Have you ever asked your students to identify what you consider an essential element in their papers—a thesis statement, perhaps, or topic sentences? Sometimes, students will readily and accurately locate that element. In other instances, however, they may be unable to do so, even when the essay otherwise satisfies the demands of the assignment. But in order for students to progress as writers, they not only need to turn in well-crafted papers; they need to understand what they’re doing effectively. Students need to be able to identify and assess the components of their own writing.
One strategy that I’ve found very useful involves asking students to use different fonts or typographical forms to identify key elements in their assignments. For instance, when students submit their papers, I might ask them to use boldface to indicate their thesis statements and italic to indicate the main claim made in each body paragraph. If we are focusing on introductions, I’ll often ask students to underline the general context, to italicize the problem statement, and to boldface the thesis statement (or resolution to the problem). Here, for example, is how a student might apply this technique to an introductory paragraph from an essay about Dorothea Lange:
During the Great Depression, a program called the Farm Security Administration was created to help the poor farmers survive at that time of crisis. The administration hired photographers to document the lives of Americans throughout the United States. Dorothea Lange was a member of the group of photographers who photographed primarily on the West Coast. As a young woman, Lange studied to be a teacher. However, her instincts led her to choose a career as a photographer (Cox 6). After Lange was hired by the FSA, she developed a unique approach to subject in photography that made her style and work different from the other photographers. One of her motives while working for the FSA was to help the unfortunate by documenting the unseen crisis in her area. The pictures that she took showed the simple and truthful life her subjects lived. Two photos that are illustrated and analyzed below are examples of a time Dorothea Lange’s curiosity intersected with the truth she documented in the lives of her subjects. Dorothea Lange’s curiosity as she approached her subjects is portrayed through her style and ultimately reveals a sense of truth in her photographs.
If the student has accurately identified the key elements in the introduction (or is well on her way to doing so), I can then ask her to explain and defend her choices by annotating the paragraph, either by hand or by using Word’s comments feature (under the Review tab). In the case of the above example, the student might wish to consider why she italicized the sentence beginning “After Lange was hired” rather than the sentence beginning “Two photos that are illustrated.” She might also want to explain the purpose of the sentences that remain in regular font. As a result of this exercise, the student might decide to revise the paragraph. At the very least, however, she’ll have engaged in a thoughtful process of critiquing her own work, and this should stand her in good stead for subsequent assignments.
If, on the other hand, a student turns in an introduction in which key elements are misidentified, or are missing altogether, it alerts me to the possibility that the student may not fully understand them. In this case, I can meet with her so that we can review the elements in question and then discuss strategies for revision. In this case, I might ask the student to explain her choices during the course of our meeting and then to follow up with a written annotation. Here again, the student not only improves her performance on the assignment at hand but learns something about how to critique her own work.
This strategy can be applied to just about any element of academic writing: claims and evidence, transitions, and so on. The advantage of this approach is that it gives students a tool with which to recognize, to understand, and to assess key components in their own prose.
Anne spent the first years of her professional life pursuing a career in theater. She then shifted gears so that she could study Renaissance literature at the University of Virginia. While at UVA, Anne discovered a love for teaching academic writing, and in addition to serving as a lecturer and instructor for literature courses, taught writing extensively; she also served for a year as the director of first-year writing. At UVA, Anne was also managing editor of Postmodern Culture. Most recently, she has taught English at the Mount Snow Academy and worked as a freelance editor. Anne is a recent addition to Principia College’s Center for Teaching and Learning.