Learning to write is not simple, and teaching students to develop good writing skills is no easy task.
The major challenges to writing skills development involve 1) addressing diverse needs, language levels and backgrounds of the students; 2) making sure students have enough background knowledge on the writing subjects; 3) providing timely, actionable feedback to help students improve their writings. With the pivot to remote education, writing instruction has become even more demanding as teachers can’t be physically present with their students to support and provide in-time feedback. And instructors keep seeking different ways to increase student online engagement in the learning process, thus sharpening their writing ability.
“Learning to write is extraordinarily difficult, and teaching people how to write is just as hard.” - David Larabee, Professor, Stanford University Graduate School of Education.
In this article, I want to share five strategies to create quality online writing lessons.
1 | Flipping the classroom for writing preparation
To become a good writer, one needs to be a thorough reader and researcher. Therefore, writing instruction should be accompanied by reading preparation, in which students study a paper or research article to gain an understanding of the subject and learn from the writers, before applying these insights to their own writing.
So how can teachers motivate students to consume the assigned reading materials, especially in distance learning? One effective way is to utilize teaching tools. By using different annotation tools to add in-line questions or discussion points to the reading materials, teachers can instantly initiate more active engagement within the virtual classroom, thus activating students’ understanding of the materials. A great benefit of teaching writing online is the opportunity to employ multimodal modes of writing. Since students will be completing their assignments on digital platforms, teachers can incorporate varied modes of knowledge consumption and expression. Besides reading an article to prepare for writing, students can pick up knowledge by watching a Youtube video, listening to a podcast, or studying a photo. Again, there are several tools allowing you to accommodate multimodal study content, such as Perusall, Hypothesis, Google Docs, Google presentation, and FeedbackFruits Interactive Study Material and Comprehension.
2| Providing good exemplars and models
“The study of models provides students with quality examples to inform their writing” (Pytash and Morgan, 2014)
For students to produce effective, audience-focused, and accurate writing, they should be informed of the desired outcomes for the written work. By studying examples of past graded theses, well/poorly constructed reports, as well as templates, students have a clear understanding of how they should work on their draft, and also identify the good points to follow and mistakes to avoid.
In online settings, instructors can organize either asynchronous or synchronous discussion sessions where students analyze model papers and exchange thoughts. This activity prompts students to critically process what is required to produce a passing paper, thus applying these insights to their own writing.
3 | Addressing common writing mistakes
Providing good writing examples is crucial, but it is also important to point out the common writing mistakes and demonstrate how to avoid them. As students are aware of what not to do while writing, they can construct better, error-free drafts, which saves instructors time when reviewing. That is, instead of spending time on micro-level aspects such as grammar, spelling, punctuation, syntactic structure and such, teachers can tackle higher-level writing features like argumentation and reasoning. So how can teachers demonstrate the mistakes in a clear and concise manner? By developing a good writing rubric.
This article details 2 approaches to design an effective rubric that stimulates higher thinking skills: The Adopt and Adapt, and the Bottom-Up approach.
4 | Guiding students to give constructive writing feedback
Peer Review has been proven to be an extremely effective method of improving writing skills. Both providing and receiving feedback have been directly linked to a growth in writing ability. And for peer feedback to positively impact the writing performance, it has to be adequate, constructive and of high quality. That’s why students need clear instructions and guidance on how to provide constructive feedback, and how to regard the feedback critically.
Two instructional designers at Cornell University share their best tips on guiding students to give constructive feedback:
Setting clear outcomes and expectations
A key decisive element in facilitating Peer Review is setting clear outcomes and expectations. Students should be well-informed of what kind of feedback needs to be delivered and receive careful instructions on how to deliver positive, effective, and actionable feedback.
Training is vital
It is important that students are provided with adequate training and guidance along the feedback process so that they understand how to produce effective feedback.
Modelling quality feedback
An important part of the peer feedback training is letting students know what quality feedback is? Quality feedback should be objective and constructive; positive and explanatory; honest and specific.
Helping students to have a growth mindset when receiving feedback
Knowing how to receive and process feedback properly is as important as giving quality feedback. That is, instructors should train and help students to develop a growth mindset; ‘feedback literacy’, which entails appreciating the given feedback, making judgements, and managing emotional reactions to the feedback.
5 | Using feedback at different levels to guide students’ writing
The power of peer feedback in writing development is undeniable, yet it should be facilitated in combination with other feedback types (teacher-student, self-reflection), and at different levels (Task/Product, Process, Self-regulation, and the self).
Incorporating all these feedback layers would require a mix of learning activities and assessment practices. In the online setting, pedagogical technology offers instructors plenty of options to facilitate multi-layer feedback.
Several tools harness AI to generate instant feedback on micro-level writing aspects like grammar, reference, spelling, or punctuation. To facilitate teacher-student feedback, tools like Google Docs, Turnitin, or LMS native tools let teachers provide feedback on students’ submissions. Instructors can also rely on native or non-native LMS tools to create assignments where students upload their work, provide feedback on their peers’ writing, and reflect on their own contributions.
Combining feedback types at various levels of the writing process with the support of pedagogical tools significantly improves the quality of the feedback students receive, thus positively affecting their writing performance.
For further insights into how to teach writing effectively in an online/hybrid classroom, you can check out this ebook “5 effective ways to better student writing”.