Where we Fail our Students: Writing Skills


Let's find less need for the red ink in grading. (Wikimedia Commons)

I firmly believe that one of the great benefits of an education in history is the development of writing skills. I strive for that in myself, and encourage it in my students. Writing skills will continue to benefit them beyond my classroom, in other disciplines, and beyond the academy. I’m certainly not alone in this belief, and almost universally I hear from other professors, lecturers, and TAs how important writing skills are to them as well. But what do we really do about it? We mark up papers, we make ourselves available for consultation, and we direct students to university writing centres. Is that really enough?

But doing more comes with its own pressures. I realized this recently when I decided to devote an entire lecture period to discussing writing issues. Initially I planned only to devote 15-20 minutes to addressing the most egregious writing problems I discovered in recent student assignments. But by the time I created slides with examples, I realized that more than half the class period would be required simply to go through them all, leaving inadequate time for “real content”—as in the history part.

I went back and forth all day, worrying that I was somehow doing my students a disservice by devoting less time to EU formation or Soviet politics or whatever else was scheduled that week. The importance of the “real content” of history has been so ingrained into us, I realized, that I felt like I was somehow cheating, or not doing my job, because I was going to spend an entire class period helping students with writing concerns, and working with them to build their written communication skills.

Many of us put hours into grading, where we correct grammar and spelling errors, suggest ways of clarifying arguments, and highlight awkward writing so that students can later improve it. How much does this accomplish? Do students really look closely at these suggestions or incorporate them into their work? Short of assigning drafts and revisions, it sometimes seems that there is little we can do to help students improve their writing skills.

What I realized is that if we value writing skills, and if we truly believe that improving our students’ written communication skills is one of the goals of history education, we need to work actively toward that goal. It’s not enough to correct papers and expect students to studiously incorporate suggestions into work in their next course when it’s another professor’s problem. Nor is it sufficient to shuffle them off to the writing centre (though these are valuable and often underutilized resources). Instead we have to make the teaching of strong writing skills part of our own project as well.

In smaller courses, or larger courses with TAs, we can ask students to work on a paper throughout the term, handing in drafts and revisions, each contributing to their grades. We can also reward genuine effort and writing improvement in their grades as well. In courses like mine which are officially too small for TAs but too large for everyone to submit multiple drafts, we can devote lecture time to writing skills, and turn some class time over to actual writing exercises. At the moment I devote one day a week to document discussion, but in the future, I plan to turn one of those classes each month over toward writing development.

Too often we fail our students in this area. They earn poor or failing grades because they are unable to express themselves effectively. But too often we also fail to teach them the skills the need to be able to communicate better. What have you done to focus on writing skills in your classroom? As a student what have you found most useful? How do we make a history education about both content and skills?

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9 Responses to “Where we Fail our Students: Writing Skills”

  1. Sharon Says:

    I stumbled upon this when a fellow friend posted this on Facebook. I thought I’d add my two sense on the subject. I recently graduated with a degree in History. I formostly dedicated my undergraduate career to my love of history as a subject, but have found it gave me the invaluable ability to write. Which as you pointed out in this blog is of substantial importance and profoundly useful in every day life. The one fall back to my degree is it did not offer me the skills needed to write short, consistent, to the point papers. The reason why I highlight this certain type of writing style is I have now begun my career in law, which requires making a clear cut statement with as little words as possible. For all History teachers, TA’s and such like out there, perhaps making one or two assignments a half page or so, with a very complex argument would help with this type writing style. Long winded, 10 page papers will almost certainly be in their future, but the real way to improve writing skills is to break down complexity in a few short sentences.

  2. Daryl Mitchell Says:

    I believe that part of the problem is the language instruction that students are given in elementary and high schools. Most of your students were likely taught using the “whole language” philosophy. I’ve talked to some students who said they were never properly instructed in the structure of the English language, and therefore struggle with phonics, grammar, spelling and punctuation. By the time they reach university, they still don’t possess the level of skill that they are expected to have. It’s unfortunate that while educational researchers debate about which model of language instruction is superior, you have to help students make up the difference.

  3. Jean Smith Says:

    I agree absolutely about the importance of writing skills. In my own experience, though I have forgotten much of the historical content that I learned as an undergraduate, the writing skills I learned have stayed with me. As a TA, I found one of the most effective ways to teach writing was a system set up by a professor I worked for that required students to write a one page essay on the readings every week. These were graded on a pass/no-pass basis and students had to rewrite them taking into account your comments until they were up to standard in order to pass the class. Not only did this help with participation and encouraging reading, it also meant that students had to look at the comments I wrote and improve their writing. They complained but by the end of the quarter almost none of them had to revise their papers.

