By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to teaching online college students how to write those weekly case studies or research papers. For one, online students range in age from about 22 to 72. Many of them are in the military and trying to earn their college degree.
Sitting down with online college students, we instructors learn that their fear of writing is real. Our approach must be to get them over their fear.
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Writing Might Not Come Easy to Everyone
We teachers must remember that writing might not come easy to someone whose job is to drive a truck, load weapons on an aircraft or procure tons of potatoes to feed the troops. All too often, teachers leave those students to struggle.
Of course, not everyone is born to write. There are writing courses to train college students and teachers and even those who write novels for a living. There are also MFA degrees in creative writing at almost all major colleges and universities.
But can we teach that nervous and intimidated student to write a paper in that first week? Yes. Most of my students are in the military and are used to clear, concise orders from above. We must be clear and precise to establish an atmosphere for them to be ready to learn a few basic exercises and rules.
Rules for Teaching Students How to Write
The first rule of teaching those fearful students to write is to have them put something, anything, down on the computer screen or on paper. A second “rule” for us instructors is to acknowledge that if our students do not learn to write that college paper, we are failing them as teachers.
If you are a teacher, keep that second rule in mind. If you are an online college student, new or seasoned, keep both rules in mind. Teaching students to write college papers must make sense to them. That means explaining the why, the how, and what it takes to write a paper that they can be proud of and feel a sense of accomplishment.
What else is a teacher to do? As a start, he or she can engage more with the students in the weekly discussion forums and emails. We must measure the improvement of the students’ work and listen to their ideas about what they put on that electronic paper.
Also, the teacher must watch how students react in open discussions with others about their writing issues. Above all, the teacher must review the students’ work to help improve their ability to write a coherent, logical paper.
There Are No True Secrets to Writing Well
There are no true secrets to writing well, but there are well-established methods. Writing is presenting facts, information and opinion in various ways, but all include a logical conclusion that supports the student’s thesis statement. What one student sees in a case study or research question may differ from what another student sees. There is no one definitive answer.
Military students are taught that the one correct answer can save lives. In college, we teach that there can be many possible answers based on the experiences and education of each student.
As a teacher, our job is to not fail that student. We need to treat failed papers like poor drawings, and we are the art instructor. We need to show students how to use a different “brush” or “color.” In other words, finding the proper words and constructions on their “palate” to make their writing come to life. Give those students the chance to improve their work with your help.
Why Is Learning to Write So Hard?
Now, for you readers who are teachers, here is a task to undertake. Before your students complete their first required paper in Week 1 or 2 of your online class, ask them to take part in a brief writing exercise: to write about some aspect of their life that has left a lasting impression on them. It might be about training their new dog or about their old dog that just died.
Ask them to complete this short essay with a minimum of 250 words. For you readers who are students, sit back and think about this type of assignment. Think how you are a partner, a team member, with this teacher who asks for such a short story from you.
This short story will be a yardstick to measure how students’ writing have improved during the following weeks of the course. As each week’s paper comes in for your reviewing and grading, reach back to those initial impromptu papers and show the students how their writing has improved. Both of you will likely see progress in how words are used, how the new assignment has focused on the theme, and how the student has become more skilled in crafting some novel way of thinking.
Many college students come to their keyboard with a preconceived notion of what they think a paper should entail. That may be due to previous teachers enforcing strict rules of format and content.
It may also be the situation that most writers face. They think they know how to write because they have done it often before and got good grades, maybe even As.
In the end, the teacher in the online world needs to act like an art instructor, giving students the paint and brushes — the words and ideas — to help them produce a successful work of art. But if your students fail to learn to write well, don’t blame them; blame yourself.
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About the Author
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.
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