Argument: creating a coherent whole out of the parts of your essay

One of things many undergraduate students I have worked with over the years have always battled with is understanding the difference between an essay that makes an argument, and an essay that has useful information in it that is not tied together around a central thread or point. In my former role as the coordinator of a university writing centre, I spent a great deal of time thinking about how to help students understand and address this struggle through writing workshops and tutorials, and in my work with their lecturers and tutors.

Getting your head around what an argument is, and how to craft and make substantive and coherent arguments, is key to succeeding at your higher education studies and beyond, and not just in the humanities and social sciences. Although they may do it in different ways and in different forms, all fields make and defend arguments for and against things: this design for a footbridge rather than that one for this community; this method for building a hydrology model rather than that one in this project site; this theory of neoliberal capitalism and its effects on modern society and not a different one; and so on.

From gigya.com

From gigya.com

The argument is the answer to the ‘So what?’ question you don’t want your readers to ask at the end of your essay. It is the ‘golden thread’ if you like, that takes the strands of your argument and pulls them into a defined shape to substantiate and develop the central claim your essay wants to make. This is often called ‘the thesis statement’. It needs to be clearly made, often in the introductory part of your writing, so that your reader knows what it is that is helping you to select and organise the parts of your essay or paper that will follow. What follows the introduction will be a connected selection of sub-claims, supported by relevant evidence, that further develop and substantiate the central claim, and all of these sub-claims must make up this golden thread – they need to connect, in a logical and coherent order, to create an argument that is persuasive and makes sense.

From pinterest.com

From pinterest.com

You could think of these sub-claims, and the evidence you have selected from literature or empirical data, or both, as strands of coloured wool. On their own, side-by-side, they just make up a collection of strands of coloured wool. Without a purpose or aim to draw them together into a blanket or a scarf or similar, they are just pretty strands of wool. They need a knitter and the knitter needs a pattern to follow. In undergraduate and early postgraduate studies, where students are completing coursework, they are given their ‘knitting patterns’ in the form of task questions and instructions to respond to. Later on, in independent research, students need to design their own patterns, or research tasks.

Students, as the knitters, will read (or devise) the task, decide on what research needs to be done to generate the information needed to respond appropriately to the task, and using their prior learning as well as the thinking, reading and writing practice they have had thus far, they will ideally weave or knit the information together to create something new, that represents (hopefully in their own creative way) the pattern they were asked to follow. They will create new knowledge from existing knowledge, even in a small way, by taking a position on an issue and advancing a substantiated argument. Without the argument to tie the strands together into a pattern, the essay will likely end up looking a bit like the picture above – a collection of paragraphs, each with their own point, but together not quite managing to create something coherent or sensible. The essay may well leave the reader wondering: ‘So what? What is the point of all of this?’

A tool I recently learnt on a writing retreat has really helped me to create a define my own ‘pattern’ for my writing, and is helping me to make sure that I am actually knitting together arguments in my papers that make sense, and are properly substantiated. Taken from a book called The Craft of Research, the tool helps writers to plot out the golden thread by asking them to think carefully about the main claim, the sub-claims, the reasons for those claims, and the evidence needed to substantiate them. Claims and evidence are probably quite obvious – of course we need both of these elements to write a paper worth its salt. But what of reasons? According to the authors, reasons are important because they outline the logic of the argument you want to make. I have learned, using this tool, that I am quite good at generating many reasons for the research I want to write about, but I am less adept at pinning down my claims. This tool has been helping me to work on this.

This (below) is my version of the tool in action: an argument for a paper I am working on plotted out in my research journal on stickies. Following the retreat facilitator’s advice, I use stickies to avoid writing long-winded claims and reasons. This is not the plan for your paper, this is the plan for your argument, and you need to be able to identify and state your claims, reasons, and related evidence fairly concisely. If it takes you 7 or 8 stickies to state one claim, you have some more thinking and refining to do before you are ready to plot out your paper and knit your strands together.

photo 2

I start with my main claim, and then identify any sub-claims that are part of that. I then write out the reasons for the claims I am making, and follow with the evidence I either have, or need to have, to support these claims. The orange stickies at the end contain my ‘take-home message’ or the answer to the ‘So what?’ question (which will be part of my conclusion) as well as the limitations on the argument I want to make. Not every paper will include limitations, but all papers need to have claims, reasons, evidence, and a clear answer to the ‘So what?’ question. All papers we write, whether as undergrads, postgrads or professionals, need to have a point – and the point is the argument, and the way in which we are weaving that golden thread through the writing to create something new from all the strands of research, reading and thinking we have been doing.

