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Writing Instruction

Writing Instruction resources curated by
Dr. Emily Meixner, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Faculty Fellow
Spring 2023

As students transition from high school to college, they often encounter reading and writing expectations for which they feel un- or underprepared. These tensions are caused by a number of factors that distinguish secondary (middle and high school) writing from college-level writing. This page will identify these tensions and offer recommendations for college faculty as they work to build students’ writing confidence and capacity.

Across disciplines, much of the writing students encounter in secondary classrooms is standardized meaning that it is (1) intended to prepare students for standardized state and national assessments such as the NJSLA (New Jersey State Learning Assessments) or  Advanced Placement exams, and (2) relies upon very specific formats that are familiar to most students and teachers like the five-paragraph thesis-driven essay (Warner). Instruction leading up to these assessments is frequently highly scaffolded; students are provided with explicit topic prompts, graphic organizers for collecting necessary information, acronyms for building paragraphs, thinking organizers for synthesizing sources, and templates for organizing ideas and content. These standardized assessments are then evaluated using task-specific rubrics with formulaic and/or deterministic criteria. Feedback on student writing is, therefore, inherently tied to a students’ ability to meet the task’s preordained requirements. 

By contrast, college writing, although predicated on student familiarity with thesis-driven academic essays, varies widely across disciplines and, as a result, is reliant more on specific disciplinary literacies than the very standardized forms of writing students encountered in high school. Rather, college students are expected to move beyond replicating knowledge to creating it. They are expected to use writing not only to demonstrate content mastery, but also to innovate, reflect, and problem-solve. Whether or not they encounter task-specific rubrics often varies by professor and the degree to which writing instruction is modeled or scaffolded is similarly mixed. In general, the assumption is that college writers will be independent from rather than dependent on their professors as they navigate writing assignments (Thompson & Gallager).

How, then, to facilitate students’ transition from dependence to independence? Two recommendations for college faculty looking for a place to begin are to

  • consider instructional methods that make task clarity explicit for students, and
  • experiment with different kinds and modes of formative feedback.

Clarity of Expectations

There are a number of strategies faculty might use to help students navigate unfamiliar writing tasks. Providing an assignment description and a task-specific rubric or checklist is helpful. However, faculty might also consider:

  • Articulating for students what constitutes “good” writing in general as well as in their discipline. As the participants in the spring ‘23 CETL writing workshops ruminated on their definition of “strong” or “effective” college writing, there was general consensus across schools and majors that “good” student writing was writing that demonstrated (1) sentence fluency, (2) content mastery, (3) clarity of idea development, and (4) genre and audience awareness. Naming and establishing these criteria as writing targets at the start of each course can help students understand that writing expectations are consistent among faculty and across individual classes. To dig more deeply into these criteria, faculty and students could additionally use the following distinctions identified by Thompson & Gallagher to explore the difference between writing that works and writing that impresses, engages, or engrosses. 

Competent Writing

Sophisticated Writing

Responds directly to the assignment Responds with voice 

(word choice, sentence variety, etc.)

Clear organization Organization moves reader from idea to idea
Free of convention errors 

(doesn’t interrupt reading)

Invites reading
  • Providing students with mentor texts to consult as they write (Also NYTimes). Mentor texts might come from professional models (research, articles, or essays published in a particular field of study), previous student assignments, or they could be in-process writing examples derived from past or present student or faculty work. Having a variety of mentor texts available to students – not just professional samples, for example – is important so that students can see what is expected of someone developing expertise and experience in a particular field (or with a specific compositional platform or research methodology) as well as that of a disciplinary “insider,” someone who can speak with authority and confidence about a topic they know intimately. Possible mentor texts might include: annotated bibliographies, research posters, research briefs, academic essays or journal articles, audiovisual recordings, reading responses, public scholarship, etc.
  • Modeling writing processes with and for students. If students have had the experience of intensely scaffolded writing instruction, then the importance and impact of showing students how to tackle a writing task can not be overstated. This modeling can occur before students begin to write and continue as they develop content and decide on form. Four possible ideas for modeling include (1) helping students identify the essential or “non-negotiable” elements of a writing assignment, (2) visualizing or mapping a text’s structure, (3) thinking aloud or live-writing compositional processes, and (4) demonstrating how to revise. The following table identifies guiding questions that can facilitate in-class modeling of general or discipline-specific writing:

Guiding questions for in-class modeling of writing:

Genre Non-Negotiables

What must this piece of writing include?
How does this piece of writing work?
What do my readers expect?

