By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice
As a college professor for more than 10 years, not many things are more distracting to me than when I see errors in grammar, spelling or sentence structure as I’m grading papers. They distract me from the actual content, themes, and main points of the paper and tend to be more prevalent in lower-level college courses.
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There are a lot of factors that contribute to the quality of some students’ writing. For example, English may be a second language for some students. As a result, college professors who teach lower-level courses have a responsibility in helping students with a poor command of English develop strong writing skills early in their college education.
Strong writing skills are often desired and needed in the workforce. Many industry fields, such as business, criminal justice and healthcare, depend on clear, well-written communication.
For instance, police officers require strong communication skills, since they may write hundreds of police reports per month. If they don’t have strong writing skills, that reflects poorly on those officers and their police department when those reports are used for criminal prosecutions.
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Different Techniques for Improving Students’ Writing Skills
One of the best ways to help students strengthen their writing skills is by assigning required reading. Reading well-written material helps students to expand their vocabulary, provides examples of proper grammar and enables students to overcome writer’s block when it comes time to write a college paper.
Effective feedback from instructors is also essential. Ideally, feedback on grammar and sentence structure errors should be actionable and contain examples of how a sentence should be properly written.
Another strategy for helping students who struggle with grammar or sentence structure is to identify some common errors at the beginning of a class paper and show examples of how it can be improved. Instructors can then require students to self-grade the remainder of a paper to correct additional grammar and sentence structure errors using MS Word’s track changes feature. This strategy helps the instructor gauge whether or not the student is learning from the feedback received from the instructor.
Encouraging students to read a paper out loud, to reorganize themes within the paper to strengthen the flow of information and to require self-editing prior to assignment submission can be equally helpful. Asking students to revise their work when grammar and sentence structure errors exist is a good way to emphasize the importance of proper writing.
The instructor should place a particular emphasis on clarity and being succinct. Providing students with a tip sheet that outlines strategies for effective writing can be useful as well.
Programs Such as Grammarly Can Be Helpful, But Can’t Teach Better Writing Skills
Some instructors encourage their students to submit papers to online writing assistance programs such as Grammarly. My only concern is that these types of programs identify errors for students but don’t teach those students how to improve their writing skills. From my teaching experience, it has been more helpful to require students to edit their own papers to find areas for improvement.
Proper Citation Is Also a Struggle for Some College Students
One area that most college students struggle with early on in their college education is American Psychological Association (APA) or Modern Language Association (MLA) reference citations. Many students use online citation generators to format their references, but these citation generators are not 100% accurate.
When APA formatting errors exist in students’ papers, I have found it helpful to require that my students write out their references by hand, using the APA manual, instead of using online citation generators. Once my students take the time to learn the nuances of APA or MLA formatting, errors in their papers are reduced.
All College Students Need to Acquire Good Writing Skills
Ideally, college instructors, regardless of their academic discipline, should emphasize effective writing skills for all students in their classes. Professors who teach any subject outside of English, communications or similar courses still need to reinforce proper writing skills and not just the content of assignments. Good writing skills will often benefit students greatly as they progress along their academic journey.
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