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When I first began teaching philosophy, I had a standard comment on assignments for students whose writing was unclear:
While you understand the content, you are having trouble getting down on paper what you know. Note the areas that I marked as unclear in your work. Please see the Writing Center for help with your writing, as it is holding you back.
I assumed that unclear writing was a writing problem, and I softened the blow by distinguishing it from thinking problems. As a result, I was constantly writing “vague” on students’ work and asking them to see the writing tutors.
I have since learned that I was wrong. The best teachers and researchers in education taught me that writing problems beyond simple grammar and spelling issues are actually thinking issues. As one student put it in a survey of college instructor feedback, “Most of my writing issues are a result of muddled thinking. Once my thinking is clarified, my writing will follow” (Turnitin, 2013).
Unfortunately, far too many of my colleagues still seem to regard unclear student writing as a writing problem, not a thinking problem. They focus on writing issues rather than thinking issues on the grounds that they need to first fix student writing to get to student thinking. In reality, they never get past commentary on writing issues, then they complain that student writing is not improving despite all their efforts, eventually blaming it on prior instructors’ lack of focus on writing.
But when teachers focus on the actual problem—students’ thinking—the writing improves. My response to instructors who believe otherwise is to ask the following:
When you pass around an article draft for review and a reviewer comments that they can’t understand what you are saying in a particular section, do you assume that the problem is (a) lack of writing skills, in which case you need to go back to college writing 101, or (b) muddled thinking, in which case you need to clarify your thoughts?
Nobody believes that their problems are due to lack of writing skills, yet they can too readily assume that such a lack must be the culprit in others’ cases. We all intuitively know that our unclear writing is due to muddled thinking but often assume the opposite for others without any reason.
Writing skills are similar to reading skills. We traditionally talk about teaching reading as its own skill, but evidence suggests that reading comprehension is really a function of subject knowledge. We learn on the periphery of what we already know, and it is easy to underestimate the amount of subject-specific background knowledge required to understand a text. If I were asked to read an academic article on quantum field theory, I would be lost because I lack the needed subject knowledge, not because I lack basic reading skills. As education researcher Robert Pondiscio (2020) puts it, “Reading comprehension isn’t a skill at all and time spent ‘practicing’ it is counterproductive.” Research shows that you don’t improve the skill of reading in general. Rather, you improve the skill of reading texts on certain subjects by learning those subjects.
The focus on reading and writing over thinking partially stems from the so-called expert’s blind spot—the proven inability of experts to understand the struggles of novices because they have the requisite background knowledge to understand their subject while novices do not. Instructors too often assume that students who don’t understand a reading are either not reading carefully enough or just need to reread the text, just as they assume that muddled writing is a result of faulty writing skills. The result is that these instructors cheat their students out of an education in the subjects they are paid to teach.
My realization that student reading and writing issues were really thinking issues transformed my work with students. It was not easy, since a copyediting mindset had been ingrained in me since graduate school. I needed to deliberately read through the writing problems to figure out where a student’s thinking was muddled and work with them on that. But it was liberating as I did not get a PhD in philosophy to be a writing tutor. I was now free to engage students in philosophy topics.
I learned to put down the red pen when working with students and focus on comprehension, not writing. I have a document with links to discussions of minor writing issues from sources like Grammar Girl to send students to when they make those mistakes. But my focus is on helping students clarify their thinking. When a student passage is vague, I no longer provide the unhelpful “vague” comment but instead explain why it is vague by listing the various ways someone could interpret it. This practice shows the student how it is vague.
It is also important to avoid the mistake of giving students questions rather than information for feedback under the guise of a Socratic dialogue. Socratic dialogue is meant for a live back and forth, not asynchronous communication. A question like, “What do you mean here?” is unhelpful to a student if there is no chance for them to answer it and get feedback on their answer. Instead, teachers help students by explaining what the students did not understand. A baseball coach does not ask a batter, “Do you think you are swinging correctly?” and expect them to figure out the problem. The coach explains how the swing is wrong and how to swing correctly. For an instructor to expect students to read their mind is counterproductive.
There are many rules for giving good feedback to students, but the most important is to focus on thinking first, not writing. Students need instructors to help them understand concepts and clarify their thinking, which should be the primary goal of any instructor. Students lack the background that years of study provided to their instructors, and bridging this gap is the art of teaching. When instructors focus on that first, both they and their students will be better off for it.
Turnitin. (2013). Office hours: Students share successful feedback tips [Webinar]. http://go.turnitin.com/l/45292/2014-06-18/3m3t
Pondiscio, R. (2020, November 30). Reading comprehension is not a “skill.” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertpondiscio/2020/11/30/what-good-readers-know