The other day, I asked groups of first-year students to identify the five biggest differences between high school writing and college writing. When they finished, I asked how many of the groups said something about leaving the five-paragraph essay behind. Nearly all of them. I asked why. One said, “We can’t just fill in the blanks and end up with a good essay.”
Then, I asked, “How many of you just wrote down the first five differences that came into your head?” All of them raised their hands.
That’s a problem.
Student’s are quick to figure out the limitations of the five-paragraph essay, but that’s not a fix. They still need to break the habit of just filling in the blanks and learn to exercise their critical thinking skills.
Let’s start that process off by giving them better blanks to fill.
Finding a new template
I resisted the idea of giving students a new template for a long time. I thought that I could get around it by making my assignments longer and enhancing students’ analytical skills. I assigned six- to eight-page papers and discussed the forms of rhetorical arguments. Many students then wrote essays which claimed an argument was good because it had lots of logos, pathos, and ethos.
In terms of developing and sustaining an argument, these were terrible essays. But almost all of the essays showed some potential. Many had clever insights but those insights were unsupported. Others presented consistent and supported interpretations at the paragraph level, but had no connection between the paragraphs.
When they knew they couldn’t use the five-paragraph essay, many tried to get more creative in their form. A few students refused to change and just wrote three overinflated body paragraphs, but just as many figured out that they could extend the length of their essay by writing in three sections rather than three body paragraphs. Some tried to replicate the hard logic of math proofs or philosophy classes. Others embraced the narrative form, telling meandering stories that sounded like Sunday-afternoon NPR. (Not that NPR doesn’t provide good content, but it’s not the kind of rhetoric that is rewarded in writing across the curriculum.)
All of these students tried to emulate some pattern that they had seen elsewhere. That’s a good thing. All smart writers do this as well. I’ve several very bright acquaintances writing prospectuses or dissertations. In the past year or so, I’ve seen many of them look at other prospectuses or heard them ask friends how they set up their dissertation introduction. These are set forms of writing. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see other forms because that is an effective way of learning how your reader will best understand your ideas.
The difference between ABD-graduate students lies in their understanding of what’s expected from them in using that form. Grad students use forms to show their critical thinking because they’ve been through several years of education where critical thinking has been rewarded. College students want a form that is teacher-approved because receiving teacher approval is how they got to college in the first place.
First-year college students will not write better essays until they fully understand what it means to think critically. Even when they do this, they still need to find a structures that reward that type of thinking.
I communicate these expectations and help them find this form by turning to science.
I’ve had lots of student tell me they’re not a good writer because they’re a science person. That’s absurd. Some of them produce lousy writing, but that’s not because they like science. Usually, it’s because they’re trying to move away from the forms of the lab report and they feel lost without that prescribed order. When these students understand the logic behind that prescribed order and how to migrate that order and logic to other fields, they completely change their attitudes.
In case you haven’t seen a lab report in a while, it looks kind of like this. The paper is divided in to four sections, introduction, methods, results, and discussion, each with its own specific purpose. The first section introduces some question, problem, or puzzle in the natural or physical world and presents some hypothesis for how one might answer that question. The second section describes how the writer will test that hypothesis. The final sections report on that test and interprets how those ideas fit in with the world at large.
On it’s surface, that looks very different from other kinds of writing. But the logic underneath it is very familiar.
Look at a journal article in literary studies for instance. It introduces some idea about how a text works or what a text reveals to us about the culture that produced it. It reads that text closely or carefully examines artifacts from that culture. Then it places those texts into context to interpret what it means. Put shortly, it observes a puzzle, gathers evidence to help understand that puzzle, and then teaches the reader how to incorporate that evidence into their larger understanding of a text.
The parallels between lab report logic and other writing don’t end there. What does a detective story do? It presents a puzzle, it shows someone trying to find information about that puzzle, and then it offers a solution.
Why is this logic so pervasive? Because it fits in with the way we like to learn about things. We observe, we get curious, we investigate, we learn to fit that new information into our conception of the world.
Lab reports work as text because embedded into their structure is an understanding of how readers think. The lab report template works as a logical guideline for students because it tells them what the reader wants to hear and how they want to hear it.
That doesn’t mean students can simply sit down and write lab reports for every paper. Students need to pair the template with an understanding of the conventions of the subject. Few literature teachers would indulge a full page of your paper describing where you bought the book and what color tape flags you used to mark your pages. Likewise, spending a paragraph in your the results section of your lab report tracing the etymology of the word “ambergris” probably won’t be received very well. Those are specific types of investigations that speak more to the way we make something relevant in a particular field.
Still, armed with this understanding of the lab report, most students can sit down with critical essays from a particular field and figure out what elements need to be tweaked. If you’re teaching this template, you can help students along by providing successful student writing to show how much introductory material you want, how much analysis you want, and how you want students to incorporate that analysis into a larger body of knowledge.
The lab report gives students a template that does exactly what a template should do. It provides structure and direction without giving the impression that can use it to just fill in the blanks. When properly introduced, it works for students because it helps them them think about how to make their ideas relevant and legible to their audience. Understanding how a reader wants to receive information frees students to spend more time developing their critical thinking and analytical skills.
That also let’s teachers spend more time on teaching those critical thinking and analysis.
In the next post in the series, we’ll talk more about critical thinking and ways of helping students to transition into using some of those critical thinking skills. I’m not going to promise it in a few days like last time, but hopefully it will come soon.