From dreamstime.com

From dreamstime.com

If you are a writing teacher or tutor: consider using or adapting a tool like this to help students you work with understand the link between the research they are doing and the information they are gathering, and the ways in which this information and research need to be pulled together selectively around a central argument that knits all the paragraphs or parts together into a coherent, persuasive whole.

If you are a writer: try this tool out, and look for others that can help you to make clearer the ways in which your arguments are constructed and crafted, to ensure that your own writing is a clear, persuasive and makes as much sense as possible.

Reference: Booth, C., Colomb, G. and Williams, J. (Eds) 2003. The Craft of Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Generic or specific: writing in and across the disciplines

We get a lot of requests at our writing centre, as I am sure is true of many writing centres, for generic writing skills workshops. Requests like: ‘Can you come and tell my students how to write at university?’ or ‘Can you come and run a skills workshop on essay writing?’ I have serious reservations about any kind of workshop that tries to give students a list of ‘skills’ they need to master in order to be a better writer, or a workshop that approaches improving your writing as knowing what writing at university is broadly and matching what you do to that set of characteristics or features. There’s a lot of research in the field of academic writing and literacies that shows that generic, one-method-of-essay-writing-serves-all-disciplines approaches to teaching writing don’t really work for the majority of students. The ones who succeed following these workshops were probably already fairly confident or capable writers. Essay writing guides are often gobbledygook to those who do not already have some knowledge about essay writing (much like user guides for electronic equipment).

My response to these requests is always to ask for more information: what assignments are the students working on? What are the assessment criteria? What are the lecturer’s expectations of the students in relation to the task, and what are some of the things they have noticed their students struggling with? What would an excellent piece of work look like? This information helps me to then explain to the lecturer requesting the workshop how we work, at our writing centre, with students either through workshops or individual tutorials. We prefer not to come in with a completely generic workshop, and leave it to the students to work out how to adapt our generic tools and discussion to their specific disciplinary task. We also, however, cannot come in as disciplinary experts and design a completely specific writing workshop either. We sit somewhere between the generic and specific; somewhere between being in a discipline and working across them. So, what we design, and what we take to students in different departments and faculties, is a mix: a brief framing of the kind of writing they are doing and what its aims and goals are, like a lab report or a discursive essay, followed by a brief and focused ‘toolkit’ for writing that includes useful, more generic tools to help them think  and write. For example, how to write clear paragraphs and why this clarity is important in an essay, report, or thesis. We also try to make space for them to do some writing and to  discuss their particular task and particular assessment criteria and expectations and to connect the tools to the specific task.

These kinds of workshop, often, are one-off and tend to stand alone. Over the past few years we have set up relationships across the university with lecturers who come to these workshops and then build on and reinforce a more process-oriented and explicit approach towards writing in their classes, explaining their expectations more clearly to students and helping them to work on their writing through improved feedback. We have also run more than one workshop in these departments and have had students come to see us for individual tutorials, so we can start and continue conversations about writing, and learn more about the specifics of the writing in those disciplines and modules. But many lecturers want workshops that will ‘fix’ the problems and will help students acquire the right kinds of skills, and they tend to see their role as teaching the disciplinary knowledge or ‘content’ and someone else (a writing centre or academic literacy course) takes on the job of teaching the skills.

We really try, in our planning phase, to include lecturers and to open up conversations about what does count as generic and what is actually more specific about the writing their students are doing, and therefore what we can help with and what we need them to be considering more of in their own ongoing teaching. We think about this a lot as writing tutors, and look at what different kinds of writing entail and require, so that we can use our own disciplinary knowledge and experience to deepen our understanding of academic writing, and use this to inform that ways in which we talk to students, advise, encourage and assist them. We run workshops with tutors in the disciplines, asking them to think of all the characteristics of academic writing they can, and then dividing this list into generic features that apply (albeit realised in a range of texts) to all writing (like having a clear and coherent structure, an introduction and conclusion, references and citations etc), and more specific features that really apply to their discipline (like writing only in the 3rd person in scientific reports, or the necessity of using both contemporary and older research and documents in Theology, or the necessity of using ‘archaic’ terms and phrasing in legal contracts).

