her ability to be successful at work. Tiffany had to send her home-schooled child to a community college to learn English because she could not teach him. While she suffered the embarrassment of learning to swim with her children, she could not bring herself to take English classes with them.

You can help students like Tiffany and Melina by demystifying college writing and making clear what your expectations are. Giving students examples of excellent work from previous students is a good way to give them a more realistic idea of what they are being asked to do. You can choose these examples to highlight the variety of ways students can approach the assignment.

Even more helpful, is to give students feedback on their writing early in the quarter. This feedback helps students calibrate their sense of audience. Tiffany explained that before receiving feedback from her teacher, she was anxious because, “I don’t know what he’s looking for.” After receiving feedback, she better understood her teacher’s expectations and so, “I felt more confident to start just being more open . . . and not feeling so intimidated cause . . . he was able to understand my writing.” Once liberated, Tiffany stops worrying about sounding like a college student and starts writing like one.

Works Cited

Carroll, Lee Ann. Rehearsing New Roles: How College Students Develop as Writers. Studies in Writing & Rhetoric. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2002.

Herrington, Anne J., and Marcia Curtis. Persons in Process: Four Stories of Writing and Personal Development in College. Reconfiguring English Studies. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2000.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Plagiarisms, authorships, and the academic death penalty.” College English. 57 (1995): 788-807. ProQuest Education Journals. ProQuest. DePaul University Libraries, Chicago, IL. 18 December 2005

Lillis, Theresa M. Student Writing: Access, Regulation, Desire. London: Routledge, 2001.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Suburban Campus Writing Groups Starting 9/26

Encourage your students to participate in one of the Suburban Campus Writing Groups. These Saturday morning writing groups will be convenient not only for suburban campus students, but also for Loop and online students who live in the suburbs.

Both seasoned and struggling writers are sure to gain valuable insights by attending. Studies show that writers improve most when they are able to gain multiple perspectives on their work. These groups give students such an opportunity, all while helping them become more effective writers and training them to give the best feedback possible to others. See the comments below from SNL students who participated in these groups in the Winter and Spring Quarters.

This quarter writing groups on the Suburban Campuses begin on September 26 and continue to November 14. Groups are facilitated by consultants from the University Center for Writing-based Learning and will meet from 10 to 11:30 am. 

Students can sign up for he full eight week session or only four weeks (Sept. 26 to Oct. 17 or Oct. 24 to Nov. 14) by emailing the Suburban Campus Writing Group coordinator at

Some comments from SNL participants:

“This was a perfectly timed and very positive experience for me. When I say that Morgan “saved my life,” I am exaggerating only slightly.  I had been carving away at the block marble and trying to find the “angel” within it before he led me to the answer. Following that meeting, my instructor recognized the improvement between successive drafts, and my submitted final earned a good deal of praise from her.”

“Tom and Morgan were knowledgeable, polite, enthusiastic, and they appeared to really enjoy what they were doing.  Their engagement with each of us created a comfort zone. I felt and saw in other participants a willingness to share ideas and to address specific writing challenges… I enjoyed the immediate and warm connection between all of us and felt that newcomers immediately became part of the group. I saw courtesy, respect, patience and encouragement. I saw (and felt no lack of my own) excitement when ‘something clicked.’ I just wanted to run right home and get to work, rather than avoid the assignment as happened when I lacked focus.“

Some comments from Exit Surveys:

I really liked how we learned how to break down essays (writing process).

The day and time of the SCWG [Suburban Campus Writing Group] meetings were very convenient.

It has improved my writing skills.

The thing I liked best about my SCWG experience was the one-on-one help.

I liked everything about my SCWG experience.

Some stats:

60% of participants who responded to the exit survey were advised by an instructor to join an SCWG.

80% of participants who responded to the exit survey said this was their first experience with the Writing Center.

90% of participants who responded to the exit survey were “very satisfied” with their experience with the SCWGs.  10% were “satisfied.”

60% of participants who responded to the exit survey were “very satisfied” with the level of writing knowledge the SCWG Leaders exhibited during meetings. 40% were “satisfied.”

100% of participants who responded to the exit survey said they were “very likely” to participate in another SCWG.

40% of participants who responded to the exit survey used other Writing Center services during the quarter they were registered for the SCWG; 50% of those participated in a face-to-face appointment at the Writing Center; 100% of those scheduled feedback by e-mail appointments; 0% scheduled a webcam/IM appointment or used the quick questions feature.

100% of participants who responded to the exit survey said they would definitely recommend the Writing Center to a friend.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Have the Writing Center Visit Your Class

Having Writing Center Tutors visit your class for a ten to fifteen minute presentation at the start of the quarter will let your students know about the many resources available to them and make them more comfortable using these resources.

If your class is at the Loop Campus, you can arrange a visit simply by completing the form on the Writing Center's website at this address:

If your class is at a Suburban Campus, Writing Center tutors will be dropping by classes in the first few weeks of the quarter to ask if they can do a quick presentation.

If you teach online, please point out to your students that the Writing Center provides feedback by email as well as online tutoring using instant messaging and webcams. They can learn more here:

For your syllabus

The Writing Center has developed the following syllabus supplement detailing their services for SNL students. Please consider adding it to your syllabus. 

The Writing Center

All students are urged to utilize the Writing Center to discuss their assignments for this course or any others.  For your convenience, writing groups have been established under the direction of the Writing Center on the Oak Forest, Naperville, and O’Hare campuses, meeting Saturdays from Sept. 26 to Nov. 14 at 10 am.  You may also use our online services at your convenience, including Feedback-by-Email and IM conferencing (with or without a webcam).  If you are able to use services at the Loop and Lincoln Park campuses, you may schedule appointments (30 or 50 minutes) on an as-needed or weekly basis, scheduling up to 3 hours worth of appointments per week. All writing center services are free

Writing Center tutors are specially selected and trained graduate and undergraduate students who can help you at almost any stage of your writing.  They will not do your work for you, but they can help you focus and develop your ideas, review your drafts, and polish your writing.  They can answer questions about grammar, mechanics, different kinds of writing styles, and documentation formats.  They also can answer questions and provide feedback online, through IM/webcam chats and email.  Obviously, the tutors won’t necessarily be familiar with every class or subject, but they are able to provide valuable help from the perspective of an interested and careful reader as well as a serious and experienced student-writer.

Schedule your appointments with enough time to think about and use the feedback you’ll receive.  Bring your assignment handout and other relevant materials to your appointments.

Quick Links & Locations:

Friday, August 28, 2009

"Students Just Don't Know How to Read Anymore"

If you find yourself thinking the problem with your students' writing or with class discussions is that your students are not reading critically, try one of the strategies suggested here by Shelly Reid of George Mason University.

Welcome to our new writing teachers

Over the past few quarters, we've been lucky to have some additions to our group of writing teachers:
  • Long-time SNL faculty member Renee Gilbert started teaching writing online this summer.
  • Pamela Sourelis will also be joining our online writing faculty starting this fall. Pamela has an MA for DePaul's English Department, an MFA from Vermont College and has been teaching writing for over 25 years.
  • Tom Dow will be teaching online and on-campus. Tom has his MA and PhD from Loyola and is currently the Chair of the Communications, Literature and Languages Department at Moraine Valley Community College.
In addition to  these wonderful part-time teachers, we were fortunate to get two full-time writing instructor positions this year. These positions will be filled by Katie Wozniak and Stephanie Triller, both of whom have MAs from DePaul. Katie has already taught for us part-time while Stephanie has been teaching at Truman College.

Friday, July 31, 2009

View 2008-2009 Writing Showcase Essays

Visit the Writing Showcase site at to read wonderful essays by SNL students Michaline Siera, Bryan Smith, Janice Loudon Stoner and James G. Sula.

After you enjoy the essays, share them with your students and advisees. These essays provide an anecdote to the sometimes paralyzing preconceptions about academic writing that SNL students bring back to school with them. Recent SNL graduate and Writing Showcase writer Michaline Siera made this very point when sending me her essay: "Reading posted essays on the website encouraged me to take more creative chances by letting myself speak honestly in my writing. I am so happy to be able to hopefully inspire others, as I have been inspired."

As we approach the end of the quarter, remember to encourage your strong writers to submit their essays for the 2009-2010 Writing Showcase. Simply direct them to the Writing Showcase site where they can find the submission application.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Writing-Related Resources for SNL Faculty

Visit this new wiki at to find information on writing resources to add to your syllabus, ideas for writing assignments, suggestions for preventing and dealing with plagiarism, and guidance on how to respond effectively and efficiently to student writing.

