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Reasonable Expectations for Student Writer Progress

Research in education, writing studies, and psychology suggests that learning to write is a process that happens across an extremely long time, and periods of rapid improvement in student writing are often followed by periods of limited growth or even a regression in ability. Since professors often only see an undergraduate for 10 weeks, it can be incredibly frustrating to feel like your feedback or guidance isn't doing much to improve the writing of some students. Writing Center tutors sometimes share this same frustration when ideas or concepts we cover in a session don't make it into a student's final draft. Some of your work with students will have results you are not able to see or measure. In the Writing Center we often hear students talking about things they've learned from you that aren't yet visible in the texts they're creating.

In the Writing Center, we take the longer view on writer development. We hope our work with students improves their work in your class in immediate, visible, meaningful ways, but we also know from an extensive body of research and our professional experience that this will not always be the case. Because we work with students over years, we do get to see how our work with writers pays off over time. For pedagogical reasons, and to make sure our work with students is in keeping with the Caltech honor code, students in the Writing Center retain complete authority over their texts; tutors are trained not to co-opt or generate language or ideas on students' behalf. We aim both to support students in succeeding in your class and to encourage students to develop as writers gradually throughout their time at Caltech. We welcome your feedback on how we can improve our work toward these goals.

When you have particular goals for a student writer, it helps to share those with both the writer and the tutor working with that writer. If you'd like us to help one of your students with a specific skill or aspect of writing, you can always email us.

Further Resources

If you'd like to read more research about how college students learn to write, there's a great deal of varied information on this topic. If you let us know what aspects of this question interest you, we can put together some selected essays or books would be a good starting place given your interests and discipline. One essay we often recommend to faculty across discplines is:

Bartholomae, David. "Inventing the University." The Journal of Basic Writing. 5.1 (1986): 4-23. Web.

In this seminal essay, Bartholomae attempts to answer the question: What should writing teachers actually teach? In the process of answering it, he does a remarkable job of helping readers who are expert academic writers to understand the complexity and difficulty of the task before novice academic writers. Although aimed at an audience of writing studies scholars and composition teachers, this essay will help professors in any discipline reconnect with what it is like to enter the university and to try to learn to write and communicate in this unique and challenging space.

If the Bartholomae whets your appetite, a logical next step is Anne Beaufort's 2007 book College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction. In this case study, Beaufort follows a single student through his college career, looking closely at his writing in various fields, including history and engineering. Thus, she observes something no single faculty member ever gets to see--the full range of writing experiences a single student has in his college career. While a sample size of one is a clear limitation, Beaufort connects her observations to a range of previous work in the field. While she makes a larger institutional argument about how college writing should be taught that may not be of direct interest to all faculty, the case study makes the book very accessible and interesting to any professor interested in helping students learn to write.