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Writing Advice from My Students

September 7, 2011

Today, my students turned in their first homework. So today, I asked my students to look over three examples of mock student homework that I had made up. I asked them to look at each and discuss in groups the following questions:

What do you notice about each one?

What is similar and different?

Are the ideas clear and understandable? What did they do to make those ideas clear (or unclear)?

What was done well? What made it that way?

What was not done well? What made it that way?

Is there enough detail? Is there too little detail? Is it vague? Is it repetitive?

Each group reported out what they noticed, and what they are taking away from the activity. During this time, I often asked groups to point to specific places in the text and to explain why it was either vague or unclear or whatever. I took notes during the discussion with the purpose of writing up some advice that we’d give others for improving their writing. Here’s the advice they came up with:

Ideas to Improve your Writing

Organize your writing in some way:

  • Use descriptive titles for sections
  • Break down ideas into paragraphs
  • Summarize big points

Include pictures, sketches, or diagrams that strengthen the writing

Use examples from real life experience, perhaps to

  • Help clarify an idea or the experience it comes from
  • Provide evidence to support (or refute) an idea
  • To draw an analogy between two things

Talk about things you don’t (yet) understand. For example,

  • When something doesn’t make sense, attempt to articulate why it is hard to understand or what specifically you don’t understand
  • Include some of the questions you are still wondering about and why you are still wondering about those questions
  • Talk about problems you are still thinking about and what makes them problematic.

Be concise when you can, rather than being repetitive

At same time, use enough description and detail in your explanation to be understandable. You might try

  • Breaking down information or ideas into parts
  • Explaining “the why” not just “the what”
  • Telling the story of your thinking and its process
  • Including the steps of your reasoning
  • Using everyday examples or analogies
  • Elaborating when necessary

Cite other people’s ideas when appropriate–try to understand & explain them from their perspective

Some things to Avoid 

Being overly repetitive

Only describing without explaining

Including irrelevant detail

Rambling on in a distracting way

Using terms or vocabulary that aren’t defined

Being accusatory or mean

Making claims that aren’t supported in anyway

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2011 3:50 am

    Brian,
    What was the homework assignemnt? Was this the pre-service teachers or the first year physics students?

  2. September 8, 2011 10:20 am

    Pre-service. The first homework was about the flashlight in the hallway. They had to write (1) What they initially thought and why? (2) What they observed and how they are trying to make sense of it? (3) then explain one other idea they heard in class that they disagree with and explain why this idea cannot be so.

    They had to rewrite that based on our writing discussion, and based on our new discussion about “why we didn’t see a beam? and when you would see a beam”, they had to go home a carry out some investigation with flashlights; then write up a blog post about what they did and what they observed.

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