Preliminary Summary of Research on How SNL Students Develop As Writers

In future postings, I will delve into my findings in more detail and offer suggestions for how you can use this information. However, before diving in, I thought you might appreciate an overview of what I’ve learned after three quarters of interviewing SNL students about writing.


  • 24 students enrolled in one of three Foundations of Adult Learning classes in Fall 2008.
  • 19 women, 5 men (nationally, roughly 58% of adult students are women – for more see and
  • Average age 40, with youngest 26 and oldest 55
  • Students identified their socio-economic class as of fall 2008 follows: 1 lower, 1 lower middle, 20 middle, 2 upper middle
  • Using US Census Department categories, students placed themselves in the following groups (one individual can appear in more than one group): 3 American Indian or Alaska Native, 1 Asian, 8 Black or African American, 0 Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, 13 White, and 1 Hispanic or Latino
  • No immigrants. Three have immigrant parents. Only one student identified herself as bilingual. Another student said he used to be bilingual and could be again if he immersed himself in his second language for a short time.
  • One in school full time, 23 part time (going to school part time is considered a “risk factor” that might work against successful degree completion, see
  • 14 have children, 3 with pre-school or younger children (having dependent children is another “risk factor” – for more on risk factors, see
  • 18 work full time, 3 work part time, 3 not working (working full time while attending school is also a “risk factor”). One of the full-time workers was laid off in Fall 2008 and did not have a job as of Spring 2009. 10 were in management positions in Fall 2008, one more moved into a management position in January 2009. Most are in middle management. The exceptions are two small business owners, a landlord, a partner in an R&D start-up firm and a director of community and government relations for a phone company. The non-management positions included administrative assistants, technicians, analysts, sales people, training specialists, customer service reps, an event planner and a club dancer.

Education Background:

Higher education and family:

  • 63% did not have a parent who completed college
  • 42% had a sibling who has completed college

How obtained high school degree:

  • 9 high school, not college prep
  • 8 college prep or college prep track high schools
  • 2 home schooled
  • 2 GED
  • 1 vocational high school
  • 1 performing arts high school
  • 1 alternative high school

After obtaining a high school degree, students in this study averaged two colleges before coming to SNL. All students attended at least one college prior to SNL, while one attended five different schools, three went to four schools, another three went to three schools, and one student earned two associates degrees before coming to SNL. This amount of prior college experience challenges a common assumption that adult students have little higher education experience.

Students took an average of two academic writing classes (not including business, technical or creative writing) before coming to SNL. Only one of the twenty-four students did not have a previous college writing class. However, the currency of these previous classes varies widely. While two students took college composition in 2008, another last took a college writing class in 1971. The average number of years since students had last taken a college composition class was over thirteen. Twenty-six percent of the academic writing classes were taken within four years of the start of the study. Forty-one percent were taken eleven or more years prior to the start of the study.

Stronger writers seemed to self-select into this study. Four participants reported being encouraged to publish their writing by prior teachers. Another student wrote music reviews for a local paper. By my estimation, forty-two percent of the writers enrolled in this study are strong, thirty-three percent are average and twenty-five percent are struggling college writers. This distribution is roughly reflected in the grades students received in their prior writing classes. The average grade is a B-. While only 14% of the grades are failing, 19% were withdrawals or incompletes.

Students more often understated rather than overstated their writing abilities. In ten cases, I assessed students as being stronger writers than they claimed to be, while in only three cases did I feel writers had overstated their abilities. Of the ten writers who understated their abilities, only two identified themselves as light readers. Heavy reading seemed to lead strong writers to be modest in their appraisal of their writing abilities. These writers often said that compared to their peers at work or school they think they are strong, but compared to “writers” they feel they have a lot to learn.

Recurring Themes/Observations

On School:

  1. Students wanted to obtain their college degree for both practical reasons (to move up at work and/or change careers) and for more personal reasons (validation, personal development, sense of completion, as an example for children).
  2. About a quarter of the students had no problem asking questions when confused or unsure about course material, assignments or teacher feedback. However, about as many did not ask questions when doing so would have helped them. This is contrary to a common assumption that adult students can be counted on to ask questions when they are confused.
  3. Unlike students in previous studies, returning women did not express guilt about coming back to school. Rather than guilt, they talked about school as “their time.”
  4. One student echoed another in saying that a “degree is important when you don’t have it.” These two articulated the way college looms large in the minds of many of these returning students, leading them to idealize the institution and be overwhelmed at the prospect of returning to school. A practical result of this sense of college as over the rainbow is their attempts to “sound like” college students by producing the convoluted prose they identify with academic writing (see 1 under On Writing below).

