Best Practices for W & C Courses

Words of Wisdom

Good communication does not mean that you have to speak in perfectly formed sentences and paragraphs. It isn't about slickness. Simple and clear go a long way.

— John Kotter


Following these best practices for teaching writing and speaking in the disciplines will greatly increase the chance of your receiving high-quality, original writing and presentations from your students.

The very fact that Texas A&M University requires W and C courses is a signal to students communication is important. You might point out that communication is desingated as a undergraduate learning outcome. Remind students that communication skills important to their professional development. As your students read course material or listen to oral performances, comment on the quality of the writing or speaking, and encourage them to develop their own abilities.
Review the basics of good writing and speaking as you understand them. If you feel every essay needs a thesis statement or every paragraph needs a topic sentence, explain that explicitly. Don't assume that everyone shares the same standards for good writing or speaking. If you consider the issue, you'll see that many conventions change with the audience, type, and purpose of a communication. Students already know this to some degree, which is why they will so often ask what you want. Make clear your bottom-line issues, what your pet peeves might be, and how these expectations affect your evaluation of their work.
There is no universal, unchanging formula for good communication. Even the "rules" of grammar and punctuation can be flexible and are best thought of as conventions. The best communicators develop an understanding of the constraints under which they work in each situation and accommodate their style to those constraints. Create assignments that require your students to adjust to different situations. When you introduce an assignment, spend a few moments discussing audience expectations, the constraints and expectations of the type of docuemnt or presentation, and other matters that can affect the finished product.
Use every opportunity to demystify the composing process and show that writing and speaking are skills that can be learned through effort and practice. Here is where your own advice and experience as a writer can be invaluable. Have you struggled with writing? Do you get nervous before a presentation? Do you have peers review your most important work? Do you solicit editing advice? Students need to see how a real communicator in the real world—like yourself—manages this complex and challenging task. Don't expect everyone to adopt your practices, but realize that modeling how you prepare and develop written or spoken communications provides concrete information for students to emulate.
If you consider the process of writing and speaking as a way not only to communicate but also to learn, you will find it easier to provide plenty of practice. Presenting information to another reinforces concepts, organizes thoughts, and encourages critical thinking. Establish early on that writing and speaking are modes of learning, and you will not read or respond to everything students produce. You want them to write or present often—to themselves and to peers as well as to you—so they develop fluency.
If possible, use a written assignment prompt for any lengthy assignment, graded or not. Students will naturally do better if you are explicit about your expectations. They also work more effectively if they understand evaluation criteria and can use these to judge their own and their peers' efforts as they revise.
The idea behind feedback is to reinforce that most forms of communication, especially when we are learning new types of composing for new audiences, occurs over time, with successive efforts. It's trial-and-error learning, and feedback provides a marker that guides learners along the way. Feedback is more effective during the composing process on drafts or outlines than as a final evaluation on finished works. Naturally, students appreciate your comments on drafts, but unless your class is small, you'll find this practice difficult to maintain. A grading rubric can be used during the composing and prewriting stages so that students can assess their own and their peers' efforts. If students are working on a similar assignment, you can randomly read and publicly assess samples, or even models from previous classes. Encourage all students, even those who feel confident, to use the services of consultants at the University Writing Center. Often those merely good communicators need the extra push that a responding reader can provide to become excellent.
Writing and speaking should be a social process. Let your students know that if they are blocked or confused, help is available and that even the best writers and presenters receive feedback from others to guide revision. The University Writing Center is a resource for all writers, not just those having problems.

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