These encounters with writing ask lecturers, tutors and also students to stop and think: what is more generic and what is quite specific in this piece of writing? What do I need to do to hand in an acceptable piece of work, how do I do that, and why do these features/characteristics have to be included? Why do I need to be precise, and write in tightly structured paragraphs? What needs to be part of my introduction and how do I need to write one for this essay? These are some of the questions that can be asked and answered, moving lecturers, tutors and students towards a clearer and more focused understanding of what writing counts, what makes it count and how to direct students towards achieving success.

Writing well requires mastery of both the generic and specific features of any type or form of text: understanding which is which and how a writer’s grasp of these features impact on the writing he or she is doing is hopefully one way of ensuring a more conscious and less bewildering writing experience.

Writing centres and doctors’ offices: fighting the ‘deficit discourse’

Image from fotolia.com

Image from fotolia.com

We sometimes joke at our writing centre that we feel a little like practitioners in a medical clinic. Our ‘patients’ make their appointments and when they do we ask them what they need or want assistance with – telling us about their ‘symptoms’ or ‘aches and pains’. Then they come to see us, and are ushered from the waiting room into the consultation space, where a tutor ‘diagnoses’ issues that need to be looked at and worked on, and advises on a ‘treatment plan’ of sorts. If the issues cannot all be looked at in one session, or if we think more advice may be needed, we advise a follow-up appointment.

While it can be amusing to think of ourselves in this way, it does also give us pause for thought about how students and the wider university community see us, how we see ourselves and how we construct and manage our time and relationships with students and academic lecturers and/or departments. Much has been written in the fields of writing centre research and academic literacy about how the work we do is categorised as ‘remedial’ and often focused towards students who, for whatever reason, do not have what they need to make a success of their university career. These students are often viewed by academic lecturers and tutors as lacking or deficient, and through being made to come to a writing centre ‘to sort out [your] grammar’ or to take an academic literacy course ‘to learn how to write essays properly’, they are often made to feel deficient, lacking or outside of ‘mainstream’ university life. This deficit discourse has been roundly criticised and largely set aside as problematic and unhelpful by most researchers working in the fields of academic writing and literacy. It still, however, persists, and we still need to be vigilant in listening out for it, and in critiquing it. It is a hegemonic discourse in higher education, and has become ‘common sense’, in many contexts where massification and widening participation have been a feature of higher education.

I was at a conference several years ago where Theresa Lillis argued that the reason the deficit discourse is so hard to do away with completely is because it is common sense, and hegemonic, and as such has become invisible. What I think she means is that we don’t see it anymore with critical or questioning eyes because it has become so commonplace to blame students for their inability to succeed, or to blame the school system for not teaching them the right kinds of things, or to blame their parents for not being more involved in their education. It locates the problem within individuals rather than within ways of thinking that underpin wider systems, like education. I am sure that lecturers do not think they are doing anything questionable when they send a student to us for help, with a comment like ‘this would have been a good essay apart from the grammar and spelling. Please go to the writing centre for help’. We’ve seen a lot of this over the years, and we do think that what is behind these kinds of positions and comments is a kind of deficit discourse, where what is focused on is what students don’t have, rather than what they do have. It tends to let the lecturer or university off the hook in terms of who bears the responsibility for teaching students what they need to know and what they need to be doing with what they know in their new academic and learning spaces. These kinds of positions also tend to place a lot of responsibility onto the shoulders of what can be then viewed as ‘remedial’ spaces, like writing centres, academic literacy courses and the like.

We have long maintained in our writing centre, in concert with many other writing centres around the globe and in South Africa, that our work is not remedial. Following Stephen North, we believe we are here to have conversations with writers about their writing: productive, challenging, motivating, helpful, illuminating conversations where both tutor and student are learning, and that ultimately serves the purpose of helping the student to a next step in their own writing process. We can’t ‘fix’ poor writing or poor grammar because the students who come and see us are not ‘broken’. They are learning how to learn in new ways and grappling with new kinds of knowledge in new academic environments, often shaped by unfamiliar and largely tacit conventions. We try, as far as we are able, to make as many of these conventions less tacit by not only helping students to surface the conventions they need to follow (for example, you need to organise your ideas logically into paragraphs; you need to reference your sources accurately) but also helping them to understand why these conventions are there and what following them may yield in terms of their learning and writing.

