How Do We Explain Academic Writing?

Students are often confused by the terms for academic writing that professors assume they’ll understand. Even my graduate students don’t always understand what exactly a professor wants when she asks for an analysis or an evaluation. A couple of years ago, I wrote an article that puts these terms in the context of academic writing as academic discourse.
The article’s called “What’s the BIG IDEA? A Student’s Guide to How Academic Writing Becomes Academic Discourse.” I use the article as a first reading and writing assignment for many of my writing classes. That way, I not only get started teaching the first skills needed in my courses, but I know that my students have been exposed to the language for talking about writing that I’ll be using throughout the course.
I generally assign a one paragraph neutral summary of this article as a first writing assignment. (Students usually only require a very brief reminder of what a short neutral summary is to get started. If I have a lot of students, I will often assign this as a small group activity so that I don’t have a lot of summaries to look over before the second class.) At the second class, I divide the students into interest groups (based on their majors or fields of studies) that they’ll stay in throughout the course. I assign these groups an in-class focused summary of the article. I give them time to introduce themselves to each other and then to write a paragraph together.
I find these assignments a highly effective way to teach focused summary, because the interest or major of the group gives the students a natural focus.
For instance, we may have an engineering group, an art group, a sports medicine group, and an education group. Each group will write a focused summary of the article from the point of view of their group. A focused summary is one that summarizes a source from a particular point of view. For example, if our engineers were writing a paper on the requirements of publishing in engineering and they were using this article as a source, their summary would be written differently than the summary written by education majors who were writing a paper on the most important attributes of papers published in education journals.
This might seem a relatively complex idea for a first writing assignment, but the idea of writing a summary with a focus can grow very naturally with this scaffolding.
Begin by having students 1) read the article, then 2) write a neutral summary so they understand it well, then 3) form groups that they know will be important to the class experience with peers who share their major interest, then 4) write another summary from the point of view of that group.
At the end of this class on focused summary, I always save 10-15 minutes so that the groups can read their paragraphs aloud to the class. Hearing all the different summaries never fails to provide a super clear illustration of focused summary. Notice how much “milking this assignment” has accomplished. After only two class periods, the students have already written two types of summaries, formed interest groups that will help them with research, and been exposed to all the terms I’ll be using to describe academic writing for the rest of the semester!

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