Addressing a Range of Writing Abilities in Your Courses

Students come to the University of Minnesota with many differences in personal and educational experience and with differences in educational goals, attitudes, and expectations. After they arrive, students will take courses at different times in their careers or in different orders depending on availability, experience, and context. Courses at all levels may include students from within a major and outside it, from their first year to fifth, and from highly motivated to nervous or resistant. Designing writing activities that can prove effective across these variations can be challenging for instructors, both to limit the frustration of activities that are challenging and to address those students who are ready for more complex tasks.

Take a close look at course-specific assumptions and expectations

Before the course begins, take an inventory of your course writing goals and expectations. Identify skills that you assume students already have and that may be required or requisite to success. Further, your course goals can identify what you hope students will build over the semester: what additional knowledge and skills will students develop over the term? From there, you can make plans to check the accuracy of your initial assumptions and to align writing assignments and instructional activities with expected outcomes.

Collect baseline information

Once you’ve identified the most important terms, concepts, and forms of writing from your course, find out your students’ level of familiarity with these elements of content. For instance, if your course has an introduction to statistics as a prerequisite, you might anticipate that students will be familiar with measures of central tendency and distribution, but not necessarily well versed in Bayesian analysis. While required prerequisites offer insight into “what students already know,” students may need to be reminded of how their existing knowledge applies in a new context. These early-semester assessments can be low-stakes, but can help you to know the capabilities of the different learners in your course.

orange die containing the words yes, no, maybe

For some courses, a diagnostic writing activity is among the simplest ways to see where students are and how they might approach a problem. Often such assignments ask students to address a potentially challenging topic from the course in the context of a specific example or case. Rather than asking students to solve a complex problem directly, you might ask students to describe how they would solve the problem (what information would they gather, according to what process or procedure, and with what tools or skills).

Each of these components (information-seeking, processes and procedures, and tools) can be an area where students need reminders about what they may already know and how it applies in a new context. If many students appear to have gaps in their knowledge, it can highlight the need to spend class time to bring everyone up to speed. If few students need help, these gaps can be addressed individually or with supplemental materials.

Align instruction and assignments to support desired outcomes

Check to be sure that you’ve designed your course around the development of expected competencies. These skills might include practical skills (like lab safety or using online library research tools), analytical skills (like quantitative reasoning or close reading), or technological skills (like designing a spreadsheet or using a recording platform). In the first week of class, you might ask students to complete a technology inventory (NOTE:  If you would like to use this, please make a copy) or self-assessment as a way of making a connection with students.

If the results of student self-assessments, pre-assessments, and opening activities demonstrate that your students are already familiar with or expert in the content and skills of our course, you can consider compacting some of your course materials and moving to more complex questions. Conversely, if students’ pre-assessments indicate that they lack some of the requisite knowledge or skills, you can plan for supplemental instruction.

Principles to keep in mind

Student motivation is linked to competence and confidence. Students need both opportunities for success and challenges to engage with their learning.

Complex thinking and analysis are not often reducible to discrete skills, but it can be helpful to some students to make explicit reference to how the work they are doing in your course is connected to or extends the skills they have previously used.