February 28, 2005

Marsella et al: "How Students Handle Writing Assignments"

"How Students Handle Writing Assignments: A Study of Eighteen Responses in Six Disciplines," a study by Joy Marsella, Thomas L. Hilgers, and Clemence McLaren, explores the "gap" between how professors believe their students approach their writing assignments and how the students actually do approach them. The researchers worked with seventeen collaborators, all graduate students at the University of Hawaii.

Marsella et al found that while many professors see writing a means to enhance students' thinking, students are often less concerned about the thinking and more interested in: "What's the most efficient way to complete this assignment and get the highest grade I can, given everything that's going on in my life?" The researches claim how students go about completing writing assignments is "the result of their negotiation among at least three forces:" 1) Assignment design; 2) Reliance on successful past strategies; 3) Personal circumstances.

Assignment Design:
Though the professors profiled here have well-designed assignments, problems still cropped up. One student, Pam, felt her zoology professor's lab report assignments were too prescriptive. She did not understand why these reports had to be so structured, and felt frustrated and inhibited by them. Another student, Robert, in an education class, did not value the writing group meetings assigned by his professor. He knew his participation in the group, or any other process activity, would not be evaluated and so put little effort into them. Marsella et al recommend instructors give more attention to explaining to students why we want them to complete an assignment, why specific discourse forms exist and why the benefit of completing the process steps we assign (such as writing groups) will outweigh the cost of their time and energy.

Reliance on Past Strategies:
Marsella et al also found that no matter how specific an instructor's directions about process, students tend to rely on strategies that have worked for them in the past. Robert, for example, is someone who had been successful in writing "last-minute" drafts. In his education class, Robert ignored his professor's process steps and wrote his final draft the night before it was due doing little revision work. To help students move away from old strategies, Marsella et al suggest we get to know students as writers early on in the term, encourage them to evaluate their writing habits, and help them link their past writing experiences with new ones so they can recognize how writing is similar and different in various discourse communities.

Personal Circumstances:
Finally, Marsella et al cite the growing number of non-traditional students (i.e. those who hold full or part time jobs, are married and/or raising a family). Non-traditional students Howard and Chris were both engaged in their writing courses, but other responsibilities left them unable to complete their assignments. Marcella et al also mention that certain students' values and cultural situations don't "readily translate" into particular classroom expectations. Because of this, the researchers state, instructors should "acknowledge and adjust for" these types of students.


This study seems to point out the obvious. The obvious to which teachers are sometimes pretty oblivious. It's easy to forget that our students are real, complex people with busy lives. They may not share our passion for our subject matter, and even if they do share the passion, they may not have as much time or energy to devote to it as we would like. Of course students want to do their work as efficiently as they can, of course they resent anything they perceive as "busy work," of course when they are balancing school and work and family, they tend to fall back on patterns that have worked for them in the past. In order to motivate our students to do the kinds of thinking and learning we really want them to do, Marsella et al conclude, we must start doing a better job of "selling" our assignments.

Posted by gust0124 at February 28, 2005 9:12 PM