On Themselves as Learners:

  1. Students reported a variety of learning styles. However, almost all (19 of 24) described themselves as learning best through by doing. Of those who like to learn by doing, the majority preferred to have an overview of the task first before jumping in and doing it. All reported that they liked being challenged.
  2. While each of these students expressed confidence in at least one and often several aspects of their lives, they were anxious about school. Previous studies have shown that adult students are more anxious than younger students. This study confirms that adult students are profoundly anxious, intimidated, lack confidence and are overwhelmed by their return to school. Their prime anxieties arise from not knowing what to do and not doing it well enough. They fear they are falling short both because of their often exalted ideas of the university and because of the very high expectations they set for themselves.
  3. Some students who have been successful in their careers expressed a fear of being “found out” by their college-educated colleagues because of their writing abilities and, in particular, their grammar.
  4. Female students older than 40 worried about age-related loss of their cognitive abilities, particularly recall and vocabulary.
  5. When first returning to school, a number of students believed they were the oldest (even when not) or least prepared (even when not) student in their classes.
  6. Many students described themselves as perfectionists or, in one case, as “a recovering perfectionist.” These students were often unfamiliar with, stressed by or resistant to writing process methods like doing rough drafts and developing ideas through revisions.
  7. Most students identified themselves as procrastinators (which they all plan to work on next quarter). Many rationalized this procrastination by saying that they work best under pressure. Unlike students of other ages, their procrastination seemed largely driven by anxiety at least in their first quarters at SNL. They delayed starting an assignment because they were unsure how to go about doing it, unsure of teacher expectations, wanted to do really well and had unrealistic expectations about what they should be able to do from the get go. Once time pressure built enough so that students had to get started, most did well. They then wished that they had left more time to go over their work. Having followed these students for three quarters now, there is some initial evidence that after a few quarters, this procrastination has become their default process even when anxiety is no longer an issue.

On Writing:

  1. Students, particularly those who had been out of school for a while, had a notion of academic writing as formal with big words and complex sentences. As a result, otherwise clear writers produced wordy, muddled writing when trying to write in this manner.
  2. For a number of students, the academic conventions of providing evidence for every claim and of explicitly articulating the meaning of each piece of evidence are so much stating of the obvious.
  3. The main writing goal of the students in this study was to be able to clearly communicate to the reader what is in the writer’s head. This desire often resulted in frustration because students had unrealistic expectations of the writing process. Many students seemed to believe that “writers” simply sit down and transcribe their thoughts on to paper. Rather than seeing revision as a process of developing and clarifying ideas, they saw it as a time to proofread for wording, grammar and punctuation problems. Those students who had developed sophisticated writing process methods tended to see these methods and the time they took as indications of their inadequacy as writers because they were unable to simply and quickly put their ideas down on paper.
  4. Students who write at work, even if this writing is minimal, have a strong sense of audience. Many mentioned audience as their first consideration when beginning to write something as well as when revising. This attention to audience is a good thing, and one way in which working adults have an advantage over younger students who often ignore audience considerations. However, it can also result in problems for adult students and their teachers because of the artificial ways teachers work as audiences in academic writing. For example, in a few cases, writers neglected to summarize an assigned reading because they assumed the teacher would be familiar with the material. Instead, these students presented their teachers with the thoughts the reading had inspired. However, by not summarizing, students did not give their teachers evidence that they had read and understood the reading. A related problem arises when teachers, sometimes intentionally trying to maximize creativity, give minimal directions, leaving these audience-conscious writers confused about their reader’s expectations and desires. When students respond by asking their teachers what they want, their questions can be interpreted as a sign of intellectual laziness rather than an indication of the students’ rhetorical sophistication.
  5. The focus on audience and perfect communication also appeared when students were asked to describe good writing. Thinking of the published work they liked, students focused on writing that engages and transports the reader and that they believe clearly communicates the writer’s intended meaning.
  6. Almost all of the students expressed anxiety about using sources in their papers, including how to integrate sources into their writing, when to quote and how to cite. A number of students believed that they should have citation formats memorized. Students were worried about plagiarism and often spent significant time referencing handbooks and the Internet in their efforts to avoid it. Nevertheless, confusion about what to cite, how to cite and how to use sources meant that some of the students were, despite their efforts, plagiarizing. Often, the seeds for plagiarism were set in the way students approached their writing assignments and sometimes in the assignments themselves. Rather than using research to find evidence for or against their claims, a number of students, stronger as well as weaker writers, would start by searching for information on a topic and then work to knit what they had found together. Many waited until the last minute to add their citation information and, as a result, had lost track of which ideas were theirs and which came from their sources.
  7. A number of students could name their most common grammar and punctuation mistakes. Most could correct their mistakes when I pointed them out. Fewer could explain the problem or find examples of the problem in their own writing without prompting.
  8. Students strongly prefer being able to write about what they are interested in, which is not always what they have experienced.
  9. The most common reasons students give for their writing decisions for everything from organization to punctuation are because they wanted to signify something, because of the requirements of the assignment, because of a rule they had in their head, or because that was just what the did without thinking.
  10. The main ways in which students saw themselves has having developed as writers in the first quarter of this study were increased confidence, being more focused on their readers, and building knowledge of college and academic writing. They saw as their main challenges their ability to imagine their audience and communicate clearly, grammar and punctuation, organization, citation and the need to come up to speed with academic writing.
  11. The biggest writing process challenge was just getting started. Students struggled with getting started because they were unsure of what they were being asked to do and because they were trying to do too much too perfectly all at once. Over the quarter, students felt they had improved their writing process by finding places and times dedicated to writing, by practicing better time management, by doing more pre-planning and more proofreading, and by being willing to jump in and just do it with faith that something worthwhile will come out in the end. After the first quarter, their writing goals focused on being more efficient, more effective and less stressed in their writing processes.
  12. Students were invariably the most proud of the writing assignments they found the most challenging.