Process Modeling

What decisions am I making as I write? 

How am I thinking about craft?


Structure Study

How are the ideas in this text organized?

How does the author move among and between them?

Revision Strategies
How do I assess what is and isn’t working in a piece of writing?

How do I respond to and incorporate feedback? 

Feedback and Formative Assessment

In addition to greater clarity of writing expectations, feedback and assessment play an integral role in growing students’ confidence and capacity as writers. As students are writing, feedback and formative assessment of their progress are invaluable. Although skill transfer and writing development occur as a result of (summative) feedback received after a writing task has been completed, formative feedback – feedback offered to students as they write – has the benefit of enabling students to adjust, amend, and apply what they are learning as they are working their way toward a final product, before they’ve committed themselves to something (a sentence, a structure, a form) permanent. Faculty can use formative assessment and feedback to help students identify gaps in their knowledge, refine their ideas, reinforce genre or audience expectations, and tighten up their grammar. Formative feedback is also one additional way of providing greater task clarity. 

Recommendations for enhancing the effectiveness of formative assessments include feedback that is:

  • Timely: feedback that responds quickly to student writing maintains writing momentum and enhances motivation. Additionally, students need time to consider and process the feedback they receive. They may need time to gather more information, consult additional sources, refer back to available mentor texts, or seek out a conference or consultation with their instructor or a tutor. 
  • Focused: too much feedback is often as frustrating as too little. The more familiar and comfortable students are with the content of what they are writing, the better – the more fluid – their writing is likely to be. If, however, students are still struggling with content mastery, this will typically be reflected in the quality of their words, sentences, and in the general organization or structure of whatever it is they are trying to write. Therefore, selective, purposeful feedback that responds to the writer’s specific needs or concerns OR that addresses a piece of writing’s most pressing problems (or highlights its successes) is most helpful.
  • Solutions-oriented: students need to see that they can gain control over their writing and that there are solutions to the problems they are facing. They need to understand that improvement is possible. As a result, feedback should never be condemnatory. Rather, it should either model craft moves that the student hasn’t yet mastered OR offer recommendations and resources that students can consult to better understand process, content, or product (genre). 
  • Available in a variety of modes: not all students respond equally or as well to the same modes of feedback. Whereas some students only need a quick reassuring or problem-solving conference, other students prefer extended brainstorming sessions and/or writing conferences. Similarly, while written feedback can be beneficial and document both feedback and student progress, faculty should also consider responding to student writing via audio recordings (using a Google extension like Mote or the audiovisual options in Canvas assignment comments), video remarks, or digital screencasts. 
  • Offered via whole-class, group, and individualized instruction: just as faculty can provide feedback on student writing by communicating in a variety of modes, they can also respond to student writing in different instructional groupings. Faculty can respond to drafts of student writing by addressing a common problem with or modeling a writing strategy for the entire class. They can also pull students to them in smaller groups who have similar needs or are similarly stuck. Finally, faculty can confer one-on-one with students both in and outside of class to address more complex or unique concerns. 

Guiding questions for providing feedback on student writing: 

When will feedback be of most value to my students? How much feedback will students be able to digest and apply to this particular piece of writing? How can I support my students as they solve problems in their writing?
What modes of communication will be most useful for my students (and me) at this time? How many students are best served by this feedback? 

For additional information or to learn more about writing:

Carpenter, S. (2020). The Craft of Science Writing. The Open Notebook. 

Chavez, F.R. The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books. 

Graff, G. & Birkenstein. (2021). They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. 5th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 

Newkirk, T. (2014). Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Persuasive and Informational Texts. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

Sliva, P. (2018). How to Write A Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. APA LifeTools.

Thompson, T. & Gallagher, A. “When a College Professor and a High School Teacher Read the Same Papers.” What is “College-Level” Writing? Vol. 2, Edited by Patrick Sullivan, Howard Tinberg, & Sheridan Blau, National Council of Teachers of English, 2010, pp. 3-28. 

Warner, J. (2018). Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Warner, J. (2019). The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing. New York: Penguin Books. 

Zinsser, W. (2021). On Writing Well: 30th Anniversary Edition. New York: Harper Perennial.