Successful Student Writing

Black and white photo of hands typing


Stephanie Rosen

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Students come to Rhetoric 306 without much writing experience. Some students even come to RHE 306 fresh out of high school. The novelty of the college classroom, coupled with the fast pace of writing assignments in our course design, can make even confident writers newly wary in this course. As an instructor, I combat this with low stakes writing practice and by drawing attention to successful student writing, when my students produce it.

After reading the first major student essay assignment, I invariably notice that several students have struggled with some of the same elements. This may be a sign that I did not effectively teach that element, that they came in with misconceptions about it, or that it simply takes more practice. In any case, this difficulty needs to be addressed in class before my students revise their essays for its required second submission.

But when reading all the student essays, I also notice that some students have excelled in the very same elements that others faltered in. Therefore, I thought it best to show my class examples of classmates’ successful writing to model these difficult elements. For example, many students cited “experts” without explaining who those people were. So I pulled a few sentences that succeeded in introducing quotes by explaining exactly who said them (and why we should listen to that person). Our in-class activity using these student writing examples is described in my lesson plan.

When students were given examples of their classmates’ best writing, they usually found exactly what I had hoped they’d find. If I gave them the example from above, they would notice, “This student provided background info about the authority she cites.” And if they had enough time, they found even more successful elements within the same example, such as “She introduces the quote clearly and correctly in her sentence.” This proved to me, and the students, that they could recognize good writing. And it proved to students whose examples I’d pulled (about half the class) that they could already produce it.

My students struggled slightly with the next part of the assignment. They were meant to translate their observation about successful writing into a concrete piece of writing advice (in the form of an imperative sentence) for the rest of the class. For the example above, they were expected to write, “Provide background info about the person you quote so your reader knows why to trust them.” However, some students misunderstood this task and tried instead to craft a piece of advice for the student whose writing they had been given. That is, they started looking for something wrong with the writing—after they had already found what was successful in it. I caught the student groups who misunderstood this task and redirected their work. This was an opportunity for me to remind them that not all student writing is only worthy of critique. Some of it can serve as a model for others and is worthy of praise.



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