Improving Students' Writing

Meg Gorzycki, Ed.D.


San Francisco State University is committed to the improvement of students’ writing as it recognizes the need for college graduates to be proficient in the rhetorical skills of their discipline and proficient with communication in the English language.  Students must satisfy writing requirements in their General Education courses as well as in their upper division courses, as described in the Academic Senate policy on the Graduation Writing Assessment Requirement (Academic Senate Policy #F10-14 University Policy on Written English Proficiency. Retrieved from This tutorial will explore strategies for integrating writing into the curriculum and concerns related to designing assignments, class activities, and assessment.

Connecting Writing to Purpose

Writing and Cognition

Sample Class Assignments

Writing Across and Within the Curriculum Resources


Connecting the Writing to Purpose

The structure and complexity of compositions are often determined by their purpose and the audience that will read them. Formal compositions are academic and professional in nature, and so typically embody the rhetorical elements and standards of a given discipline. The United States government’s publication, Highlights of Climate Change in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment, for example, contains:

  • A statement of purpose that communicates the report’s compliance with the Global Change Research Act of 1990
  • Concisely stated summaries of findings
  • Multiple images of geography
  • An abundance of charts, graphs and tables
  • A series of text boxes that address “Key Messages”
  • References

The report, which is intended for use by the general public, relies heavily on graphic material to communicate ideas, and uses relatively short passages to convey important ideas. The report’s “voice” and approach to the subject are objective. The structure and complexity of the document is very different from an article about global warming and soy bean cultivation in the Midwest that was written for the journal, Plant Physiology. The article has not colorful pictures of land and seascapes, and uses more statistical language and complex scientific terms, which indicates it was not written for the general public, but for the scholarly and scientific communities.

Class assignments are formal compositions as they demonstrate students’ proficiency with the academic skills. These may include summaries of reading, field experience reports, a thesis paper, critiques of films, theater productions, or art, literary analysis, lab reports, clinical notes, and personal reflections.


Writing and Cognition

Compositions may provide readers with information about what writers know, how they apply what they know, how they value what they know, and how they relate the knowledge that they have about one thing to the knowledge they possess about other things. Often, when readers critique compositions, they are evaluating the quality of thinking represented in text (Flowers & Hayes, 1981; Gregg & Steinberg, 1980).

Assessing student compositions effectively begins with a clear sense of the purpose of the composition, the elements essential to the composition, and the kind of thinking required by the composition. Table 1 illustrates some common assignments, their purpose and cognitive tasks associated with them. Note that it is possible to have more than one purpose for a single assignment, which will ultimately determines how the composition is assessed.

Table 1: Writing Assignments, Purpose, Cognitive Tasks, and Assessment

Cognitive Tasks
Exam Short Answer
Document student’s ability to recall declarative knowledge
Correctly read prompts; retrieve from memory
Did the student produce the correct answer?
Exam Short Answer
Document student’s ability to provide accurate and relevant information in a clear and logical way
Correctly read prompts; retrieve from memory;
Organize information, determine the relevance of information, and determine the best way to articulate it clearly
Did the student produce accurate and relevant information in a clear and logical way?
Short Reflection
Document student’s ability to articulate the meaning and significance of ideas, events, or experiences
Determine the meaning and significance of ideas, events and experiences; explore maters in depth and ponder various perspective; organize thoughts; determine the correct tone; judge the sufficiency and clarity of explanations
Did the student adequately address the meaning and significance of something? Was the composition clear and well organized? Did the student offer any particularly profound insights?
Formal Report
Document student’s ability to locate, correctly interpret, analyze, synthesize, and summarize information;
Formulate key questions to drive inquiry with appropriate scope and depth; identify the significance of issues, ideas, and findings; determine which sources are most credible and how best to use them; determine which evidence to use to support which assertions, which assertions are priority, and how much discussion is sufficient for the audience; determine how to best use graphic illustrations
Did the student accurately report current and relevant information? Was the composition logical and clear? Was the report thorough and objective? Did the student use graphics effectively? Do the conclusions align with the evidence?
Clinical and Field Notes
Document student’s ability to record key events in the appropriate order and to comment on prevalent conditions that impact the outcome or status of a person, group, or environment
Sustain attention to details and determine which data is significant enough to report; recognize the relationship between conditions, behaviors, events, and status; organize information logically and judge the sufficiency and clarity of one’s report; determine the appropriate means of illustrating data
Did the student accurately capture the essential data and sufficiently describe relationships between variables? Was the composition logical and clear? Was the report thorough and objective? Did the student use graphics effectively?


