How to improve your students writing



by Jim Lowell

How to Improve Your Students Writing

Many students struggle with writing. They may be intimidated by writing and lack the confidence in what their abilities are. At Caribbean School of Theology (CST), we provide the fourth year (as does ISUM) of study for our Bible institutes (seven schools-ten locations). The courses offered are intensive that range in time from one to two weeks in length. Teachers are CST missionaries and adjunct faculty of Global University. Effort is made to help the students we receive from our Bible schools to move through the program for the completion of a Bachelor of Arts degree. CST also offers a Master of Arts degree in partnership with Global University. In some countries, the choice is made by the local church as to who can move on to the MA program offered by CST. One major problem is that many of the students do not have good writing skills.

The Bible institute presents us with students who have little practice in formal writing. ISUM and FACULTAD, the Spanish faculty, talk about the issues that come from La Monografía. These same students lack skills on entry to the institute. One of the chief concerns then at all levels is to provide education that will improve the writing of the students.

You Must Write to Become a Better Writer

We have students who have taken courses in the universities, as well as students who have studied at the Bible institute level in any of the ten locations we serve. Many of our students, having studied at the Bible institute, yet have not gained a background in formal writing of intensive course papers and papers for assessment.

As a result of their schooling, students may find writing assignments unfamiliar and intimidating. As a faculty member of CST teaching Graduate Research and Writing, which is the first course of our MA program, recognizes there is a group of students who are ill-prepared for the task of writing for assessment. Some students have received the harsh red pen treatment, criticism, unhelpful feedback, and/or grades that seemed arbitrary. A fear about writing subjective assignments can result. These students’ anxiety or sense of lack of preparation about writing may impede their ability to perform effectively. Our task then is to aid the student to move ahead without fear. What happens in the institute and fourth year can weaken the student’s ability to succeed in further studies and may impair effectiveness in their studies.

Strategies for the Bible Institute and the Fourth Year

An important strategy is to ask students to write often. Ask your students to write at the beginning and ending of every class a half to one page paper on what they have learned from the reading needed for the material discussed in the class or lecture, a half page to one page on what they learned in the lecture that could be applied to life, ministry, and in their culture (S. Lingenfelter 1994, class practice). As a teacher your class planning must change to create writing opportunities of different types. Give students the opportunity to practice writing in situations where the grading stakes are low, the student gains experience in writing and lose the fear of writing. The student must write to become a better writer.

Quick and Dirty Writing

Quick and dirty writing is to write quickly and as well as you can, but without worry of error or spelling, grammar, and emphasis on content (J. Lingenfelter 1995, class practice). Quick and dirty writing builds critical thinking skills for the students due to thinking with analysis, quick organizing of an argument or synthesis, and evaluation or valuation through writing. Students must filter through the question “what does it mean to me in my life, ministry, and cultural setting?” I ask every student to utilize this question, for them to respond to what they have been taught and what it means to them. Your student must write to become a better writer.

Place into your course short assignments that are graded but require using a check mark for completion and a check plus or check minus for reward or penalty. Give assignments that have a pass/fail grade or a low overall point value. This writing referred to as low-stakes assignments give students the opportunity to write, practicing writing skills without the stress of high-stakes assignments grading. These writing assignments aid in building the skills and confidence students need for more heavily weighted assignments, as assigned papers, projects, and unit assignments, etc. Emphasize to students that low-stakes assignments provide them with the practice and feedback they will need to perform well on higher-stakes assignments.

By CST’s partnership with Global University, the assigned reading and writing is before the student as read. The student does not need to search for something to write. After reading the question, it is vital to put the question into objectives or purpose of writing to fulfill the assigned writing.

Capitalize on Informal Writing Assignments

Every academic institution has a culture of writing and requirements to fulfill their expectations. In our program at CST, we utilize Kate Turabian’s A Manual for Writers as our standard of writing along with a document Form and Style Guide, Student Handout on Form and Style based on Turabian. When students try to conform to formal writing requirements, they often write poorly with glaring errors, failing to meet the expected standards. As a mentor, in questioning through discussion, I found that when students talk or write informally, they relax, are clearer, and more persuasive than on formal written assignments. Our goal is for students to employ the formal writing conventions of our program but informal writing may be a good means to get them there.

Create Short Meaningful Writing Opportunities

A teacher could consider assigning some informal writing at the beginning and end of every class. Informal writing assignments can reduce the tension students’ associate with writing. The goal is to move from the simple “quick and dirty”, low-stakes assignments, and informal writing. All help students to get their ideas down on paper clearly, increase their confidence, and eventually pave the way for better formal writing. It may even convince reluctant writers that they like writing after all. This writing puts into the hands of the students pre-discussion ideas as well. These types of writing opportunities move the student toward formal writing success.

Another help for students in the writing process, break long writing assignments down into shorter assignments. For a research assignment, for example, you might ask first for a proposal or statement of purpose of writing in which the student must articulate the purpose of the paper (trying to convince of what and why). Have class discussion as a group to see strengths and weaknesses that come out of the writing. As the discussion clarifies and reinforces the writing purpose, ask for a list of relevant bibliographic resources; then for an argument, clearly state in one to two sentences. By breaking the assignment down into smaller pieces helps demystify the writing assignment for students. It gives students a clearer point of entry for beginning the assignment and helps overcome anxiety and writer’s block. Reading the assignment is clearly a problem for some, as some students never answer the question. Reading and creating a purpose of writing stating what you will do to answer the questions of the writing assignment can bring forward the headers that will be used in answering the question.

