Where we fail our students: Writing Skills

February, 2011 · By Justin Bengry

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?

This post was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
3 February 2011.