On School/Work/Personal Writing:

  1. Most students who have done even minimal writing at work were in the habit of checking over their writing before sending it out. Upon returning to school, all of the students reported being more deliberate in all of their writing and better at checking it over.
  2. Students who have had significant training and experience working in an art (professional dancer or photographer), trade (electrician or architecture), or profession (event planning or lobbying) have learned methods of analysis and project management that can help them succeed as students and as writers to the extent that the students are able to see these methods and skills as transferable to but not as sufficient for their academic needs.
  3. Most students do not realize how much they are already writing. More than once students told me they do not write at all, but then proceeded to list a number of ways in which they write regularly. For example, once students who laughed at the idea of herself as a writer, spends thirty to sixty minutes a day journaling in response to a religious passage.
  4. At work, these students all have write e-mails. Some have also written business letters, reports, speeches, manuals, and presentations. Individual students have also written work logs, newsletters, press releases, property descriptions, executive summaries, grants, solicitation letters, planning documents and training scripts.
  5. Besides school and work writing, ten students keep or have kept journals, a few write poetry, songs, or short stories, one blogs and has written music reviews and many correspond with friends and family through e-mail and letters.
  6. While many students have been in school off and on for a while, college writing classes do not seem to be making a big impact upon them. When students do mention a significant class or teacher, it was almost always in high school and frequently involved creative writing.
  7. Students import to school from their lives and careers various views of writing, understanding of genre and expertise in a variety of genres, project management and process knowledge, sensitivity to audience, expertise and deep knowledge in specific areas, and the stresses of trying to manage work, home and school.
  8. While a few students saw no effect on their work and life writing as a result of their return to school, most did. In particular, most students talked about being more deliberate and paying more attention to their writing both in and out of school.

On Feedback:

  1. Adult students are used to receiving feedback on their work. Nineteen have received formal performance evaluations, while 11 have given performance evaluations.
  2. Positive feedback is crucial for motivating and calming anxious students. It helps them see that they can be successful in college and gives them the courage to relax enough to experiment with their ideas and writing. The stronger the writer, the more important that this feedback be specific. Some stronger writers dismissed general positive feedback as pro forma and as indicative that the teacher did not really pay attention to their writing.
  3. Students want concrete, critical feedback that will help them improve and opportunities to practice what they have learned through drafting or multiple assignments on similar topics. Too often they receive neither. Seventeen students, 71% of student participants, commented at least once and sometimes repeatedly about not receiving feedback from their teachers. Twenty-one students, 88% of participants, complained at least once about not receiving specific, constructive feedback on their writing. One student said she was considering leaving SNL because she was receiving so little feedback on her assignments. This lack of feedback generated considerable anxiety because it left students unsure of their performance and of how to improve.
  4. Feedback is not useful when it comes too long after the assignment, when it is general, and when students do not have a chance to immediately apply that feedback either to a revision or a related assignment.
  5. Students act upon the feedback they receive from teachers, friends, bosses and peers, thinking about it and revising their work when they understand the feedback and have the opportunity to revise or use the feedback on a follow up assignment.
  6. Students often do not understand the reasoning behind feedback or how to implement a teacher’s suggestions. Twenty-one of the twenty-four students recounted instances in which students and teacher were clearly misunderstanding each other. For example, a student interpreted a teacher’s comment that he can be less formal as meaning he could be less careful. In another case, a teacher tells a student to develop ideas further, so the student cuts out the little detail she had in her paper because it is underdeveloped.
  7. Students approach their first writing assignments from a teacher with a great deal of anxiety because they are unsure of what is expected of them. Well-designed assignments, which detail the purpose, audience and assessment criteria, address this anxiety and help students be successful. Students use the teacher’s feedback, when they receive it, to make sense of their audience and adjust their writing accordingly.
  8. Models, scaffolding, and low-stakes practice are important for building confidence and helping students develop a more realistic idea of academic writing and teacher expectations.
  9. Many students ask for and receive feedback on their school writing from friends, co-workers and relatives. Students pick readers whom they know are good at writing, and often receive more productive feedback from these readers than from their teachers. The exception seems to be spouses, who in a number of cases gave negative feedback that shook the confidence of the student. As a result, a few of these students stopped showing their writing to their spouses and found others to read their work.
  10. Most students prefer feedback that engages with and pushes then on their ideas. The like when teachers respond as readers and when they ask questions that get students to think through and more carefully explain their ideas. Some will dismiss as trivial and a few resent feedback on grammar, especially from non-writing teachers. Others stressed that any feedback is good feedback.
  11. A number of students reported being highly motivated by grades.
  12. Strong writers are not being sufficiently challenged or coached to become better writers. A couple of students with last minute writing habits said that, given the high grades they receive, they have not been particularly motivated to change, even though they know they could do better.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

New Format for Writing News

For the past three quarters, I have been on research leave. Where? No, not Paris, Cario, Tibet or even any place particularly warm (until last week). Yep, I stayed in Chicago. During the leave, I spent over seventy hours interviewing SNL students about writing and looking over their papers with them. As a result, I have lots to share with you about how to help SNL students develop as writers, learners and thinkers in your classes.

To share this information with you, I'm moving Writing News online at You can visit the site and post comments at any time. If you visit now, you'll find information about changes to the MLA citation style and the summer hours for the writing center. Each month, I'll add a post.

As always, please do not hesitate to contact me if you have questions or would like to talk about writing and SNL students.
For Writing News from December 2005 to August 2008, go to the “Writing Resources” section of the SNL Faculty Professional Development Blackboard site.

MLA Citation Style Has Changed

Even the Modern Language Association (MLA) has to keep up with the changing times. The updated MLA citation style includes the following changes:
  1. The medium of publication is now listed for every entry in the works cited, including books.
  2. URLs are no longer required in works-cited listings.
  3. Titles should be italicized, not underlined.
  4. MLA no longer distinguishes between journals that are paginated continuously and those paginated by issue. Issue and volume should be given for every journal article.
Students working from handbooks published before 2009 may not know about these changes. For more on the new MLA style as well as examples, see

The American Psychological Association (APA) updated its citation style for electronic resources in 2007. Here is an overview of the changes they made:

Citation Machine is a nice resource to share with students. It asks them to input information about their source and then generates MLA or APA citations.

Summer Writing Center Hours

Summer 1: Monday through Thursday 10 - 6
LPC: Week 1, Wednesday June 17 through Thursday July 16 (summer 1 ends F 7/17)
Loop: Week 2, Monday June 22 through Thursday July 16

Summer 2: Monday through Thursday 10 - 6
LPC & Loop: Week 1, Monday July 22 through Thursday Aug. 20 (summer 2 ends F 8/21)