Elisabeth Miller, Writing Across the Curriculum

There’s no denying that students sometimes do not put enough effort into their writing: busy schedules full of obligations from work, social or personal engagements, and demanding course loads drain away time from your course’s writing assignments. And it’s even safe to assume that some students lose time playing video games or chatting on Facebook. The truth is, we simply cannot know how much time and effort they actually put into a writing assignment.

When you do receive papers that fail to meet your standards—not addressing your assignment, failing to make a clear and compelling argument, demonstrating organizational flaws, or containing numerous significant sentence-level problems—we urge you to consider some other ways of looking beneath the surface of students’ “messy” papers.

Here are a number of reasons—beyond laziness and lack of commitment to your course—that students’ writing may fail to meet your standards. For each reason, we include a few “next steps to take” to improve students’ writing and learning.

Reason 1: New disciplines, new levels, new tasks

Students are learning how to write in new disciplines (and often many at once)—from biology to Spanish to psychology. Research shows that as students and professionals take on new writing challenges, they sometimes regress before they master new skills (Williams & Colomb; Bean). As writers get to know the ways of thinking, jargon, and genre conventions of a particular field and the writing it requires, their sentences become messier, harder to understand, and less effective overall. Learning to write is hard: it takes time and practice. Moreover, there’s no single kind of “writing.” Instead, students learn to write at particular levels, for certain purposes, for specific audiences, in a range of genres—and they re-learn what it means to write in all of these different conditions. Sometimes students may also simply fail to understand the key goals of new or unfamiliar tasks or assignments. Asked to “analyze,” for instance, students often turn in what instructors view as description or summary bereft of analysis.

Steps you can take:
Realize that, though you know the ins-and-outs of lab reports or thesis statements in literary analyses, it took you time to learn those conventions. Provide students with models of the genres in which they’ll be writing. Look over those samples—of former students’ writing or course readings—as a class and talk about what works well and what doesn’t. Emphasize particular conventions that you want students to address on each assignment: perhaps an introduction and a thesis for a first assignment, then focusing in more on a discussion section in the next assignment, then adding an abstract to the final paper of the semester.

If many students missed the main goals of your assignment, consider substantially revising your guidelines and the way you explain them. John Bean explains that when students are confused about the goal of a paper, they tend to view it as a “topic” rather than a problem that requires analysis. Bean calls these “all about” papers that catalog everything a student knows about a topic rather than making an argument. By framing assignments as responses to pointed questions, we can help students understand new, challenging tasks of academic analysis.

Reason 2: Limited experience with academic literacy

Students may lack a privileged literacy background or experience writing in the genres of the university, including composing sustained research papers or thinking and writing critically. Socio-economic factors and lack of access to educational resources (a circumstance often attached to other identity factors like race and disability) cause some students to have had less experience with, and support for, developing their writing. It is important to recognize that students come to college with a variety of backgrounds. Even with privileged access to education, students often have little experience writing longer papers or doing the kinds of analytical writing necessary for so many college courses.

Steps you can take:
A crucial point of support for students with non-privileged literacy backgrounds is helping them to understand what writing at the college-level requires. Consider meeting during your office hours individually with students who are struggling. In a one- to-one conversation, you can often more successfully determine what problems are most pressing for students’ writing. Together, you can also set goals and priorities for revision or next papers. You can also link students to campus resources like the Writing Center to spend more individualized time on their particular writing goals (see “Encouraging Students to Use the Writing Center Effectively” in “Section 14: Further Resources for Instructors and Students”), the McBurney Disability Resource Center, the Multicultural Student Center, or the Counseling Center.

You may also consider giving a brief survey to students at the beginning of the course to get a sense of their experiences with writing, level of confidence, self-described strengths and weaknesses, goals for the course and for developing their writing, and any other questions or concerns that they’d like to share. Gathering responses through a written survey makes room for you to find out more about students’ backgrounds and challenges. You may also choose to discuss these responses—particularly goals—in individual conferences early on in the semester to make it known that you’re available to support students.

Reason 3: Not enough process

Writing requires time and multiple rounds of revision to improve, and—as many of us know from experience—most people won’t write ahead of time unless it’s required. Without having process—pre-writing, drafting, and revising—built into an assignment, students are likely turning in a first draft. And a first draft is, by nature, messier and less developed.

Steps you can take:

If your assignment does not already include various stages, consider adding in pre-writing (outlining, idea-mapping, paper proposals, etc.), rough drafts, or peer review sessions to encourage students to write before the last-minute and to revise that writing. In this Sourcebook, see “Section 3: Sequencing Assignments in Your Course,” “Section 5: Coaching Students to Succeed with Assignments,” and “Section 8: Conferencing and Student Peer Review,” for examples of ways to structure this process in your course.

Reason 4: It’s not as bad as it looks

Often, a few repeated errors make a student’s paper look particularly dire. John Bean reminds us that there are almost always “many more correct sentences than flawed ones” even in the most “error-laden” essay (74).

Steps you can take:

Refrain from marking every error. You’ll save yourself time and avoid overwhelming students. Instead, mark one or two key examples of the error, and attempt to explain or illustrate how to address the problem. Develop priorities, too, for determining the relative severity of errors, and choose to mark the more significant ones that affect meaning. See “Global and Local Concerns in Student Writing: Emphasizing the Right Thing at the Right Time” in this section of the Sourcebook.

Finally, keep in mind that no one is ever done learning to write, and writing is never easy. The reasons beneath the surface of problems in student writing are many and complex. We hope understanding some of these reasons and following some of these suggested steps help you to respond to students with that complexity in mind.


Bean, John. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2011.

Williams, Joseph and Gregory Colomb. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.