Monday, March 21, 2011

Can't, Don't, or Won't?

Not long ago, I heard a presentation by a Writing Expert -- someone (not a professor) who had expertise with teaching writing in academic contexts.

She said that she understands that many professors get frustrated when their students keep making the same mistakes in their writing, but that most people can't learn from their own writing mistakes, even after having the mistakes corrected and explained. It is essentially a learning disability.

The reappearance of the same-old-same-old writing errors, even in consecutive edited drafts, is certainly a phenomenon that frustrates many of us professors. We correct and explain a particular technical error and then expect that we won't see that particular problem again in the next draft, but we do see it.. again and again. Why didn't the student, even one whose native language is English, fix the problem?

Are they lazy or careless? Do they just expect others to fix their writing problems? It is not difficult to find laments such as this in professor-blogs.

But the Writing Expert said that most people can't fix these problems. She said that some can, but most can't. She said "can't", not "won't" or "don't", indicating a lack of ability, not a lack of willingness or attention.

I didn't get a chance to question her on this, so I don't know whether to believe it. Let's assume, at least for a moment, that she's right. Let's assume that there are high-quality, statistically valid, repeatable, controlled experiments that prove that most people are psychobiochemically unable to correct writing errors, even once these errors are corrected and explained, owing to intrinsic nanoneurosynaptic gaps. Or something.

Would knowing that 'they can't help it' help us -- the advisor-editors -- be more understanding when we encounter this frustrating problem? Would it make us -- especially those of us who (like to think that we) don't have this problem -- more likely to be patient when we have to point out (and fix) the same problem again and again?

In my case, probably not. It was interesting to hear this idea, but I am reluctant to embrace the 'they can't help it' explanation. Why can't a person -- one who is capable of understanding complex Science Concepts -- understand the concept of misplaced and dangling modifiers? Is there something special about grammar and spelling as compared to, say, partial differential equations?

Perhaps there is. I certainly realize that writing is a very personal activity, and this accounts for many of the problems we encounter with students and colleagues who are reluctant to write and who lack confidence in their writing. And I realize that learning disabilities are real and exist. But does most of the population have them? And does this also explain why most people are apparently unable to learn how to avoid using a misplaced modifier in their writing?

I don't know, but since I haven't found a brilliant way to help students (and others) help themselves self-correct technical writing mistakes, I would be interested in hearing from students who don't have documented learning disabilities and who know that, at some point, have frustrated their advisors by repeating previously-corrected technical errors in writing.

How did you approach your revisions? Did you focus on content and decide not to worry about the details (perhaps underestimating how much your advisor cared about these things)? Did you not find the previous correction(s) useful in a general way (i.e., you understood the specific correction, but not how that would apply to other, similar examples)? Have any of you received a technical correction and a light bulb went off and you (almost) never made that mistake again? Is there a certain style or type of correction that gets through, whereas others that do not?

Complaining about uneducable students and grammar-fascist advisors can be fun, but I hope that by discussing some examples, perhaps from both students and advisors, we can make some progress in figuring out how to diminish this source of annoyance for both the student-writer and the advisor-editor.


Anonymous said...

what strikes me is that this Expert claims that most people can't learn to correct their writing mistakes.

I'm sure there are people who literally can't, due to learning disabilities.

But this expert is saying most of the college population has this learning disability? I find that odd.

Anonymous said...

A somewhat related question: can someone point to resources for teaching science writing for people with English as a Second Language? Thanks.

mOOm said...

I think language is special knowledge in some sense in that once it is mastered we produce language without really thinking about it. This applies most to speech but presumably also to writing. It's like when learning a foreign language there are some words or grammatical forms that we find hard to learn. You keep seeing this word but find it hard to remember what it is. Eventually, maybe, you learn. And when you learn language incorrectly and finally internalize it I imagine it is hard to then unlearn what you learned with difficulty in the first place.

Allison said...

I have seen this phenomenon in my own writing (I'm a grad student in engineering) and find it frustrating too (although probably not as frustrating as my supervisor finds it). There were (are?) two or three things in my writing that my supervisor comments on every time I submit something - however, the frequency of these things occurring is significantly lower than when I started.

What I found most helpful was that he once made a more general list of comments summarizing this at the end of a paper, rather than only correcting each small occurrence. I turned that into a checklist and try to go through my drafts with it before sending them to him. Some things still slip by, but it's slowly getting internalized.