Image from uab.edu

Image from uab.edu

We are not disciplinary specialists, so we cannot go into all the nuances. Our work cannot stand in for the work a disciplinary expert needs to be doing as well, helping students to see what counts and also understand why and when it counts and how to achieve it. But we believe we provide a valuable space for writers to get feedback that is not couched in any understanding of them being at a deficit, but rather aims to view students as knowers who are entering into, or in the thick of, a learning journey and process that will extend beyond their time at university. We aim to motivate, empower, advise and ultimately encourage student-writers to engage in the process and get more out of learning, reading, thinking and writing.

We may sometimes joke about the similarities between our office and a medical practice, but in reality we work hard to ensure that students enter and exit our spaces feeling ‘well’, rather than ‘sick’ and needing inoculation or a quick course of treatment to get over whatever ails them. Writing centres are no quick fix and we need to guard against falling into remedial gaps. We can be a valuable resource for students, lecturers and tutors, but this requires being clear about our role, and defending against the ‘common sense’ discourses where we encounter them. This work is ongoing and can be tough, but it matters, and this is why we keep at it.

Working towards a transformative writing centre pedagogy

I attended a really interesting seminar presentation last week by Cecilia Jacobs from Stellenbosch University near Cape Town on ‘academic literacies and the question of knowledge’ (this is also the title of a paper the talk was based on – well worth reading). One of the points she made, referring to a 2007 paper by Theresa Lillis and Mary Scott has really had me thinking, and is the subject of this post: that we need to move, in our academic literacy work, from a more ‘normative’ framing and practice to a more ‘transformative’ framing and practice.

Briefly, Lillis and Scott describe normative practices as those which are focused on identifying textual features or features of practice – genres/moves/’rules’/steps/forms etc – and inducting students into these so that they can become proficient and recognised as belonging to that community of practice. An example would be teaching students how to write argumentative essays by explaining the different stages to them and showing them how to write their own essays following those stages. This is akin, I think, to Lea and Street ‘academic socialisation’ (1998) where the aim of academic literacy work is more to socialise students into the dominant literacy practices in the university rather than to critique or problematise and perhaps even change those practices. I have argued in my own work (Clarence 2012) that much of the work done in academic literacy work in South Africa to date seems to be somewhere between teaching writing especially as a practice bound by certain rules and conventions students must learn about and adapt to rather than as a socially-situated and contestable academic practice.

One of the key problems with normative approaches is that, while it is a very good idea to make overt and visible the oft-hidden rules and conventions that shape writing (the way students make evident their knowing) in the disciplines, these rules and conventions become ‘normal’ and turn into hegemonic and powerful discourses over time. Transformative approaches, then, (what Lea and Street call an ‘academic literacies approach’) seek to question, contextualise and problematise the rules and conventions that shape knowledge-related practices like writing and reading in higher education. These approaches try to see what resources students could be bringing with them to the writing and reading, as well as how the rules and conventions shape and impact on the ways students make meaning and engage with knowledge. They don’t take the dominant practices, rules and conventions as given, but rather seek to understand why certain practices persist, whether and how they could change and what impact staying the same or changing would have on the academic-social practices and context within which the writing is done, and which the writing helps to maintain.

One of the dangers in a transformative academic literacy approach, in spite of its wonderfully progressive agenda, is that the text itself can disappear in all this focus on the writers and contexts (Lillis and Scott 2007). I think this is something those of us working from writing centres and academic literacy development spaces need to think about carefully. Much writing centre practice around the world – certainly in the US, UK, Europe and South Africa – is guided by key principles, among them taking a non-directive approach, engaging extensively in productive dialogue with writers around their texts, and (as Stephen North so famously exhorted us to do) focusing on the writer rather than on the writing. In our writing centre we take this to mean that who the student is and how they feel about and approach their writing is, in the longer term, more important than this one essay in front of us. But we also take it to mean, more recently, that we need to focus on giving students advice and guidance that will not only help them improve on the essay in front of them now, but that they will be able to draw on in further essays and assignments. So, we need to really be mindful of who the students are and make the tutorials we run about them and their process rather than some hegemonic or one-dimensional idea of what their writing should be like. But we also need to focus on the text itself, because not to help them with that text would be irresponsible when the text is what has prompted them to come to us for assistance.