  4. Justin Bengry Says:

    Thanks so much for the comments, everyone!

    @Sharon: You bring up an incredibly important point about the skills we teach, and the skills we should teach. And in history we need to do a better job of teaching students to write concise, well-organized pieces as well.

    @Daryl: You’re absolutely right about grammar. I never actually learned the rules of English grammar until I learned German grammar! In order to understand what particular elements of language were in a foreign language, I first had to understand English grammar better.

    @Jean: That’s a great modification of the short assignment concept. Did students have to submit these every single week? Did they need to ‘pass’ all of them in order to pass the course, or only submit a certain number across the entire course?

  5. perkinsy Says:

    Not once during my degree did history lecturers devote more than a couple of sentences to discuss writing skills. In honours we got a sheet of paper explaining the difference between it’s, its’ and its etc and were told that we should pay the study skills centre and attend their writing courses – I strongly doubt if one person did.

    This raises a larger issue and that is the teaching of the techniques that historians need to use – the ‘how’ of history. This seems to be largely absent in the undergraduate degree. There is no discussion of how to research in an archive, various technology both hardware and software that can prove of enormous assistance in organising work and analysing sources etc. Students are expected to work it out themselves with the consequence that some would be working inefficiently because they are not aware of various research methods, and some find doing history courses very difficult because they don’t know where to begin with research.

    I am currently assisting several professors in another discipline with historical research. An important reason why I was hired was because they wanted someone who had been trained to work in the archives. I have received no such training, I have worked it out myself through my career as an auditor, my hobby delving into family history, chatting with helpful librarians and archivists, and spending hours in the archives through my history degree.

    Reflecting on this I think that a unit on historical methods should be offered as a core unit early in a history degree. This would look at writing, IT and techniques for search for primary sources (with all the debates about the reliability of sources etc). There could be field trips to archives. Librarians and archivists could be asked to do guest lectures. Historians need to be on a steep learning curve with technology and increasingly need to understand how to use databases, data mining techniques and how to harness social media to communicate what they have learned and discuss issues with their colleagues. As technology develops, historians will need to increase their technical skills.

  6. Erika Franz Says:

    While I cannot claim to have adequately addressed punctuation and all of the style points have made an effort to at least address composition and clarity in historical arguments. I am sure I will continue to evaluate this process but I did discuss my practices here: http://erikafranz.wordpress.com/2010/12/13/helping-students-read-and-write-better/

    I would love a critique of my methods if anyone feels the inclination.

  7. Erika Franz Says:

    @perkinsy I think that emphasis on historical methods is increasingly becoming the norm in universities, although I do not believe that it is as common at the high school or community college level. It is a major emphasis of mine. I open each unit with a case studies devoted to a question of historical methods or approaches, using that units material to discuss how it works. For example, when I talk about the Egyptians and the Hittites, we consider the question, “Is history the story of the elite/victors?” and then explore beyond the monuments and victory reliefs to explain the evidence for the slaves who built the pyramids and the Hittites victory over Ramses which was misrepresented on every temple wall Ramses supported (so, basically all of them).

    They are case studies devoted to methodology and approach which help the students gain better access to the content of the unit.

    @Justin Bengry Thanks for the post–it is affirming!

  8. New Technology Old Skills « History Compass Exchanges Says:

    […] one, do not believe that new technology and formats necessarily change the fundamentals of reading. Justin’s recent thought-provoking piece on the importance of writing for history students made me think about the fundamental skills […]

  9. How do we teach undergraduates to write history papers? « History Compass Exchanges Says:

    […] Justin Bengry recently wrote on this topic and I have been thinking about it as well. It has often occurred to me that, especially in the lower division survey classes for which I worked as a teaching assistant, there was a lot of emphasis on teaching the mechanics of historical writing and explaining the difference between primary and secondary sources and only rarely did students engage with examples of argument-driven history based on primary research. Commonly their reading would consist of a text-book supplemented by primary sources that we would analyze in section. This is often because of time constraints, particularly in the 10 week quarter system of my university, the desire to expose students to primary sources, but also because of concerns that many articles or monographs would be too difficult or inaccessible to students. However, when I did have the chance to teach such material, I found that students often rose to the challenge. Discussions were often better, largely because once I made sure that students understood the argument and its relevance, I could ask them whether they agreed with it and why, what they considered its strengths and weaknesses. These are all topics likely to provoke debate rather than to have my students uncomfortably searching for the “right” answer that they often assumed I was looking for in our discussions of primary sources, despite my best efforts to assure them otherwise. […]

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