In assessing student work, consider the various types of errors students are likely to make, and be clear about which errors concern the purpose of the assignment and the objective of writing instruction in the course. The errors include:

  1. Grammatical and spelling errors (requires review of grammar and spelling or use of spell check)
  2. Stylistic and formatting errors (requires review of APA, MLA, and other styles and formats)
  3. Errors in clarity (requires revision in word choice, organization and/or scope and depth of information to help students say what they mean to say)
  4. Errors in thinking and judgment (requires revision of research question, additional research, consideration of additional perspective and sources, evaluation of the relevance, accuracy, logic, and/or bias of statements to help students correct the mistakes in the substance of their composition)


Sample Class Assignments

Low-stakes, formative assessments help acquaint students with the elements and standards that represent proficient writing and increase their sensitivity to the subtle and important differences between poor, mediocre, good, and outstanding compositions. The following reading exercises prompt students to see compositions from the reader’s perspective and to heighten their awareness of how they might improve their own writing by critiquing others’ work.

Exercise A: Identifying the Purpose and Efficacy of Compositions in an Undergraduate Biology Course

Directions: Students are to read John Schmitt’s Minimum Wage: Catching up to Productivity, in Democracy a Journal of Ideas, Issue #29, Summer, 2013. Retrieved from:

Next, they are to read two samples of student work, each representing a response to the same assignment. The assignment was to read Schmitt’s article and write a short composition (200-250 words) in which students identify the writers’ purpose and assess whether the authors are effective in making in achieving their purpose. The reading exercise requires about 25 minutes. Students will present their findings in a class discussion.

Student One (218 words)

Schmitt’s article is intended to convince readers that it is time to increase the minimum wage in the US. He sets out to prove that the increase would be beneficial for the poor, middle class, and rich. In addition, he claims that the recent proposals to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour is not enough to bring the country back to the prosperity it had in the 1960s when the minimum wage was the equivalent of $16.00 per hour in 1968 dollars, but he states that a sudden jump to $1600 per hour would be harmful to the economy overall. He is clearly addressing the general public, and specifically the American voter.

Schmitt is somewhat effective in his argument, but his essay could have contained more information about how all classes benefit from a raise in the minimum wage. Those who oppose the raise have declared that it will lead to lay-offs and destroy small businesses. Some readers, myself included, have little understanding of what things were like in the 1960s and why it is that the economy was so different then. Schmitt also seems to assume that readers know something about inflation, the relationship between productivity and technology, and investments. His essay might be more effective if he provided more details and an example.  

Student Two: (225 words)

The purpose of Schmitt’s article is to convince people to support a higher minimum wage. He wants to show readers that they are not as well off as people were in the 1960s when their earnings were worth more in the market. Probably the readers are voters. Schmitt is essentially writing an editorial, but he wants to be sure people see the danger of increasing minimum wage too quickly as this could damage the economy because it would hit the employers too hard at once. He has a point and this makes him effective. Schmitt does a good job convincing readers that it is time for a minimum wage increase. He mentions the fact that it would benefit everyone in all the different income groups including the super-rich. I know what he is talking about because I have been working in a minimum wage job for over six years and my pay check does not go very far. If I were making $10.10 an hour, it would be easier for me to go to school and pay for my car and stuff my mom and dad don’t cover. He is saying that between 1979 and 2012 American productivity increase but at the same time wages did not increase so much. He basically says we are not as well off as we were in the 1960s.

Next, invite students to determine which composition is better and why. Class discussion may address the following:

  1. The organization of each composition and whether it was helpful to the reader; consider the use of paragraphs and topic sentences; consider the repetitiveness of the text.
  2. Whether the Student One and Student Two both demonstrate they understand the writer (Schmitt); note that Student One acknowledges some gaps in understanding, while Student Two mentions elements of Schmitt’s work without disclosing much about how much he or she understands.
  3. The accuracy of the students’ interpretation of the author’s purpose.
  4. The evidence each student uses to explain his or her assertions.
  5. The degree to which the students’ compositions contained relevant information and addressed the assignment; note that Student Two brings personal experience into the conversation, which is tangential to the task.


Exercise B: Engaging the Text in a Graduate Education Course

Directions: Students are to read the following two student compositions and determine the quality of the students’ work. The assignment called upon students to read Chapter Four, “Learning to Communicate” in Derek Bok’s, Our underachieving colleges: A candid look at how much students learn and why they should be learning more. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (2006), and then to engage the reading by writing a scholarly reflection on the chapter. The reflection paper was to be between 400-450 words in length, and demonstrate the students’ ability to correctly interpret the text, evaluate assertions, synthesize ideas from other sources, and offer a coherent composition.

In order to complete this exercise, students need to read Bok’s chapter (about 26 pages). Students are to assess the quality of two samples of student work and to identify which sample is better and why. The reading exercise is homework that is brought to class for discussion.

Student One (343 words)

Bok says that while everyone makes a big deal out of writing in college, nobody likes to do it because it is time consuming and hard work and professors have other stuff on their mind. Students don’t always get the writing instruction that they need because professors think that teaching writing skills is beneath them. They would rather publish great literary works.

In this case, Bok tells readers that students really suffer when they don’t get proper writing instruction. He proves that the more students write and get prompt feedback from faculty, the better they get at writing. Bok tells readers that writing is important because it helps students think critically and have a more deeper understanding of a subject. The idea is to get students to write better when they graduate then how they wrote when they were freshmen. The writing instruction has to come every year not just in freshman year or once in the program. It’s hard to convince professors to teach it though.