I'm not sure if this makes a difference, but for the sake of anecdata: they were more stylistic than grammatical issues, and English is my first language.

Anonymous said...

I wish I could answer this question. Sadly, I find it really hard to get anyone to give actual useful criticism of my writing. This is in mathematics, where it sometimes seems fashionable to pretend that paying attention to writing is beneath the research mathematician.

Unknown said...

I think I'm with you on this one, FSP. While I understand there are learning disabilities and some people may have a blockage against this, the vast majority should be able to learn.

Maybe it has to do with thinking of writing in a technical sense instead of an abstract sense. As STEM folks, we're not writing prose and novels but rather systematically describing procedures, results, observations, etc. That should match with our technical side rather than our abstract side. If you're good at what you do, I don't see a major reason why the majority of people couldn't learn. It's like the professors that can't teach but could learn to teach.

Anonymous said...

Maybe when she said "can't learn" what she really meant was "are usually able to improve, but it is difficult and takes both a conscious, focussed effort and many repetitions, and not everyone has the same talent, so many students will never reach expert proficiency, even with considerable effort." Anyway, I suspect that is what she should have said.

I think similar effects must show up for most complex skills, including learning a foreign language (mOOm's example), playing an instrument or playing chess. All are examples of skills attained largely by effortful practice, but all also involve an element of talent. People who have already mastered these complex skills (experts) find it hard to understand where the difficulty lies when others struggle with basic tasks because they underestimate how difficult these tasks are for novices.

The unskilled tend to overestimate their own abilities because they are less able to recognize their own errors -- and because they fail to recognize how poorly they perform, they are perhaps less motivated to improve. At the same time, the skilled tend to underestimate their own abilities relative to others, and are then continually surprised at how incompetent others seem to be -- since they find a given task easy, they erroneously assume it must be easy for others.

This is also known as the Dunning-Kruger effect:

NJA said...

For once, I can comment on the basis of my exact research area - psycholinguistics and cognitive neuroscience.

There is no research to suggest that there is any psycho-socio-bio-neuro-(etc.)-logical reason why people can't learn from their own linguistic errors. In fact, it's patent nonsense to suggest that humans can't correct their own tendency to err linguistically - if this were the case, infants would never get past the one-word-utterance stage.

Writing or speaking coherently is a skill, pure and simple, developed on the basis of linguistic error feedback. Error feedback can either work implicitly (unconsciously amending language production according to what is read and heard) or explicitly (consciously monitoring and attending to errors as they arise).

Good writers are good writers because (1) they read a lot, which provides lots of good-quality raw material to shape writing style, and (2) they tend to have better implicit errors feedback mechanisms, which means they can learn with less effort.

Poor writers - assuming they don't have any wider learning disabilities - are poor writers because (1) they don't read much, and so don't have a cumulative corpus of good-quality writing to learn from, and/or (b) they tend to have poor implicit error feedback mechanisms, and so would have to rely on explicit feedback strategies to a greater extent.

Explicit feedback is hard work, but if students pay enough attention while they're writing and prospectively remember not to make the same errors in language output, then they will learn not to make those errors.

So... from an empirical perspective, the best thing an advisor can do for students who writes poorly is to encourage them to read LOTS - not just scientific articles, but novels, newspapers, blogs, anything with multi-clause sentences - and by lots, I mean several hours a day. The next thing is to encourage students to eliminate one error at a time - making sure they understand why it's an error - so they learn how to monitor their writing.

From a person perspective, it's slow and painful, but it does seem to work...

Anonymous said...

I would say, yes, understanding grammar is distinctly different from, say, differential equations. The best evidence is probably extreme case studies, such as people with aphasia. There you have individuals who simply cannot produce coherent language, or understand it, but are otherwise normally functioning. If that can't convince you that we are neurologically wired in such a way that speech/language production is a separate construct that can be impaired without general impairment across the board (e.g. in "scientific understanding") then I don't know what will. Less extreme example would of course be persons suffering from dyslexia or similar learning disabilities.

Now, I would still, as you do, question whether this apply to "most" students. Seem a bit broad to me. A more plausible explanation is lacking prior education, so that students simply cannot understand why a certain error they commit often is actually an error.

Anonymous said...

