Because the state legislature is making Developmental courses optional for some students, there may be an increase in students entering regular college courses unprepared. No one knows exactly what the end result will be, but here at St. Petersburg College, we’re not only getting training in how to address this challenge, we have Developmental instructors who are happy to share their experience working with struggling writers. Amy Karol (Communications, Tarpon Springs) starts us off with ways to tackle the unorganized essay:
What is the primary writing problem you see? If you could fix only one thing, what would it be?
I always have my developmental writing students do a first day writing sample in which I have them write about something really simple, like their favorite restaurant. The majority of them submit an essay that has no thesis and no organization, which is probably due to the fact that they don’t think before they write; they just start typing. If I could fix one thing, it would be getting them to see the value of utilizing some type of planning process. Once they realize how important it is to plan before writing, then they turn in essays with a point and some structure. From there we can really get to work.
What problem do you find runs a close second?
Poor sentence structure and the fact that they don’t even realize an essay should look a certain way. They will turn in essays with no names, weird fonts, no indentations, single-spaced, etc. It seems like something so minor, but it usually is a huge red flag that there will be much bigger issues in the essay. At the same time, once I can get them to perfect the presentation, it becomes something I can praise as we move on to the next issue.
What error or not ideal writing practice can you live with?
I can deal with any error or not ideal writing practice if a student demonstrates to me he wants to grow and improve as a writer. I find it very difficult to work with a student who has no desire to change or improve. I can try to be motivating, but I can’t want success for them more than they do.
Do you address writing problems one at a time or do you work with the entire paper?
I typically try to focus on two big things per essay. For example, I may notice that a student is attempting to construct compound sentences but is not consistently getting it right. That student may also have support that is too general. I will focus on those two things in the essay, and then the next time the student submits an essay, I look to see if there are improvements. I joke with the student by congratulating her for making such an improvement and say something like, “Congratulations! You got that right! Now you get to work on pronoun reference and writing a stronger conclusion!”
One last thing…at the end of the semesterm I give my students their first day writing samples, and they are always so amazed to see what they thought an essay was when the semester started. This is a great way to show students how much they have grown. Then, of course, I have them rewrite that first essay, and they love seeing their finished product compared to that first draft.
Excellent suggestions, Amy! Thank you!
Amy brings up a great point – motivation. One thing that helps with motivation is understanding the student. We have a very diverse student body and there’s a stigma associated with not being ‘a good student.’ A student who is unprepared may seem shy or sullen, but that behavior may be actually embarrassment or social awkwardness. For more on the challenges developmental students, indeed any student, may face, read on: