Brien K. Ashdown1and Jana Hackathorn2
1Hobart & William Smith Colleges
2Murray State University
Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Brien K. Ashdown, PhD, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, 300 Pulteney Street, Geneva, NY 14456; firstname.lastname@example.org.
As the American Psychological Association includes writing as a major undergraduate learning outcome (APA, 2013), meaning that teaching psychological writing skills is of the utmost importance. However, actually teaching students how to write can be pain-staking and tedious, for a wide variety of reasons. One notable reason is that students struggle to build cohesive arguments in their introductions or research proposals. Having students draw a metaphorical map of their own or a peer’s writing can help students focus on the importance of structure and flow when writing the introduction section of an empirical article. This activity could help students get one step closer to effective writing skills in methods courses.
Teaching How to Write Can Be Frustrating
The American Psychological Association (APA, 2013) includes writing as a major learning outcome in the undergraduate psychology education. As a result, teachers find this skill to be important and there are a plethora of how to guides and resources full of best practices (e.g., Giuliano, 2019; Ishak & Salter, 2016). Despite the professional guidance, many instructors find teaching students how to write strong papers of significant length is challenging, vexing, or even unenjoyable (Ishak & Salter, 2016). Teachers report myriad reasons for this struggle. For example, students with minimal writing experience tend to have an unrealistic beliefs about how much time and effort they will need to create a high quality piece of writing, often underestimating the required effort (Walvoord & McCarthy, 1990). Often, students confuse introduction sections with annotated bibliographies, and thus write in a way that lacks structure or a coherent argument. As a result, the flow of many students’ introduction sections or literature reviews are choppy and hard to follow (Baumeister & Leary, 1997). Add to this the significant amount of time and effort it takes for instructors to provide quality feedback (Ishak & Salter, 2016), and it’s no wonder that many instructors find the process of teaching students how to write fatiguing and frustrating.
In our classrooms (and we assume in most of yours,) we tend to see a lot of student writing that contains introduction sections that are really nothing more than a series of strung-together independent paragraphs, each one providing a review of a different (hopefully) relevant article. It seems students believe that providing this list of article summations is sufficient to construct a coherent argument—yet any of us who have read this kind of writing know how painful these types of papers are to read and grade. Moreover, this type of writing tends to lack critical thinking which involves the evaluation and synthesis of their chosen literature, to create the actual underlying argument (Ishak & Salter, 2016).
One frequently used tactic to help with this problem is peer assessment (see Ramon-Casas et al., 2018, for a review). Although there are some variations in how this works in each classroom, students generally exchange papers and then give each other feedback (Falchikov & Goldfinch, 2000; Guilford, 2001; Ramon-Casas et al., 2018; Venables & Summit, 2003). These kinds of activities typically happen in the classroom or as homework, but tend to be effective, especially for lower achieving students (Ramon-Casas et al., 2018). Importantly, to be effective, instructors need to provide specific instructions, such as rubrics, on how students should work to provide good feedback (Ramon-Casas et al., 2018). More specifically, instructors should tell students what they should look for (i.e., simply telling students to “read and provide feedback” isn’t enough!). We’ve found that this often does not solve the problem of a lack of flow and structure in introductions. After all, why would writers who don’t know how to do this effectively be able to help other writers in doing it?
We’ve learned that by providing the students with a clear metaphor for the peer editing work they do increases the quality of the feedback they give their classmates. We call this metaphor Mapping a Thesis, and we tell students to envision their peer’s writing as a map that will move them from point to point. The key the success of this activity is having each student draw a literal map of their peer’s argument—which makes very clear quite quickly where the failures of structure and flow are lurking.
Mapping a Thesis
Before putting students into pairs to begin the peer workshop, we tell students to think about a popular tourist activity that many of them might have participated in at some point—a city walking tour. One of us teaches at a school in the Northeastern USA, and many students who come from that area have at some point participated in The Freedom Trail that is laid out through and around Boston, Massachusetts (https://www.thefreedomtrail.org/). This particular walking tour is approximately 2.5 miles long, and takes participants on a loop that includes visits to more than a dozen historic sites (such as Boston Common, the site of the Boston Massacre, and Paul Revere’s house). Participating on The Freedom Trail is simple—you simply have to follow the red line that has been painted on the sidewalks. As we discuss The Freedom Trail (or a similar type of walking tour that students in your area might be more familiar with), we talk with students about how the point of the red line is to take tourists from one point of interest to the next in the most logical way possible.
This is the point at which we shift from talking about city walking tours and tell students that the main points or topics of their papers are the points of interest in their own and their peers’ writing. Sometimes these main points are formatted section headings and subheadings, and sometimes they are not. We explain that often identifying and describing these points of interest is the easiest part of the writing an introduction section. The challenge is constructing the red line that will carry their readers from one point of interest (e.g., a main point or topic) to the next point of interest in a clear, logical, and meaningful way. Creating that red line, or in other words maintaining the flow and structure of their argument from one point to the next, is the challenge we ask them to focus on specifically in the peer workshop activity.
After putting students into pairs during class and having them swap papers, we provide them with a blank piece of paper. We tell them to read their peer’s paper, marking it anyway that makes sense to them (e.g., typos, spelling, grammar, etc.). Then, after they have finished reading the entire paper, we tell them to draw a map, of their partner’s introduction section. Many students struggle a bit with this at first, but with some encouragement and prodding, they can get to the point of thinking about their peer’s paper as a map that carries them along from one point of interest to another until they arrive at the end (which we explain is the section that describes the project’s hypotheses). We tell students to indicate the points of interest or main topics in the paper, and then draw lines that show how the writer moved or meandered from one topic to the next. We also tell students to write notes along those connecting lines to highlight the ways that the writer made (or didn’t make) that transition in a clear and logical way.
Once students begin, they often realize how frustrating it is to map an introduction that has no structure, flow, or coherent argument. Most of them can find and identify the points of interest, but quickly realize there is very little, if any, clear path to connect the very next point. This provides a fast lesson in the importance of making sure that their own writing has a clear structure and flow (which often requires a re-write to create).
After students have finished reading and drawing their maps, they spend time in their pairs sharing and discussing the maps they made of each other’s work. The hope, of course is that this conversation is fruitful and respectful. In the end, the feedback should help the writer to think about how to re-design the paper to provide the flow and structure that is missing on both a macro and microlevel.
Does It Work?
Via a quick data collection process that could have been much more scientifically rigorous, we asked students in one of our writing-based classes to respond to a few questions about the Mapping a Thesis activity. The responses were anonymous and collected at the end of the same day as the activity. All of the students in the class reported that the activity was useful and helpful for them in understanding their peer’s paper. One said, “Breaking down the details helped me understand what the heck was going on” and another stated, “It helped me focus on their argument.”
About two-thirds (62%) of them said that mapping their peer’s paper helped them understand how to better construct the flow and argument of their own paper. For example, one student claimed that “this exercise allows you to see if your paper flows nicely when read by others…what makes sense in your head could confuse others.” Another student said, “It makes me think about whether my own intro flows well. Whether I have properly elaborated on my areas of interest.”
Finally, the vast majority of the students (92%) said that the drawing their peer did of their own paper was useful in improving the structure of their paper as they worked on the subsequent draft. One student stated: “It helped me to see my thoughts. Sometimes things I know in my head isn’t clear to everyone else and she was useful in seeing that.” And another student succinctly said: “As they are going into this blind, so if they don’t know what I mean, [then] I need to address this.”
We still share the frustration that many instructors experience when attempting to teach students how to write well. Like many others, we often focus our time and attention on issues of grammar, syntax, APA formatting, and other writing mechanics because, to be blunt, that’s a lot easier to teach than how to structure a cohesive, logical, and flowing argument or synthesis of the literature. Getting our students to understand the necessity of creating such an argument is still difficult and at times infuriating, not only for us but the students, as well. However, we believe that the Mapping a Thesis activity has made our task a bit easier and made us more successful teachers of writing in the process. The flexibility inherent in the assignment has allowed us to use it in ways that best fits with our current goals (evaluations vs. synthesis), the level of the class we’re teaching (intro vs. methods), and at the time of the semester that makes the most sense for that particular course. In fact, it’s an activity that we ourselves have begun using in our own writing as a tool to ensure our arguments flow clearly and logically.
American Psychological Association. (2013). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major: Version 2.0. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/about/psymajor-guidelines.pdf
Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1997). Writing narrative literature reviews. Review of general psychology, 1(3), 311-320.
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