Writing in College: Best tips and tools to teach it


It is a recurring problem in college campuses across America: nearly half of incoming freshmen are not prepared to write at a college level. Many have never written a 5-page paper. Throughout high school, they have repeatedly been asked to write short essays. But give them an assignment to develop an idea and carry it from an introduction to a fully formed argument in more than a few pages, and they freeze up. These students either need to take extra classes before they can begin college, or they require extra attention from professors to bring them up to the level of their peers. They’re already behind before they’ve even have a chance to start.

Nearly 50% of college students end up in Remedial English classes to catch them up to where they need to be. Of these students, only 17% will earn their degree. This is a massive problem. It can no longer be solely up to high school teachers to fix this problem. While high schools do need to increase the demands of their writing classes, it is also essential that college professors find news ways to reach these students to help them succeed in their Remedial classes so they can graduate and contribute to society in a meaningful way. These students are lacking reading comprehension skills, analytical skills, a thorough understanding of grammar and spelling, the ability to construct an argument, and organizational skills.

There are four things that professors in Remedial English classes need to start doing in order to teach these students effectively, and allow them to join their classmates in standard English classes. First, they must teach students how to revise their work. So many high school students write a paper and then turn it in. They don’t write multiple drafts. They don’t consider how the structure might be improved. They don’t proofread their essays. But revision is an essential skill for writers to learn. One way to teach students how to revise their papers is to have a “cutting session,” in which students literally take scissors to their papers and cut the paragraphs out one by one. Then, they lay the pieces out to see if there is a better, more effective order for the paragraphs. They could also rewrite the paper using feedback from the professor.

The second thing professor must do is require students to write more frequent and longer assignments. There is no substitute for practice when it comes to improving your writing (or really, improving anything). Writing is a skill. And like any skill, you must put in many hours before you can say you are truly good at it.

Teachers also must set SMART goals. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-sensitive. Do not tell a student, “You need to improve your revision skills.” Tell them, “I’d like you to revise the structure of your argument by Wednesday morning.” SMART goals allow students to fully understand what they are doing wrong and what they need to do to improve. If a student doesn’t understand what is asked of them, and they fail, they may get disheartened and accept that they are a poor writer. Instead, allow them to push forward and try their best to succeed.

Finally, and most importantly, the professor must teach students how to summarize, rather than only analyze the things they read. Analyzing an argument does not help you to form an argument. Anyone can have an opinion about an article. And expressing your views is not a skill you need in order to be a solid writer. To be a good writer, you must be able to read something, and re-write it in a way that is understandable. Once students are able to summarize what they have read, they will be more capable of forming their own arguments in the future.

Teachers can also use tools to help students learn better writing skills. A few helpful tools are listed below:

  • Plag Tracker – Students can use PlagTracker to check for any instances of plagiarism in their writing. Even unintentional plagiarism can be damaging. PlagTracker will modify the writing to make it original and plagiarism free.
  • OWL – OWL (Online Writing Lab) was produced by Purdue University to provide students and instructors with valuable writing resources. Students can get instructions for writing academic essays, conducting research, writing outlines, and writing works cited pages.
  • Ninja Essays – Custom writing service Ninja Essays offers a helpful blog for students and teachers to learn useful writing tips.
  • Essay Mama – This essay writing service offers editing and proofreading services for students who are learning better writing practices.
  • Mindomo – Mindomo allows students to collaborate with one another to brainstorm ideas and create “mind maps.” This can be helpful for teaching analytical thinking skills, how to properly structure an argument, and how to revise their own work.

These tools and methods are not difficult to put into action. And if we’re going to bring the graduation rate for Remedial English students up from 17%, they must be done in all colleges across the country. However, there is a lot of controversy surrounding them. Focusing so specifically on the nuances of writing implies that writing is a process. The number of standardized tests and placement exams makes it difficult to argue that writing is a skill that can be learned. It seems that many educational institutions want to believe that writing is a skill that you either possess or you lack. This doesn’t have to be the case.

We can make a difference if we empower students to learn in a way that works for them. Professors in Remedial English classes must accept that they may need to get creative with their teaching methods. The tools listed in this article are a great place to start. Others are available as well. Find tools that will get students excited to learn. We can make a difference in the graduation rates and writing skills of students in colleges across the country. But we have to start soon. We have to start NOW.