I have heard a similar claim from a Writing Expert, with the added point that students often can spot the same error they made when the writing sample is from another student. Said Expert posited that the inherently personal nature of one's own prose effectively blocked many critical analysis functions.

The pedagogical strategy suggested was to let students find these types of errors in a sample text and encourage them to consider which errors they might be perpetuating themselves.....with the caveat that for many students this was a long road.

I find the idea a little tough to swallow, but admit I have no good alternative to propose.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I don't know about "learning disability", but I do know that writing good sentences is a difficult skill. And it is one that can only be mastered with massive amounts of practice. My experience has been that people who can write a decent sentence can be taught to write good paragraphs and longer pieces, but that if you haven't learned to write a good sentence by the time you graduate college, it ain't gonna happen.

Anonymous said...

I think this is case of old habits die hard. When you're writing a substantial amount, you just kind of get into the writing flow (as best as you can), bad habits and all, and then try and go back and fix your errors, which you may not catch all of.

When my advisor makes a correction to a manuscript, you can bet it's changed in the next version- I do not understand students who do not make the changes the advisor suggests (especially grammatical ones). it seems like a waste of your advisor's time and strikes me as rude. If a suggested change does not make sense, or they make a general suggestion and I'm stumped on how to address the problem, I ask my advisor for help/clarification before giving him/her the next draft.

As for specific grammar issues the reoccur- I know I have a few. I keep my eye out for them when I do my own revisions, and I try to correct as many as I can. I feel like I am getting better (though you'd have to ask my advisor if that's true), but some definitely do slip through despite my best efforts.

Anonymous said...

I know since I started grad school in June that I have frustrated my advisor on numerous occasions by making technical mistakes. As a first year PhD student who is already doing research / working on papers, I do not always have the technical knowledge to really understand the difference between what I had written and what my advisor said was correct. I have improved a lot over the past couple months, so I am certainly able to improve. But I know my advisor was getting frustrated with (too him) making the same corrections multiple times.

Anonymous said...

Why, for example, do you continue to hyphenate words incorrectly (e.g., previously-corrected technical)

Epiphron said...

Personally, I try to have someone who is very good at grammar review anything before my adviser sees it. Fortunately, my girlfriend is a grammar wizard and she has been patient with my bad (horrible?) grammar and will go through my drafts and correct the grammar with me.

The basic idea is that I want my adviser to concentrate on the science, not on my grammar, so by removing as many errors as possible, he is free to look at more interesting things.

Sharon said...

I can believe "it's hard to learn to" but I can't believe "can't." Through the years many of my students have learned to fix their writing mistakes. My writing has improved in the past 20 years through feedback. Some things I suggest to students:
1. Search. If you always confuse since and because, search for every instance of both.
2. If a grammar issue keeps coming up, read through just for that. Read through your paper only thinking about tense and whether you're tense switching.
3. Read your paper backwards, sentence by sentence.
4. Switch with a friend who has different grammar issues, and read each other's for grammar feedback.

Flora said...

As a current graduate student, I try to work edits into my writing every time I get them, but I often receive them too late to incorporate into the current piece. Perhaps with a different advisor I would have a more immediate self-reflexivity, but for the moment, the most useful grammar practice for me is the editing work I do on my own students' papers. Because I am reluctant to take off points without being able to validate it (and because of incredibly grammatically inept students this year), I have taken the time to review the actual rules of writing and grammar, and as a byproduct even see them applied to my own writing.

Whether from this experience, or from timely edits I receive from others, the key is simply making myself aware, and then making those corrections time after time. After the 4th time it seems to come a bit naturally, and after the 10th (estimates, obviously) it is actually a part of my writing. It is, admittedly, rare for me to get to that 10th point. Luckily I have a thesis to edit!

Anonymous said...

I am guilty of the effect/affect error- but it took me a long time to realize this was a general problem. My adviser would correct it once, and I would change it once, and the next document would reproduce it, and he would explain that one is a verb, and one is a noun (that didn't help) and other tactics. And then I'd do it again...

I am better about it now, I recognize that if I am tempted to use either word that it should prompt some serious thought about which to use. This is actually very disruptive to my writing process, and hard to force myself to fix on an early draft. I appreciate that in the polished version I want to look as smart/educated as possible, but there is part of my that still rolls my eyes when the boss wants and "rough draft" and then is surprised to find it rife with errors.

