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Clarity in Writing Prompts

February 17, 2010

In addition to taking my first education class, I’m taking other English classes. One of my classes is one of two surveys of American literature (the earlier one). I got a paper back today that really confused me. I thought I had done a great job on the paper, but I got a fairly low grade with comments like “You didn’t answer my questions” and “too little, too late.” Naturally, I was a bit surprised and disheartened.

Naturally, too, for a class in which unlimited rewrites are allowed, I determined to write it better, and more importantly, right away, so it would no longer be under my skin. I’m usually pretty good at reading instructions, but obviously, there was some kind of disconnect this time around. I assumed that I had misread something.

But when I went back to the assignment, I saw that the professor had specifically told us to begin by defining the genre and THEN devote a paragraph to each of the points. I did misread what he meant by points, but one of the problems with the paper, according to the red ink all over it, was that I began with a definition instead of one of the points. Yeah.

This got me to thinking. We all have the best of intentions when writing papers for professors, and I imagine that they also have the best of intentions in creating their prompts. This one was pretty long, and divided into three different “genres”, which made it a little confusing to begin with (and there were also notes in the margin with lots of emphasis on how to construct each paragraph for ALL essays, and lots of example sentences in the body). The professor had obviously not just thrown down his first thoughts: he spent time thinking about how to word the prompt. And just as obviously, it led me, the student, down a completely mistaken path.

This, then, is a good learning opportunity. First, I’ve learned that it’s a bad idea to fling bits of advice all over a page. Things that might be the most important information to a particular student can get buried. I’m pretty competent at this professor’s paragraph structure, because I’ve had him in the past, so the really huge focus on the paragraph structure made me have more confidence in my paper than I should have had, since I missed key points for this particular assignment. Unfortunately, those key points were buried in another long paragraph on the same page. Maybe most students in this class would have had more difficulty with the paragraph structure, but that doesn’t mean that that information should be so highlighted as to obscure the other information.

Secondly, I’ve learned that I need to be clear in my language use. A sentence like “Begin by defining the genre, then dedicate a paragraph to each point” could be read many ways. I understood the “then” to indicate that the next paragraph was separate from “defining the genre”, and that, therefore, a whole paragraph should be devoted to the definition. Obviously, in retrospect, it’s clear that the professor meant to only spend a line or two of definition before moving into the main points. This wasn’t clear from the language. If I’m going to create writing prompts (and as a writing teacher, I definitely will be!), I will need to take great effort in my own language in the prompts so that I do not accidentally lead students in the wrong direction.

Finally, I know that even though I’ve had a good relationship with this professor in the past, and do not have any reason to think that he would react badly to information, even I do not have the guts to write at the end of the rewrite, “Just so you know, your prompt was kind of misleading.” This is important because I have a lot of confidence and know that the wording was off, but I still don’t have the courage to confront the teacher about it. If I can’t, I definitely can’t expect middle school students to be able to do something with one of my prompts. That’s even assuming that they’d recognize what exactly I’d done wrong. In other words, I can’t depend on the students to alert me to this kind of mistake, even if I try to encourage them to do so. It’s up to me, and me alone, to make sure the prompt is worded clearly.

So, overall, it was a good experience. Now I have to go rewrite that paper.

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