One of the ways we are trying to move away from a normative ‘academic socialisation’ or ‘identify and induct’ approach in our writing centre is by changing the nature of the conversations we initiate and sustain with students. Rather than, for example, trying to show them how to write an introduction, which tends to localise that advice to just this one introduction they are writing now, we try to prompt them to talk about why they think introductions are part of essays or reports, and what kinds of information they think readers need to know upfront in order to understand what they are reading. By looking more at the principles underpinning the writing, we can help students to begin to develop a meta-level of consciousness not just about how to write but about why to write in certain ways. We feel we are, in this way, not quite at the level of transformative writing centre pedagogy, but moving towards this. We are still helping students to identify dominant conventions and practices and to adapt their work to disciplinary expectations and assessment criteria – we think this is necessary as a first step because as Joe Muller as argued, to be unable to see a boundary or a line that one has to cross over and over is to be at the mercy of the power inscribed in that line. In other words, students need to know what the rules are, and how to play by them in order to be more conscious readers and writers. Once we can play by the rules, we can take the next steps towards ‘transformativity’ where we can start to question dominant rules, conventions and practices, contextualise them differently and even break and remake them.

Clarence, S. 2012. Making inter-disciplinary spaces for talk about and change in student writing and literacy development. Teaching in Higher Education, 17(2), 127-137

Jacobs, C. 2013. Academic literacies and the question of knowledge. Journal for Language Teaching, 47(2), 127-140.

Lillis, T. & Scott, M. 2007. Defining academic literacies research: issues of epistemology, ideology and strategy. Journal of Applied Linguistics, 4(1), 5-32.

Can we unthink the way we think about writing? Part 2

This post follows on from my previous post about beginning the year challenging ourselves to ‘unthink’ some of the ways in which we think about academic writing conventions in higher education. The first post dealt with how we teach students to avoid plagiarising the work of others, and how we might go about teaching referencing differently. This post discusses another way in which I think we can rethink academic writing: by rethinking our approach to teaching different forms of written tasks, in particular argumentative essays.

I must preface the rest of this post by saying that I think this is a tough topic. It’s difficult to write good argumentative essays as an undergraduate and as a teacher of undergraduates I know that it is also difficult to teach students how to write these kinds of essays well. We see students at the Writing Centre all year long who are really confused about what is expected of them and what they need to be doing with their research, reading, thinking and writing in order to produce these kinds of essays. We find it hard to help them beyond a certain point because what it is to argue, and what counts as evidence and also as the appropriate use of evidence in support of claims made differs from discipline to discipline.

However,  disciplinary lecturers and tutors are themselves not always clear about what a good argument looks and sounds like, or have fuzzy ideas about how to write good arguments or explain how to do this using clear and unambiguous language. Many academic literacies and writing centre practitioners and scholars have written about this, but I am going to draw particularly here on a recent paper by Ursula Wingate (‘Argument!’ helping students understand what essay writing is about). In this paper, Wingate looks at samples of students’ work and at comments from tutors, and also talks to students about writing argumentative essays in an effort to understand what students think an argument is coming into university and how they are helped, through feedback on their writing, to begin to write the kinds of argumentative essays required by their disciplines.  What she found, in short, were gaps between what students thought an argument was, and what the discipline required of them, and further, she found that tutors were largely unable to communicate clearly the shifts and moves students needed to make in their thinking and writing through their feedback. The tutors themselves did not seem to have a clear understanding of what argument looked like or how to communicate this to students.

This is perhaps not a very surprising finding, although it is worrying for students as many of them rely on their lecturers and tutors to help them through this maze. As many scholars like Wingate have argued, we need to be careful of assuming that all lecturers and tutors know how to explain the process of producing an argument in clear, accessible terms to novice student writers. As I said earlier on, arguments in academic discourse are difficult to make, and there are so many steps that go into the process.

Think about it: you first need to read and understand the question you have to respond to. Then you need to work out what search terms to use so that you can search the library databases and the Web for relevant information on that topic. Then you need to read all of that information, understand it, summarise it, synthesise it into a coherent whole of understanding so that you can relate it to a reader in your own words. You also need to keep track of where it all comes from so you can reference it. Then you need to go back to the question and formulate a structured, organised and logical response using all of that information. But this is not all. You can’t just create a patchwork quilt of other people’s words and ideas, even if you are not plagiarising. You also, and Wingate makes this point so clearly, need to take a position. You need to have a ‘voice’ in that paper, and you need to direct the information, using it to support the claims you are making as part of the position you have chosen.

Often though, this process is not understood by students as being this obviously complex and many of the students we see in our writing centre don’t really understand all these steps or how to carry them out effectively. So, I think there needs to be some unthinking here, or perhaps rather just different thinking about how we teach students to write essays like this.