Anyhow- in my case, recognizing that I have a general problem, and then using that to trigger some type of solution has helped with this one problem.

Anonymous said...

My writing was pretty bad when I started graduate school. I'd say my improvement was due to two thing: a lot of practice, changing the way I write.

Pointing out errors only went so far. If my process didn't change, I'd end up making similar mistakes. Much of this may seem obvious to expert writers but it is not to novices. Just trying harder or thinking about a particular error didn't work that much.

For example, I am very bad at making and catching typos. Very. I have learned through experience that for whatever reason, I can catch them best if the paper is printed out, I have a pen and I read the sentences out loud slowly. I can't catch them otherwise.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't be surprised if this is the flip side of all those people who "can't" do math because they have psyched themselves out. They believe this is something they are fundamentally incapable of mastering, and therefore don't see any point in trying since they "can't" learn it. They may be annoyed by your continuing attempts to teach these concepts, since there's no hope.

Allison said...

mOOm, what a person writes may, at first, be a product of ingrained incorrect habits, but has the ability to be revised. Language has rules that you learn (or reference) then apply. Even if a person produces grammatically incorrect text as a first draft, any competent person ought to be able to go back over their drafts and correct them. Like many are saying, lack of this revision process seems to point to either real disability or laziness.

neurowoman said...

I know I have difficulty catching errors in my own writing because I read what I meant, rather than what's strictly on the page. Like a psychological 'filling-in' effect. I have to print the text out, and really focus on the grammar and sentence construction. I don't have this problem with other people's writing. Lots of subject-verb agreement problems that occur due to editing. I literally have to read like a copy editor without considering the content, which is very difficult because my mind wanders into the topic! I think students need to be taught to do this, and they 'fail' to learn because they don't.

Edie W said...

Very interesting--I wish I could have heard the presentation. I, too, am skeptical about the idea that students "can't" learn from corrections, although it does seem very possible to me that students would have a lot of difficulty learning from corrections (even repeated ones) without an explicit explanation of why the original was incorrect and why the corrected version is correct. Lots of psychological research indicates that people aren't as good at inferring a general rule from examples as we might think. I think that when I was a student I learned to correct writing issues much more quickly if my advisor told me why what I was doing was wrong. However, I think this is sometimes difficult for instructors--we usually get no training in how to teach writing, and certain things just "feel wrong" to us without us being able to clearly articulate what the problem is or state clear rule for how to avoid it in the future. So maybe when we think we are explaining, we aren't, at least some of the time.

I think that certain ways of offering feedback may lessen the chances that students will learn an enduring rule. For example, if the advisor makes changes directly in the document (e.g., by using Track Changes in MS Word), the student might simply go through and accept the changes without fully processing or thinking through why those changes were made.

Also, I think it sometimes can be difficult to know which changes are a general "rule" that will apply to all writing versus which changes are personal preferences of the particular reader. For example, I loathe the word 'utilize' (or even worse, 'utilization'), and will suggest (or insist) that my students remove it from their work, but other readers would not feel the same way.

Anonymous said...

can someone point to resources for teaching science writing for people with English as a Second Language?

Thomas Huckin, Lesley Olsen
Technical Writing and Professional Communication for Non-Native Speakers

I wrote a much longer comment, but Blogger threw it away. Blogger has done that a lot lately—maybe FSP should switch to a more reliable platform.

Anonymous said...

One of my high school English teachers required us to turn in lists of corrections along with our revised drafts. For each mistake she marked in our rough drafts, we were supposed to write out the original sentence, write out the rule it had broken*, and rewrite the sentence correctly. Making this list of corrections forced us to acknowledge and fix the mistakes in our papers instead of just turning in copies of the unchanged rough drafts. (As a bonus, the fact that writing out these corrections was time-consuming and annoying encouraged students to spend more time checking their first drafts for grammar mistakes before turning them in.)

My grammar is usually good, but I've been trying to improve some other aspects of my writing style. Like Allison, I've found it helpful to make a checklist to use while editing. In addition to listing problems to look for, I like to include possible solutions or explanations of rules I sometimes have trouble with. I tend to overuse "therefore" or "however," so my editing checklist has a reminder to search for those words lists of alternative transitional words and phrases. Having some possible solutions at hand makes the editing process quicker and easier for me.

