Writing in college-level courses (especially in the STEM fields) is often assigned by asking students to mirror professional scholarly writing. For example, students are often required to compose assignments following the format and style of those we read in the professional literature – a journal article. In other courses, writing may take the form of proposals or literature reviews. Asking students to learn to write this way is immensely useful to inuring them to the thought-process of the discipline they are studying. This kind of modeling encourages critical thinking, precise word use, and command of the field’s vernacular. There is just one problem.
In such classes, students are generally required to write multiple papers on widely varying topics. For example, in an experimental psychology class, students might write separate papers on a perceptual, learning/memory, cognitive, and/or social processes study that they conducted in class. Students are often given feedback on these papers (let’s avoid a conversation about the nature of instructor feedback for now), which they are then expected to read, understand, and then incorporate into the next paper they write, which will often cover an entirely different topic. Transferring comments about the content and writing of one paper does not always easily transfer to a paper on a novel course topic.
If we want students to model our discipline’s writing process, asking students to write this way may be detrimental to the learning objectives we set for our courses. As professionals, when we compose a draft of a manuscript/proposal, we undoubtedly receive feedback from others – coauthors, advisers, peer reviewers, other colleagues – before submitting a final product for publication. Rarely (if ever) are these comments incorporated into a new manuscript that addresses a completely different question or topic. While they may inspire us to begin a new project or paper, they rarely result in abandonment of the entire manuscript. We spend much of our time incorporating these comments towards improving the original manuscript. One technique we can employ as instructors may be to require students to submit multiple drafts of their papers in our courses. Allowing students to write multiple drafts and experience the process of professional scholarly writing (and, therefore, the discipline’s thought process) is an immensely useful tool for teaching both writing and course content to our students, just as it is for our professional development as scholars.
Any course that wants students to learn course content and improve their writing skills will find that requiring multiple drafts of a paper will lead to better student learning outcomes. Personally, I would rather my students write one or two solid papers on fewer topics (incorporating multiple drafts) than three or four mediocre papers on more topics.