In the first place, while at the Writing Centre we can talk to students about the fact that they need to take a position, and we can help them think through their logical and structured response to the question, we cannot always give in-depth insight into exactly how they need to relate their position and the supporting reasons and arguments and why they need to do it like this and not like that. Thus, disciplinary lecturers really need to understand what they are asking of students in terms of the process, and they need to work backwards to build in time to teach students some of these relevant skills, if you like, or academic practices as they also teach them the substantive knowledge of the discipline. Students also need opportunities to practice writing in these new ways, and get feedback that guides them. It’s not always easy to do, but it is necessary.

Another thing that we need to unthink is the language we use. Wingate and also Lillis and Turner (2001)  argue that the words we use to speak about argument which seem clear to us as insiders to this academic discourse and more often than not jargon to students and impenetrable. Words like ‘structure’, ‘coherence’, ‘cohesion’ and also ‘argument’, ‘evidence’ and ‘position’ are all fairly dense words with a lot of meaning packed into them. We need to unpack these with our students and help them to see what we mean, what we need them to do and why we need them to do it in that way.

Once we begin to unthink the way we think about argumentative writing we can see that what we are asking of undergraduate students is a lot, and it is not surprising that so many struggle with writing and research at this level. We can also see more clearly what we can be doing to light their path and equip them with the knowledge and practice they need to understand what they are doing and begin to improve and grow in confidence too.

Lillis, T., & Turner, J. 2001. Student Writing in Higher Education: contemporary confusion, traditional concerns. Teaching in Higher Education, 6:1, 57-67.

Wingate, U. 2012. ‘Argument!’ helping students understand what essay writing is about. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 11, 145-154.

 

How to write task questions that don’t confuse students (or writing tutors)

One of the most common things that lecturers seem to complain about with regard to student writing is students’ seeming inability to answer task questions properly, fully, or in the desired way. One of the most common things we assist students with in our writing centre is what we call ‘task analysis’. In essence this means that we work with students to unpack and understand their task questions and then use this as a starting point for talking about what they have written in their drafts and where they can see gaps and areas for improvement and revision. One of the things that often frustrates us as writing tutors standing outside the disciplines is confusing questions, or questions with so much information packed into them that we are not sure what is more or less important or where to help students start with their thinking and writing. So, these are some of the things we think are worth thinking about when writing assignment questions that don’t confuse students (or writing tutors).

The first thing to consider when writing a question is one of the things we teach students to do when reading a question: think about the CONTENT words, the DIRECTION words and the PARAMETERS or boundaries. The content words are the stuff of the question and tell you what the essay/report/assignment needs to be about. For example, the ways in which power was exercised during the Marikana strikes, or the effects of climate change on animal habitats in the Arctic Circle and in sub-Saharan Africa. The direction words tell you what to with that content or research, for example critically discuss the exercises of power or compare the effects of climate change in these two kinds of habitats. The parameters or boundaries limit the topic so that you are focused and cannot simply write about anything and everything. So you might critically discuss the exercises of power at Marikana with particular reference to the behaviour of the army and the police force, or you might compare the effects of climate change in these two kinds of habitats over the last ten years. Thus you are limited from writing about the behaviour of the strikers or the mine owners as well as the police and army, or the effects of climate change in general over the last twenty or more years, such that your essay does not focus on what you have been asked to focus on. If students need to use these tools to unpack and understand questions, then it may help lecturers writing questions and tasks to be aware of them, and use them carefully.

The second thing to consider is avoiding the use of ambiguous direction words. The most often-used direction word is ‘discuss’. This is not in itself a problematic word, but it becomes confusing for students who see it used in different disciplines where it means different things, yet the exact meaning is often unclear. Discuss is therefore often experienced by students (and writing tutors) as being a rather vague direction word on the whole. Rather ask yourself, as the question-writer and assessor what you really need students to show you or do with the research and content and use direct, clear words, like ‘compare and contrast’; ‘analyse and explain’; describe’; critique’ etc to guide them.

The third thing to consider is to talk your students through the tasks you set carefully, making time for questions and answers. This could prevent at least some of the confusion around what reading and research to do and can help your students to understand exactly what you are looking for in their essays or assignments. Take time to explain to students exactly what your direction words mean in relation to the content and the parameters, and try to give them a set of assessment criteria – what are you looking for, what are you awarding marks for and what do they need to focus on. All the better if you can write these criteria down clearly and give them to students or have them accessible online via Google Drive or your university’s e-teaching platform.

