Gas station without pumps

2010 November 3

Getting an A on a paper in school

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:05
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Lately I’ve been reading a lot of writing by college seniors that was painful to read: ungrammatical, disorganized, and with poorly constructed sentences and paragraphs. I’ve collected a few things that might help.

Jack Lynch, an English professor at Rutgers wrote Getting an A on an English Paper, which talks about what English professors want to see in a research paper. The parts about “close reading” are pretty much unique to literature professors, but having a thesis, supporting it with research, and getting the tone and grammar right, are all relevant to any field—even engineering.  Somewhat surprisingly for writing advice, Lynch’s advice is fairly well written.

Even better for writing advice for engineers is the textbook Technical Writing and Professional Communication for Non-Native Speakers of English by Thomas Huckin and Leslie Olsen.  I particularly like to recommend the last part for non-native speakers (with some of the best descriptions on article usage I’ve seen) and the penultimate part on focus and flow for native speakers.

There is an article published by the National Association of Scholars that helps explain why college seniors are such bad writers: “It Messes Up My Fishing Time”: Why American High School Teachers Don’t Assign Research Papers by Peter Wood.  Basically, it asserts that students don’t know how to write research papers because they have never had any practice at doing so (or if they have practiced, haven’t gotten meaningful feedback).  I’m not sure it is a complete explanation, though, because the seniors whose writing I have to read have had 3 writing courses in college, at least one of which was designed to have substantial feedback on technical writing.

Catherine Gewertz blogs about Peter Wood’s report in Why Students Don’t Write Research Papers in High School, connecting it to several other blogs and articles bemoaning the lack of research paper writing in American secondary education.

One of the most interesting responses was from a high school English teacher A Voice from the Front Lines of the High School English Classroom:

Students had not been trained to use facts to develop an idea. They had been fed garbage throughout their entire academic careers—the garbage that whatever they write down is OK and that their ideas matter. Students were aghast when I suggested that their ideas didn’t matter unless they had hard, concrete facts to back them up.

He (or she—there is a picture of a male teacher, but it appears to be just a stock photo, and no author name is given) points out several of the challenges facing a teacher who wants to teach proper writing of research reports:

  • Insufficient prior training of the students
  • Inadequate training of teachers in how to teach writing that isn’t fluff
  • Rigid curricula and standardized testing that leave insufficient time for developing a full research-paper unit
  • Complaints of parents and students at having to write 2-page papers in 7th grade or 3-page ones in 8th grade
  • Unwillingness of administrators to support teachers who assigned reasonable writing loads
  • Large student/teacher ratios and insufficient teacher time to provide adequate feedback on research papers

I can agree with time problem.  Doing a decent job of feedback is very time-consuming.  I can only get through about 8–10 pages an hour (more if the writing is good).  Giving feedback to forty students doing 10-page papers would take over 40 hours.  A typical high-school load of 90–120 students would take 2–3 weeks full-time.

The teacher does have some modest suggestions for ways that the situation could be improved somewhat, without a major overhaul of the educational system.  It requires a lot of effort on the part of high school teachers (not just English teachers) and some support (moral, not financial) from high-school administrators.  Although I think that the suggested changes will be too minor, they are certainly a step in the right direction, so I urge reading them.


  1. […] is a big risk of posting stuff that is really not adequately polished, as in my most recent post Getting an A on a paper in school, which really is a mashup of two almost unrelated topics: pointers to advice on writing well and a […]

    Pingback by It’s always National Blog Posting Month « Gas station without pumps — 2010 November 4 @ 00:15 | Reply

  2. […] Communication for Non-Native Speakers of English by Thomas Huckin and Leslie Olsen (see my post Getting an A on a paper in school, for example). The chapters on focus and flow, particularly the explanation of the heuristic of […]

    Pingback by Criteria for reasoning « Gas station without pumps — 2011 November 26 @ 00:37 | Reply

  3. Interesting ideas and resources. I’m intrigued by the technical writing textbook — it appears to be out of print, despite rave reviews on Amazon. I’ve ordered a second-hand copy.

    The time and effort required for giving quality feedback about any non-trivial amount of writing is becoming a pressing problem for me. One strategy I’ve used this semester: assigning many small writing assignments and having students assess each other, then assessing their assessments. The assignments are intended to be the shortest length at which breakdowns in clarity and logic occur (somewhere between a half-page and an elevator pitch). I made up a feedback sheet with categories for the specific kinds of feedback I was expecting and had students pass in their assessments of each other. I wrote back to them asking for clarifications, substantiation, etc, then had them respond to my comments before giving the feedback sheets to the original authors… who then submitted their second draft to me.

    This is no substitute for me spending time reading their papers. However, we didn’t need to practice on 10-page papers, as 1-page papers (or possibly excerpts?) were more than adequate to shed light on many common writing problems. As well, the students were able to help each other improve quite a lot, which reduced the amount of feedback time for me. Particularly because the students lack background knowledge about each others’ topics, they are well able to comments on lack of background or unclear significance. I’ve been gradually increasing the number of peer assessments required before I will look at a paper. We started with 0 (I assessed their first draft), and we’re up to 2 (I assess their third draft). Finally, the biggest benefit seems to be that students improve their writing because they don’t want to get caught doing the silly thing they noticed in X’s writing.

    Comment by Mylène — 2011 November 27 @ 10:28 | Reply

    • “no substitute for me spending time reading their papers” Unfortunately, that is the crux of the problem. I got burned out after about 14 years of teaching tech writing. I have continued to read papers carefully in small grad classes, but only for the last two years have I started reading substantial amounts of undergrad writing (senior thesis drafts). I found that it took almost all my time and energy to run the senior-design project class, between the weekly meetings with each project group and detailed feedback on the 5 drafts of each senior thesis or design report.

      But many of those senior engineering student reported that this was the first time they had ever gotten detailed feedback on their writing—they’d gone through 16 years of schooling (including at least 3 college writing courses) but never gotten detailed feedback!

      Huckin and Olsen is indeed a fine book, and it is a shame the publisher has let it go out of print. Amazon has it used, but their search engine is so bad that it forces you to the trimmed down edition that is missing the chapters for non-native speakers (which are the real gems in the book). Try looking for it by ISBN-10: 007030825X | ISBN-13: 978-0070308251 (or use,, or other non-Amazon used book site that doesn’t assume that only in-print books are relevant).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 November 27 @ 11:20 | Reply

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