* Mistakes in our drafts would just be marked with numbers; we were given numbered lists of various style and grammar rules so we could look up the meanings of the numbers.

Applied Physics Prof said...

@Anon at 07:36

Why, for example, do you continue to hyphenate words incorrectly (e.g., previously-corrected technical)

I am afraid you are wrong here. FSP is correctly using hyphenation between an adverb and a verb and creating a compound adjective. Hyphenation would be incorrect if the sentence read "Something that was previously corrected" but is correct when talking about a "previously-corrected something".

Anonymous said...

As usual, I was too verbose to express my disappointment in a comment, so I did it on my own blog:

Sally said...

I haven't found a way to help my students become better writers, possibly because they ignore my writing advice. But I have found ways to help myself:

1. If I'm trying to decide how best to express a concept, I explain it out loud to my computer screen ("Hal"). If I iterate a few times on my spoken explanation I can usually put something sensible down on paper.

1a. I have noticed that my paper-writing ability improves hugely after I have given a talk about the project. If I spend time sequencing ideas for an oral presentation, I feel much clearer about how best to tell my story.

2. To revise a paper, I read the entire draft aloud. Hearing the words makes it much easier to catch awkward phrasing, bad transitions, tense mismatches, etc.

3. If I'm really stuck, I write the difficult section by hand instead of on the computer. Being much slower at handwriting than typing, I find that using a pen and paper forces me to think slowly and clearly. The resulting text is usually nearly error-free.

3a. Sometimes using a pencil and paper feels less scary than using a computer. With a computer, there's always a feeling that one's writing "counts." With a pencil and scrap paper, one gets the psychological benefit of truly creating a rough draft.

My experiences suggest the following writing tips for students:

-Try writing with a pencil and paper

-If you're having trouble getting your paper started, give a talk (perhaps at your lab group meeting)

-If words elude you, try explaining out loud to your imaginary friend

-To revise, read your entire draft aloud and make corrections as you go.

Anonymous said...

I have witnessed this problem with my graduate students: most repeat the same mistakes, and this drives me nuts. All I can offer to this discussion is my own experience. Being a non-native English speaker, I learned my science in another language but I had to read my science in English because most of the literature is in English. Then I moved to an English speaking country for my PhD, and I can say that I paid a lot of attention to the corrections my adviser and others made on all of the documents I wrote (abstracts, reports, thesis chapter, etc.). Because I was actively learning the language at the time, and taking ESL night classes, I was extra sensitive about language and was making a real effort to "get it right". So in my admittedly narrow view, I see this problem as a lack of effort on the part of my students, a won't rather than a can't.

Looking at the other side of the issue, I should say that I have always been interested in language, starting with my native tongue, the sound, cadence, and aesthetics of it. So perhaps I had a natural inclination to learn English properly and to retain idiomatic forms even when they were not intuitive to me. I made lots of mistakes initially but I feel that by the time I wrote my doctoral thesis, I had integrated most of the corrections made on my writing, and I certainly did not make the same mistakes twice.

So just because I could, perhaps it is unfair of me to expect my students to learn to not repeat mistakes. When I review papers by authors from my native country, I feel for them because I understand why they are making mistakes. These people have read many papers in English and have extensive writing experience, but they still make silly mistakes. I am understanding and compassionate, and I offer advice, even if I see them repeating the same mistakes. Should I treat my native grad students the same way, if indeed they have an incapacity to learn, which is so engrained (like a foreign language) that it is immutable?

Anonymous said...

what if your mentor is a horrible writer in your opinion? what if he is the type of person who favors sentences that run at least 4-5 lines and make no sense, and tries to change your writing to follow this style? Or even worse, what if he is the type of person who will suggest a change which you then accept dutifully only to change it back in the next draft?

Anonymous said...

I will comment here instead of on cherish's blog, where she wrote about her disappointment. Perhaps if she had read the post more carefully (note: I am NOT trying to make a joke or insensitive comment about learning disabilities here), she would see that the post is NOT about people with learning disabilities. In fact, the post specifically states that and recognizes that LDs are real. Yes, there is a spectrum, but the post is about the extreme statement that MOST people can't correct their own writing errors even after having them pointed out and explained (perhaps more than once). The post discusses that statement and says that it is difficult to believe that most people have that type of learning disability. Is the only way to be "sensitive" to LDs to say that most people have them?

Anonymous said...