The final thing to consider is that simpler is almost always better when it comes to questions. The more you pack in there the more likely students are to get dazed and confused and write off-topic. Even if you are assessing students at senior undergraduate or postgraduate level where they should be ready and able to unpack, understand and answer complex or layered questions, the more direct, clear, focused and simple your approach to writing the question, the more likely students will be to grasp what you want from them and meet the required standard in their responses. Complex questions don’t have to be written in complex and obscure language. In fact they absolutely should not be. We want students to learn, succeed and grow, and we need to give them opportunities to do this. Writing obscure, difficult, or confusing assignment questions is unlikely to help students achieve this learning, growth and success.

It takes time to learn how to write clear questions, so ask your colleagues or an academic literacy practitioner if you know one to read your questions and give you constructive feedback. Try out different ways of asking the same question. Cast your mind back to when you were a student, and try to remember what you found helpful and unhelpful and use this insight in your task writing. It may be tough to start with, but the rewards for you and your students will be worth it. The writing tutors will thank you too :-).

Spelling and grammar checkers are not always simple tools for students to use

Image from examiner.com

Image from examiner.com

How many times have you read a student’s (typed) essay and been really frustrated by their poor spelling, not to mention all the commas either missing or in the wrong places? How many of you, in that situation, have thought ‘why do they ignore the red and green squiggles? Why don’t they just use the spelling and grammar checkers?’ I confess, I have thought that. And in workshops in recent years I have urged students to learn how to use these tools to their advantage as student-writers. However, recently I had a conversation with a student that made me wonder just how helpful these tools are, especially to students for whom English is not a mother-tongue or first language, or prior language of learning and teaching.

This student, in response to my querying whether they were comfortable using MSWord, and whether they knew how to make best use of the spelling and grammar checkers, commented that she knew what they were, but that often they left her feeling confused, and she made choices to change spelling and grammar without always knowing what she was doing. Often, she said, she could not make a grammar correction because the ‘help’ was not helpful. For example, when the grammar checker advises you that you have a ‘Fragment’ and should (consider revising). Or when it helpfully suggests that you are writing in the ‘Passive voice’ and should also (consider revising). If you do not know how to consistently write in full English sentences, you will not find the first suggestion of ‘help’ useful. It will confuse and even worry you. In South African universities, and in some disciplines like many of the natural sciences and also History and English, the passive voice tends to be preferred over a more active voice, also leading some students into confusing territory. There are also many other pieces of advice that the grammar checker suggests that would actually make your sentences nonsensical if you followed them, usually concerning subject and verb agreement. When it underlines your work in green squiggles, MSWord is telling you that your writing is not correct, but it also is not always helping you to make  the right revisions or explaining why you need them. So, a simple and flippant ‘just use the grammar checker’ is perhaps not always the most useful thing to say to an undergraduate student, even one who has been taught previously in English or has it as a first or home language.

Furthermore, spelling checkers are, in my opinion, only really usable in an educated way if you already have a sense of how the word should be spelled. If you have no idea, then being presented with options may not be helpful. Often, the spell checker is more useful in picking up errors in spelling caused by typing clumsiness  rather than actual errors in spelling, and in these cases students can often work out from the options given which word they intended to type and choose from the list. However, where they have genuinely misspelled the word because they do not know how to spell it at all, they may just choose the first option, and that may not be the right one in the context of the sentence. When I was teaching academic writing courses I could always tell when a student had blindly followed the spelling and grammar checkers’ advice because their work bore the marks of the confusion and missteps that the checkers prompted them to take. I wish I could recall actual examples, but I think many who have marked these kinds of essays will have their own to relate this to.

Many students in South Africa are fairly new to computers when they come to university, and many still, even if they are very familiar with this technology seem to trust that computer knows what the answer is, because, after all, it is programmed to have the answers. Google always does, so why not MSWord? As I always tell students in workshops now, while acknowledging the challenges of using these tools and their shortcomings, is that the computer does not have an active, thinking brain, It is only doing what it is programmed to do. You have an active, thinking brain that has a seemingly endless capacity to learn, including how to spell words correctly, and how to write clearly. It’s not easy for many students, but with time, practice and help, I think it is possible to improve your writing and become better at being your own spelling and grammar checker; at least so that you can tell the PC when you are going to ‘Ignore’ its suggestions with greater confidence!