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Writing and Critical Thinking

Many instructors complain that students do not use the good writing techniques they developed in their composition courses for their writing in other courses. All students in composition practice focusing a topic, doing research, organizing ideas, writing strong thesis and topic sentences, integrating quotes and research, and implementing a process approach (prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing) to create strong writing. Why don’t they always apply these skills in their writing for other subject areas outside of the English and Communications Discipline?

Researcher Elizabeth Wardle, offers a surprising insight. In an article entitled “Understanding Transfer from First Year Composition: Preliminary Results from a Longitudinal Study,” she suggests that, paradoxically, we get better writing from students when we ask them do difficult writing and hold them to high standards. She offered some suggestions for developing challenging writing assignments:

• The assignment does not have one “right” answer but is a truly engaging rhetorical problem; the assignment “seems authentic” to the student.
• The prompt for the writing assignment is thought-provoking so students think about the assignment outside of class and when they are not writing.
• The assignment is open to student ownership; students have some autonomy/freedom while being given the necessary structure to help them succeed.
• The assignment is not simple regurgitation or summary of facts, which feels like “busy work.”
• The assignment relates in some way to students’ interests/future; writing is easier and more meaningful when students have read deeply about the topic and are engaged in the conversation about it. This is easier when the course is in students’ majors; when the assignment is in a general education course, the teacher who engages students helps involve them in a conversation so they know something about what is being said about the topic.
• The assignment is challenging, not easily within students’ reach, and teachers maintain high expectations for the results.
• The assignment clearly relates to the rest of the course content.
• The assignment is intended to achieve a clear purpose, is “goal-oriented.”
• The assignment is clear; students understand what is being asked of them and why.
(Wardle 77-78)

Many faculty members around campus have developed writing assignments that encourage strong writing and deep engagement with subject matter. Marcia Daniell and I have visited several instructors in different programs to talk about their writing assignments and are attempting to discern similarities in strategies we all use to get students to write analytically. Please join us on Thursday, April 26, at 12:30 in the TLC, where we will share some of the exciting work with writing our colleagues are doing across campus.

Source: Wardle, Elizabeth. “Understanding Transfer from First Year Composition: Preliminary Results from a Longitudinal Study.” Writing Program Administration 31.1-2 (2007): 65-85.

Written by: Lea Bingham

Categories: Writing.

Is Humor Effective in Teaching and Learning Basic Writing Concepts?

If your social media newsfeed is anything like mine, you frequently see friends sharing images like the one below:


If you saw this and didn’t immediately laugh, I can explain. Greenpeace and other animal organizations have been campaigning for a long time against people violently killing animals like baby seals. At one point, “Stop clubbing baby seals” was a slogan for these campaigns (with “clubbing” meaning “hitting forcefully”). However, if you put a comma between “clubbing” and “baby seals,” it now sounds like you want the baby seals to stop going to nightclubs and to stop having their fuzzy bodies take up so much space on the dance floor. The absurdity of baby seals in a nightclub makes it especially funny. The overall point is that something as simple as one comma can change the meaning of even a very short sentence.

Another image shows that punctuation can be a matter of life and death:


The version without the comma suggests cannibalizing the elderly, whereas the version with the comma invites the grandmother to join a meal.

If you want to avoid unintended meanings created by comma usage, one strategy is to read your sentences out loud. Be sure to pause wherever you’ve used a comma and see if that pause affects the meaning of your sentence.

I love that internet humor is drawing attention to the usage of punctuation, but it occurs to me that these sentences of 3 and 4 words are not nearly as complex as the sentences that many students compose in their academic writing. Luckily there are some good guides to comma usage available online, such as the following:
Perdue OWL


And for more punctuation humor, check out the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss (available in many bookstores and libraries, including the Durham Tech library).

Written by: Karin Abell

Categories: Writing.

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