I was surprised when Bok said that “Professors of English are not trained to teach composition and would rarely throw themselves enthusiastically into the work even if they could be persuaded to take it on (p. 96). I always thought it was the English professor’s job to teach writing. He says the job should go to “well-paid compositionists.” That is not going to happen because with budget cuts and increases in tuition just to pay for professors already on the job, there won’t be no money to pay for such extras like compositionists.

Bok suggested that universities should experiment to see what a good way to teach writing is. He says that they could also look at what each department does to teach writing. The idea is to use methods that are effective. Some professors only use methods that are old and not effective. I agree that some methods are old and need to be updated. If students are not taught in the way they like to be taught, they probably will not learn to write.

Student Two: (403 words)

Essentially, Bok’s chapter four concerns what appears to be the university’s abdication of its duty to teach higher level thinking and rhetoric. First, Bok observes that while professors understand the importance of writing, many do not want to teach writing courses because it is regarded as a burden and a distraction from research. These assertions echo what Bok described in earlier chapters about the disparate agendas of professors and administrators, and how teaching is often the last priority. Like Arum and Roska (2010) and hacker and Dreifus (2011), Bok suggests that the undergraduate curriculum leans toward mediocrity as universities often take the approach that a single class can teach students what it takes years to master.

Second, Bok notes that English professors frequently do not teach writing skills very well because they know that “their professional success depends on publishing works of literary criticism, and their pedagogic interests lie not in teaching composition but in lecturing on literature” (p. 85). He reports that universities often hire lecturers to teach the composition classes, and that these instructors are often preoccupied with completing their own degrees or getting to the next campus where they have another part-time teaching job. At best, this practice seems to confirm the assertion that universities want students to move through their programs expeditiously, and at worst suggests that universities have not yet learned how to teach communication skills in ways that foster meaningful intellectual growth.

Finally, Bok’s statement concerning oral communication is quite arresting: “Conceivably, public speaking suffers from the fact that the most useful teaching involves the transmission of skills, a type of instruction too practical and too lacking in intellectual depth to command much respect in most academic circles.” (p. 107)

Like Barzun (Begin Here, 1991), Bok understands that the cultivation of intellect is difficult because intellectual processes are not visible and that intellectual “products” (such as a thesis paper, or one’s performance in a debate) are filled with nuances, unique uses of language, unique perspectives, variations in logic, and multiple applications of knowledge that require the constant discernment of instructors who are supposed to grade students’ work.

When viewed against the proposition that a liberal arts education is supposed to produce citizens worthy of their liberty because they can judge wisely, the retreat from instruction that consistently and substantially refines communication and the intellect conveys the notion that such ideals are best subordinate to practicality and expedience.

The discussion of these two compositions should begin with a review of the purpose of the exercise, which was to have students “engage the text,” or plainly stated, to think deeply about what the author is stating and to articulate one’s understanding of and thoughts on the matter.

The discussion about how would students grade each composition should aim to heighten students’ sensitivity to the details of each composition. Here are some considerations:

  1. Describe the tone of each composition and what elements or aspects of the composition conveys the tone; which essay has a more scholarly tone and why?
  2. To what extent do you think the writers “engaged the text?” What evidence conveys whether the writers read the whole chapter and have accurately understood the text? Did each writer actually engage the text, or did they simply report what Bok wrote?
  3. Do the essays demonstrate the writer’s ability to synthesize Bok’s work with other experts on the subject? How?
  4. Do the essays demonstrate the writer’s level of critical thinking? How? What insights to Bok’s work and the issues Bok addressed do the writers offer?
  5. Are the essays well-organized? Do paragraphs have a clear topic sentence and flow smoothly? Does the writer use language effectively and demonstrate proficiency with English grammar?


Writing Across and Within the Curriculum Resources

The WAC/WID/GWAR program offers abundant resources for instructors. For more information about policies and programs, contact Dr. Mary Soliday at (415) 338-1469, or


Arum, R. & Roska, J. (2011). Academically adrift limited learning on college campuses. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Barzun, J. (1991). Begin here. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

Bok, D. (2006). Our underachieving colleges a candid look at how much students learn and why they should be learning more. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Flower, L., & Hayes, J. R. (1981). A cognitive process theory of writing. College composition and communication, 365-387.

Gregg, L. W. & Steinberg, E. R. Eds. (1980). Cognitive processes in writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hacker, A. & Dreifus, C. (2011). Higher education? How colleges are wasting our money and failing our kids—and what we can do about it. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Melillo, J. M., Richmond, T. C., & Yohe, G. W. Eds. (2014). Highlights of climate change I the United States: Third National climate assessment. Washington, D. C.: United States Printing Office.

Ruiz-Vera, U. M., Siebers, M., Gray, S. B., Drag, D. W., Rosenthal, D. M., Kimball, B. A., & Bernacchi, C. J. (2013). Global warming can negate the expected CO2 stimulation in photosynthesis and productivity for soybean grown in the Midwestern United States. Plant physiology, 162(1), 410-423.