Why — and how — students should be encouraged to ask for help with their writing

By the Writing Across the Curriculum team

Assignments can be daunting, and so can writing. So when science students face writing-heavy assignments – potentially for the first time at university – anxiety can take hold. As instructors, it’s important to know how best to encourage students to seek help with their writing, without implying they need it based on weak performance. Writing anxiety or weaknesses in certain areas are not things to be ashamed of, and writing experts at UBC recently stressed how important it is to remove the negative stigma of seeking help. Even strong writers can improve the quality of their work by developing their process, so we should encourage all students to be proactive in seeking help.

The good news is that excellent help is available! But, at a recent Community of Practice (CoP) meeting organised by coordinators of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program, the participants underlined that a reluctance to seek this help continues to hamper some students’ prospects as writers.

Three top tips emerged. First, including information on how and where students can seek writing help in course syllabi helps to make doing so seem more normal. Second, encouraging students to talk about their writing worries and weaknesses with their peers helps to build confidence in seeking help by underlining that classmates have similar concerns. And third, providing examples of high-quality work can help students understand what they should be aiming for — after all, it’s hard to know if you need to seek help if you don’t know what a great piece of writing looks like.

Integrating peer review into writing classes — perhaps as part of a scaffolded project where students provide feedback to each other on early drafts — can also help students see where their specific strengths and weaknesses lie. Discussing these issues with their peers, rather than in a professor’s office, helps to build empathy, and asking tutors for help in the areas that most need development maximises the possible learning gain.

When it comes to seeking help outside the classroom, most universities have their own writing centres, where tutors work with students to tackle any writing issues they wish to focus on in short, stress-free sessions. For UBC students, it is possible to book free appointments online to talk about their writing concerns with peer tutors. Many of these peer tutors initially accessed the services as students themselves, before deciding to help others in their current roles, so they are able to offer true empathy as well as expertise.

A friendly, understanding face is just what the (writing) doctor ordered, but plucking up the courage to get to that appointment is the key. By implementing the three top tips discussed at the recent CoP meeting, we hope your students will soon come to think of asking for help with their writing as being as normal as asking for directions to get to the writing centre, where they can take their first steps to becoming better writers…