Never Overwhelm the Student with Your Grading Style

Please do not use a red pen or pencil for grading purposes. Try green or blue. Students sometimes feel overwhelmed by a paper bleeding with corrections or instructor feedback and do not know where to begin to improve their performance.

Consider providing targeted but not extensive feedback. For example, you might make it clear to students that on Unit I they will only receive feedback on the strength of their use of sources to answer the question and evidence of reading but not on any other aspects of their writing. Alternatively, you might focus on clarity, underlining clear or effective passages of the writing in green, and unclear writing or problematic argument passages in yellow, and limiting your feedback to that single dimension of grading the writing. This helps students’ focus on one aspect of their writing at a time. This is most effective if you make it clear to students that each assignment’s feedback is meant to help them with a particular aspect of writing, but that on the final formal assignments they will be assessed along multiple dimensions, which you spell out clearly (Douglas 1997, class presentation).

Grading and Feedback

Making meaningful constructive comments in grading is vital to the students continued growth in writing. Students make mistakes, overlook good writing practice guidelines, and fail to really answer the question of the assignment given.

Our goal in grading is to move the student from where they are to better writing, methodology, and learning. Some instructors write extensive margin comments and some edit student papers for grammar, sentence structure, spelling, and mark “every jot and tittle”. My observation would indicate that detailed margin comments are not always effective for improving student performance. First, a heavily “marked up” paper can overwhelm a student who lacks confidence about writing. Second, students can come to believe that revision is simply a matter of incorporating the instructor’s edits. It is vital for the student to think about the paper’s strengths and weaknesses and make their own editorial decisions. For the most part students hand in a first draft of the paper instead of reading their paper for clarity, and looking for concise, logical and sequential writing.

If a student will observe prewriting organization, creating a first draft, revise with editing, rewriting, reading, and submission, they will find greater success. This type of authentic writing produces lifelong learners and allows students to apply their writing skills to all subjects, life, and ministry.

In intensive courses this becomes problematic in the crunch for time. Submitting a first draft as final draft is problematic for growth in good writing practice. It is possible that the student is unaware of skills needed for a good paper.

Instead of making extensive margin comments, focus on end comments that address substantive issues of meaning, organization, and content, which tells students what they have done effectively, in addition to what they need to work on. End comments help students focus on the core issues in writing while making it clear that their work is their own. You should not change or edit their writing for them.

Focusing on central issues does not mean that you have to accept poor grammar, sentence structure, and Form and Style issues, etc.; you can simply point these out to students and give them the responsibility for finding and correcting the problems. If students need help with mechanics, direct them to seek help by assigning a book on writing, or taking a course in their local area to aid them in needed areas of writing success.

Every nation we teach in faces great problems due to the lack of resources, inadequate libraries, computer literacy, and skills of computer use. This is magnified when the library is never open to the students or the computer room is off limits. Our goal as educators is to help, encourage, and aid our students into becoming good writers. Who knows? Someday your students may be writing books and articles for publication because of you as a teacher used methodologies to help them become good writers. That should be one of our goals. It sure is for CST.

Possible Helps in Writing: Links


Douglas, Don. 1997. Director of School of Intercultural Studies. Writing practices used in teaching. LaMirad, CA:Biola University.

Lingenfelter, Judy. 1995. Teacher and Faculty of Biola University. Writing practices used in teaching. Biola University. Extension Center Brussels, Belgium.

Lingenfelter, Sherwood. 1994. Provost Biola University. Writing practices used in teaching. Biola University. Extension Center Brussels, Belgium.

2 Replies to “How to improve your students writing”

  1. I remember the first time I assigned a research paper to my first year Bible College students. Although, slightly amused at the handwritten, crumpled, dog-eared papers I received (no one owned a computer), I was not amused by the word for word copy of a book chapter that one student handed in as a final draft. However, this prompted me to seek new ways to help my students engage and interact with their reading material (rather than just copying it). Jim, your thoughtful article would have been a big help to me 10 years ago!

    I loved all of your suggestions to encourage our students become better writers. It seems the greatest influencers in our world are those who are great communicators. And since God has called us to communicate his truth to the ends of the earth, I believe we should endeavor to do so effectively through good communication. In my opinion, this begins with good writing.

    Your article included so many practical strategies to develop good writing skills: writing everyday, providing various types of writing assignments, breaking down the process of writing a research paper into smaller steps, and offering helpful critique without the harsh red pen treatment. On a personal note, I found it quite frustrating in my master’s studies when a professor commented more on my paper’s formatting issues (my OpenOffice program sometimes did not cooperate well with Blackboard) than on the content. On the other hand, I felt a great sense of accomplishment when professors specifically noted how my work challenged or encouraged them. I think I am growing as an educator because I continually consider myself a student.

    Lastly, I loved the challenge of filtering everything we read/study through the question: “What does it mean to me in my life, ministry, and cultural setting?” I will be more mindful of this as well now.

    Thanks again, Jim for this great article. When I get back into the classroom I will incorporate as many of these ideas as possible.

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