How to Identify Students Who Need Help

Often, students who could benefit from additional writing support do not actively seek it. Reaching out to these students with an invitation to office hours, to chat with a TA, or to visit a writing centre or similar campus resource can be helpful, but we suggest emphasizing to your students that they will become better writers with practice, so as to encourage them to develop a positive mindset, when giving them such a recommendation. Research shows that self-efficacy is often correlated to performance in writing1, so asking students to reflect on their attitude to -- and confidence in -- writing may push some students to seek help pro-actively.

Students who are English Language Learners (ELL) will often need additional help with their writing. In addition to the language and language structure issues that often arise, ESL students typically find it very difficult to translate source material for use in academic writing, not understanding the purpose or technique of paraphrasing2. Some extra guidance on this skill might help these students.

Remember, too, that most learning support services are intended to work with students at all stages, so the recommendation to visit a writing centre or learning commons can only benefit your students, even those who are already strong writers. To encourage students to consider these services, one useful technique involves instructors discussing the resistance they have previously had to seeking help3. A self-revealing story about overcoming such resistance can inspire students to do the same thing.

Other instructors have required their students to complete post-entrance literacy assessments, which identify the students in their classes who may be below a 'benchmark' standard in writing ability4. Such an approach might not be appropriate for all situations, but other work has shown that such below-benchmark students develop more positive attitudes to their writing, as well as showing some ability gains, after subsequently taking part in compulsory writing support classes where higher-order concerns about the structure and process of academic writing were taught5.

Although providing detailed feedback on written work requires grading time that can be at a premium for instructors, it is also important to note that students can often depend on this feedback to improve their writing. Studies show that science students are often dissatisfied with feedback when it isn't directly transferable or useful for future assignments6, and that being explicit in feedback is important as implicit feedback can often be misinterpreted as being unhelpful7. Explicit feedback includes metalinguistic explanations (which state why a writing error is an error, and how it can be rectified) whereas implicit feedback makes use of recasts (which involve reading back corrected words or sentences to a student who has made an error, but do not provide explanations for why the correction has been made). Once you have openly discussed the benefits of seeking writing help with your class, it may be effective to provide specific explicit feedback to individuals when necessary.

The following questions will help you determine if a student could use some additional support in understanding assignments or completing the writing process satisfactorily.

  • Does the student communicate their ideas clearly in writing? Does the student communicate ideas clearly when speaking?
    • If the student communicates their ideas clearly when speaking about them, but lacks clarity in writing, a couple of sessions with a writing centre tutor or coach will be helpful. A lack of clarity in both areas might indicate that the student would benefit from a meeting with an academic coach or other higher-level service.

  • Does the organization of the paper reflect the progression of the student’s ideas?
    • If there are serious issues with organization, the issue is likely with the student’s writing process. A referral to the writing centre/learning commons would be helpful.

  • Does the student make consistent patterns of error?
    • If a student’s work is full of the same type(s) of error – issues with verb conjugation, sentence fragments, etc. – that is an indication that the student would benefit from a review of the structures of written English. The writing centre/learning commons or English department will have resources that will benefit the student.

  • Does the student interact with source material appropriately and in a way that demonstrates understanding of the ideas of the material and the author’s intent?
    • If you notice any issues with how students interact with source material, it is a good idea to address them immediately, either through detailed comments and the provision of resources or via a referral to a support service. Even if the issue is a one-time occurrence, students are often unaware that they are misreading texts until it is too late. Pointing them towards resources that will help with reading comprehension, either generally or with texts in their field*, is a good idea.

  • Does the student have the same, recurring problems in all essay assignments?
    • If a student’s work does not change or improve in response to your feedback, it is a good idea to let them know that you notice this. A referral to a learning support service will help, as will an invitation to office hours in case the issue lies in the student’s understanding of the feedback.

  • Does the student respond to writing prompts and assignment sheets appropriately/as expected?
    • An invitation to office hours may be the best course of action in this case; the student may be having issues understanding the expectations of the assignment and may need encouragement to ask questions. You may want to refer them to this page.

- Often, the issue comes from a student’s lack of familiarity with the language used in a particular discipline or their lack of experience with reading in a certain genre. For example, scientific jargon can be especially confusing, whereas phrasing/wording can differ greatly within sub-disciplines (e.g. “proving” hypotheses/theories sometimes appears in physics literature but very rarely in biology sources).

Useful References

1. Prat-Sala M, Redford P. Writing essays: does self-efficacy matter? The relationship between self-efficacy in reading and in writing and undergraduate students’ performance in essay writing. Educ Psych. 2012; 32(1):9-20.

2. Hirvela A, Du Q. “Why am I paraphrasing?”: Undergraduate ESL writers’ engagement with source-based academic writing and reading. J Eng Acad Purp. 2013; 12(2):87-98.

3. Smith JO, Price RA. Attribution theory and developmental students as passive learners. J Dev Educ. 1996; 19(3):2-6.

4. McNaught K, Shaw G. Preparing undergraduate students to be successful writers: Exploring the Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation skills of students identified as potentially ‘at risk’. J Acad Lang & Learn. 2016; 10(2):A11-A19.

5. McNaught K, Beal, E. The NAME Four Factor Model for engaging students in academic support services. In Brown N, Jones SM, Adam A, editors. Research and Development in Higher Education: Connections in Higher Education. 2012; Hobart, Australia. 35, p. 191–212.

6. Scott J, Badge J, Cann A. Perceptions of feedback one year on: A comparative study of the views of first and second year biological sciences students. Biosci Educ. 2009; 13(2):1-9.

7. Hyland K. Student perceptions of hidden messages in teacher written feedback. Stud Educ Eval. 2013; 39(3):180-187.