Learn to write, write to learn

Here’s an insider secret: successful academic writers are masters of their subject-specific writing tasks. There’s no such thing as the “ideal writer” who can do every type of writing perfectly. If writing is intimidating to you—and it can be intimidating even to the pros—this is good news. It means you don’t have to focus on “improving your writing” generally speaking, which can be an overwhelming and even unrealistic goal. Instead, to excel in your studies, you simply have to learn how to write the way experts in your subject write. Is this copying? No, not as long as you conduct and represent your research with academic integrity. By emulating the methods and strategies professionals employ to achieve their purposes, what you’re doing is actually learning.

At the undergraduate level, learning is one of the foremost goals of writing. Of course, when you’re working on your fifth term paper, it’s easy to lose sight of the implications of this simple fact. An excellent way to remind yourself is by consulting the assignment rubric, or, if no rubric is provided, the learning outcomes for your course. (You can always ask your instructor or TA for clarity on these.) “Learning outcomes” are the things your instructors expect you to be able to do and know by the end of the course. They could be competencies such as critical thinking, skill sets such as throwing a piece of pottery, or discrete bodies of information such as historical knowledge of the French revolution. Writing assignments give you an opportunity to display your command of these learning outcomes, while a rubric for marking is a visual way of organizing and representing that data—not only for your marker, but also for you. The assignment rubric is like a cheat sheet, except no cheating is required. By examining your rubric and/or learning outcomes, you should be able to figure out what criteria you need to satisfy in order to achieve an excellent mark—and, more importantly, demonstrate your learning.

Another useful resource for understanding the writing task at hand is Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Objectives. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a model used by educators to qualify different levels of academic accomplishment. Visually, it’s often organized in a triangle, with the lowest-order competencies, such as rote memorization of facts, at the wide base, and the highest-order competencies, such as analysis, evaluation, and creation of knowledge, at the narrow peak. As you progress throughout your undergraduate education—and especially if you go on to grad school—you’ll move from the lower-order learning outcomes to the higher-order ones, and your writing tasks will accordingly become more sophisticated. Like a rubric, Bloom’s Taxonomy is a useful tool that you can use to better understand the task that your instructor is requiring you to do. Ask yourself, “Does she want me to understand this information, or apply it? Analyze the concept to figure out how it functions, or evaluate it in order to make a judgement?” Practices such as critically examining the expectations of the assignment itself are a great place to start on your road to becoming a practiced academic writer.

Writing doesn’t have to be a mysterious process that some people are “good” at and some are “bad” at. In academia, we write to demonstrate and share knowledge. Learning outcomes, rubrics, and educational models are useful tools to help you understand how to do so. Above all, remember: once you know what your instructor expects you to get out of the learning process, you’ll know what you need to put into the writing process.

In Term 1, the Centre for Writing and Scholarly Communication offers writing consultations for both undergraduate and graduate students from September 16th-December 13th, 2019. Book an appointment with  of our Writing Consultants, who will work with you to shape your writing process and achieve your task-specific writing goals.  

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