Guest Blogger: Vicky Chen, Ph.D.
As an undergraduate peer writing tutor, I saw all kinds of students pass through the doors of the writing center at my university. I learned more than I ever thought, both about the challenges that my fellow students faced in college writing, and about my own composing and revising processes. This left me to wonder, however, what exactly these students were taking away from their writing center conferences. What were they learning about writing? What impact, if any, did our discussions actually have on their growth as writers? When I became a doctoral student, I returned to some of these questions in my research.
One of the things I found from analyzing exit surveys and interviewing undergraduates throughout the 2018-2019 academic year was this:
Overall organization was not only the most common aspect of writing that students received help with and felt they learned from the writing center, it was also something that students themselves saw—or were beginning to see—as a transferable skill that they could apply across the different types of writing that they had to do.
Organization as Concept, Rather than Formula
When I say organization, I’m not talking so much about specific text structures as I am about the concept of organization—the fact that writers organize their writing in a purposeful way, that the different parts of a text generally build upon and support one another, and that different types of writing are organized in particular ways because of their intended purpose and audience.
In other words, organization is more than just a matter of conventions.
A number of writing researchers have pointed out challenges faced by students as they begin their college careers caused by discrepancies between high school and college expectations. Often highlighted in these discussions is the contrast between high school and college writing. Many educators have worked hard to address these gaps—by incorporating more genres of writing into their classrooms, for instance, and expanding writing instruction beyond just English Language Arts classes. However, for various reasons, many students still arrive at college with only a surface understanding of why we write in certain ways. The way writers organize writing was a specific challenge faced by the undergraduates I worked with.
Among the students I interviewed, there was a pervasive feeling that in high school, writing was expected to follow specific, predetermined structures chosen for them by other people. The five-paragraph essay was just one example of this. Now, I want to emphasize that these formulas, as students sometimes called them, were often useful. One undergraduate student explained, for instance, how she could always fall back on a five-paragraph structure if she was unsure how else to proceed with a writing assignment. Another student said that these formulas were “clean,” if a little restrictive.
The problem was that these formulas no longer supported undergraduate students because in college, they were asked to
These undergraduate students suddenly weren’t sure what to do. One student described it as being “in that box” when she employed one of these structures for her paper where she felt like “the organization of things didn’t flow,” but she wasn’t sure how to fix it.
What many of these students learned at their university’s writing center was how to take more control of their writing and to think about how the organization of their writing might support what they had to say.
By discussing how they developed and presented ideas in their papers with a tutor, students began to build a sense of how organization impacted an audience’s perceptions.
It was especially helpful when tutors explained the reasons behind different conventions or the specific suggestions that they made—the idea of transitions, for example, and how they help to lead a reader through the writer’s thinking and highlight the relationships between different paragraphs.
As one of the students I spoke to put it,
"In my high school, we didn't really learn about how to transition from paragraph to paragraph. It's as if we saw each paragraph as its own entity without any relationship to another paragraph. When I came to the writing center, I learned that that wasn't effective academic writing, and I learned how to transition paragraph to paragraph and organize my information.
He continued on to say that, “In general, organization skills… are really the key skills that I use in every paper.”
Knowing Why vs. Knowing How
Why did this undergraduate student’s statement stand out to me? Because sometimes, it feels like we talk a lot about “how” to write something like a research paper or narrative, but maybe not enough about “why.”
Having such discussions, especially with our students—whether it’s at the writing center or in the classroom—is important. For the undergraduates I interviewed, there was something empowering about learning that organization can and should be purposeful. Other contributors to the WRITE Center’s blog have talked about the power of having choice in students’ writing motivation and sense of ownership. Related to the ability to make choices is this deeper sense of understanding. It wasn’t until students understood the “why” that they could begin to manipulate the “how” with confidence in order to bring more of themselves into the writing process. It was also this deeper understanding that, for these students at least, helped to facilitate their ability to transfer and apply specific writing skills to other writing tasks.
Vicky Chen completed her doctorate in Education at the University of California, Irvine. Before starting graduate school, she taught English writing and communications one-on-one and in small classes in California and in Taiwan. She is passionate about teaching and creative writing. Her dissertation is titled “Writing Centers and Students’ Experiences with Writing in College” and she has been published in the Journal of Literacy Research and the Journal of Writing Assessment.
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