Last fall, I began working with a student who was so committed to improving that she came in multiple times for for each paper she wrote. However, by late spring, she’d not improved much. Then something changed that made me think about how to approach these situations in the future.
I wanted to share her story here because it shows a truth about writing that often goes overlooked: if you want to get better at writing, practice, but if you want to get better at practicing writing, write everyday.
Alyssa is the kind of student that many teachers dream of. She’s bright, enthusiastic, and eager to learn, but she was very far behind in developing her writing skills. Since October, Alyssa and I have met about 30 times for hour each time. Such meetings aren’t required. However, she’s pursued them following the recommendations of her professors who found her writing hard to follow. In reading her papers, you could see that she’d put time into thinking about her writing, but the end result contained an ill-ordered presentation of thoughts that was further marred by long, meandering sentences that often contained unconnected thoughts and ideas. In our appointments, Alyssa and I did a lot of work of clarifying the expectations of college-level writing, but I think we’ll both admit that we experienced times when we were frustrated with the lack of progress that came from these appointments.
From the beginning, simply doing the work was probably Alyssa’s biggest challenge. In the fall, she experienced the culture shock of college. She found the social part of college invigorating, but the academic side was more of a challenge than she anticipated. Predictably, she spent more time focusing on developing her social skills than she did her work. She admitted this after I confronted her about what I perceived was a lack of effort on her part. She missed or canceled appointments. Other times she showed up, but she had not done the revision work we spoke about in the previous appointment. In that conversation, we spoke about resilience and persistence and how easy it is to procrastinate if we don’t put value into finishing assignments.
After our talk, she consistently kept her appointments. The work she did and the time she spent is admirable. She’s shown up almost every block even though the class she was in required no writing. During that time, she worked on revising and editing papers for which she’d already received grades. She just wanted to improve.
Still, the end results weren’t looking like we’d hoped. In one block, I helped her revise two pages of a longer essay on the global level and then on the sentence level. The final result looked better than the original, but the time, three hour-long appointments, it took to clarify each of these points suggested that a lot more work was needed to get her writing at the college level on a consistent basis. Given that she’d already gone through a period where she chose to prioritize her social life over her academic life, I feared that she might see the challenges ahead and give up.
However, not too long after those sessions, her writing started showing marked improvement. More importantly, she became much more aware of when a piece of writing needed improvement, which is a huge step to enabling her to assess where she’s falling short of expectations and to develop strategies to meet those expectations.
I’d love to claim that this improvement was simply the lessons of the past beginning to take greater hold. However, the degree of improvement in her self assessment skills, accompanied as it was with a marked improvement in her attitude towards writing, makes me think that there’s something about the class she took that prompted this improvement.
That class required daily journal writing. Each journal entry responded to a prompt and had to be handed in for credit. The average length of each entry was between one and two pages. Each prompted her to think and craft a well-structured paper, many of which required an argument. Our school is on the one-course-at-a-time schedule, meaning classes meet every weekday for three and a half weeks. That means for each week of this course, she wrote one short paper a day for five consecutive days. That sounds like a lot of work, but added up, the page amount does not exceed the amount she’s been asked to write in other courses.
At first, I thought the assignment length might be the cause of the rapidity of her improvement. I’m sure they’v contributed some. The short assignments allowed for her to begin writing and see the end in sight. They also allowed for her to examine the coherence of her ideas at a level that she wasn’t able to with longer papers. However, she wrote short assignments in the past and failed to improve.
I suspect the real key here was the frequency. She got better at writing because she wrote everyday. And I suspect that had more to do with the mindset that evolved from that type of writing than anything else.
When I asked her how she was coping with writing every day, she noted, “It’s really not that bad actually.” That confirmed two things. One, when she first saw that she had to complete fifteen assignments in fifteen class days, she thought that sounded like a miserable task. Two, once she got involved with writing every day she started to get the hang of it. The dread she’d previously felt when she thought of writing subsided some. In some cases, she even enjoyed the task. In other words, the task of having to write more often forced her to confront her fears in small doses, and once she was able to do that, she saw things weren’t that bad; her stress and anxiety levels that normally were associated with her writing subsided some. Considering her own writing in a less relaxed state, some of her other strengths and intelligences were allowed to come into play. When Alyssa was able to write free of the stress and anxiety that normally builds up with papers, she was able to take some of the lessons she’d learned in the past and begin applying them.
Time will tell whether this change is permanent. In the future, she won’t be required to write every day, and it’s hard to see any college student adopting such a regime on their own. However, the requirement to write every day gave her a gift, an insight into what she can do when she’s relaxed and writing in a less stressful state of mind. Hopefully, she’ll continue to improve if she sits down to write more often and does so with the goal of getting back to that state of mind.
I think the benefit of forcing students to sit down and confront their dislike of writing as often as possible can’t be ignored. Sure, this was an ideal student for this exercise, but I’d have never known it until I saw these results. The positive boost she got from seeing herself improve in a very short time was something she really needed to receive. Previously, I had tried to get her to take more responsibility for finishing assignments, but she gained the most tangible results when she learned to put value into the the process of writing. In the past, I’ve emphasized developing strategies for dealing with the stress and anxiety of the “oh, shit” moment, but until now, I’d never thought of how a greater frequency can play a role in improvement.
For instructors, especially those teaching comp classes with grading loads that are already heavy, the idea of having to see papers from students for every class period (or even every day) might sound daunting, but I should point out that while the professor read and gave some feedback on each essay, these were graded on a check-minus, check, and check-plus scale. And while we’re thinking about the positive benefits of more frequent exposures to stressful situations, I might also point out that reading more student writing could have great effects for the grader as well. So many of the instructors I know procrastinate on grading because they see it as a huge, stressful chore. Perhaps, grading everyday will provide the process to make the later, more intensive grading processes a lot easier. Indeed, you’re bound to know your students better and understand what a student needs to focus on, which can lead to much more substantive comments.
(Note – I feel ethically uneasy about writing about individual students in this blog, so when I’ve written about students in the past, as in The Girl Who Was Bad At Semicolons, I’ve abstracted trends or ideas I’ve seen in several students and put them into one fictional story. However, given the uniqueness of this story, I wanted to stick to one particular student’s story. While Alyssa is not her real name, this student exists and I have sought and received her permission to post this story in this format.)