Instructor Guide: Students’ K-12 Writing Experiences 

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Reflect on how you can intentionally support student writers as they transition into college. 

Writing Expectations in K-12

When in high school, your students probably received most of their writing instruction from their English teacher, although some students may have had opportunities to learn to write across subjects.

Many high school curricula focus on short papers of about 1-2 pages. When teachers prepare students for state standardized tests or Advanced Placement (AP) exams, which is often the case, students practice writing an essay in one sitting. In these contexts, students may also practice primarily one or two genres of writing using prescriptive formulas geared toward the tests’ rubrics:

For example, “Edit for correct use of language, capitalization, punctuation, and spelling” is one of only two reporting categories assessed on grades 9, 10, and 11 End-of-Course test in Virginia. The End-of-Course rubric explicitly penalizes students for use of multiple negation, a feature of African American English and Southern English. Virginia high school teachers have shared with us that, after years of such an emphasis on grammar and mechanics, students need instruction in how to go beyond these elements when revising their work. 

As another example, the AP English Language and Composition exam includes a synthesis essay, a rhetorical analysis, and an argument essay. All three of these essays are expected to follow a thesis, evidence, commentary model.

Teach Students to Adapt to Writing Expectations in College

Ms. Kirsten Bradley, who teaches high school English in Norfolk, VA, uses an impact feedback approach to transition twelfth grade students away from the view that writing is only grammar and revising is correcting errors. For example, when she has her students give peer feedback, she asks them, “What was the impact of this piece of writing on you as a reader?” 3 Peer Review Strategies to Foster Student Engagement gives additional examples of taking a reader approach to peer feedback.

Writing Feedback in K-12

In high school, many, if not most, students may have been accustomed to receiving writing feedback in the form of rubrics or checklists and brief in-text or end comments. High school teachers tend to have more teaching time, less grading time, and more students than college instructors. At the K-12 level, students receive more classroom guidance than at the college level, where students are expected to do more work independently. These differences means that a high school teacher may teach six sections and be in the classroom for twenty-five to thirty hours per week, whereas a college instructor with a full teaching load may teach four or five sections and be in the classroom for twelve to fifteen hours a week. These differences can result in less written feedback on student writing at the high school level than at the college level. As a result, new college students may be overwhelmed by large amounts of written feedback on their assignments. At the same time, new college students can also learn more about their writing from the more considerable attention that college professors devote to their papers.

If the high school English department shared assessment tools, students probably had their papers graded and responded to in similar ways throughout their time in high school. This uniformity can leave new college students unprepared for the variety in feedback types and grading approaches across professors and college courses.

Students come into college writing classes with particular beliefs about themselves as writers, often based on the writing feedback they have received. When students’ language variety differed from the often narrow set of writing conventions accepted in school, they may have received feedback leading to a low writing self-concept. Many of your students might think of themselves as “bad writers” when, in fact, the feedback they received may have been more of a reflection of the type of standardized instruction and assessment at play than a reflection of their ability to learn to write strategically and creatively. Therefore, effective writing feedback will need to motivate your student writers, especially those who may lack confidence in their writing.   

Teach Students to Adapt to Writing Feedback in College

Considering these experiences from K-12, here are 3 things you can do to teach new college students to adapt to writing feedback in college in general and in your class in particular:

  1. Use feedback to motivate student writers, including those with a lack of writing confidence. 
  2. Explain your writing feedback and grading approach in class and your syllabus. Tell students why you give feedback on specific areas and why you grade the way you do. This article from Faculty Focus describes how to teach students to manage the feedback you provide on their college writing assignments. The authors divide feedback into the categories of appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. You can teach your students how to use your feedback by adapting these categories or creating other feedback categories that align with your own feedback approach and expectations for students. 
  3. Explicitly define the terms you use in writing criteria, including in rubrics and checklist. Students may have encountered different definitions for writing terms in high school. Examples of such terms include mechanics, grammar, and organization. Define these categories in terms that make sense to your students and give examples. 

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