Anon at 7:25 said:
"When my advisor makes a correction to a manuscript, you can bet it's changed in the next version- I do not understand students who do not make the changes the advisor suggests (especially grammatical ones). "

There's a couple of reasons.

1) You're getting feedback from many parties and you might choose to follow another person's advice in some cases.
2) You disagree with your adviser's suggestion (or in the case of grammar know for a fact that it is wrong).
3) You know your adviser is the type to constantly change his/her mind about this type of "error" so you know if you change it you'll have to change it right back tomorrow. :p

GMP said...

We recently had a nice discussion about people's technical writing pet peeves here and a follow-up here.

While I agree that there may be learning disabilities involved, or simple oversights when editing, most often I find that, when a student repeatedly fails to incorporate the required corrections or repeats previously corrected mistakes, it's because the student is stubborn, thinks he/she knows best, and does not want to listen. There are a lot of big egos among students (yes, I know, professors are notorious egomaniacs), and the situation can be quite bad if the student feels he/she is always right because he/she is a native speaker and the advisor is not.

I had a student who would insist on a detached yet flowery, completely inappropriate style, with a heavy use of passive voice and richly decorated nouns (i.e. described by multiple adjectives). We had a discussion about these issues at every revision of every paper; still, whenever a new paper needed to be written, the adjective diarrhea was back. My comments were never internalized, I often had to make the same comments multiple times, and the paper writing/editing process was quite long painful for both of us. I was really relieved when the student graduated, as I no longer have to go through the tug of war.

Anonymous said...

People won't make an effort if they don't think it's important. If the advisor were to start cutting their grad students' pay for every instance of the same grammatical mistake, I'm pretty certain everyone would become Writing Experts in no time.

Sisyphus said...

How much time has passed between the first (corrected by the prof) and the second instance of writing with mistakes? I notice that my students don't remember what I told them to watch out for from one essay to the next, but that sometimes reminding them to look over my comments on the first paper before turning in the second can help. (Sometimes. Then it becomes more of a don't or won't problem.)

Also I had heard a different version of what Edie W said about writing and research studies:

Lots of psychological research indicates that people aren't as good at inferring a general rule from examples as we might think. I think that when I was a student I learned to correct writing issues much more quickly if my advisor told me why what I was doing was wrong.

What I have been told is that students are for the most part incapable of going from a grammar worksheet and set of rules, where the examples are nicely laid out and the instructions say to "find the X type of error," to recognizing and catching that same error "in the wild" in their own papers. But that's different from being incapable of learning from their own writing mistakes.

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating, and the thread has a lot of good ideas on how to improve writing.

I'm in literature, and I teach foreign languages, composition, and so on. I can do math, too.

It isn't "can't," it's "won't realistically become good at this on the second try, will need more tries."

I don't believe these Experts.

DanB said...

There's anecdotal, medical, and statistical evidence to suggest that smarter people are more likely to have LDs than the general population. In my own experience (dysgraphia and mild dyslexia, albeit not officially diagnosed) it makes sense: When it comes to writing, I feel like I'm doing in software what other people are doing in hardware. That means I'm a very poor note-taker, because I have to take too much attention away from what's being said in order to write it down. Yet I was able to get by in school using other abilities. It's possible that the hardware part(s) of my brain that would normally have helped to make writing more automatic have instead helped to strengthen other cognitive functions.

I'm a software engineer, and a very good one at that. Yet even after a quarter-century, there are parts of computer programming that confuse me. Take the Perl language (Please! My 12YO son said it "looks like the programmer simply banged his head on the keyboard.") I can't immediately differentiate among the @, &, $, and % characters and their semantics in that language, even after some years of using it. I can tell you how they're different, but that's not the same thing as being able to use them correctly in practice.

My own English writing abilities haven't suffered much from whatever undiagnosed LDs I have. Yet I can sympathize with people whose LDs manifest in different ways. Hence I want to lend my support, however insubstantial, to the claim that many, perhaps even most of your students can't fix their writing -- at least not without taking significant time and cognitive attention away from their primary tasks.

Anonymous said...

I've come a bit late to this. An important distinction is between the idea that people can't improve and the idea that it takes some people longer to improve than others. I have mild dyslexia which means I have always struggled with writing, particularly spelling. However my spelling has not remained static, it improves all the time. I very much doubt there is anyone no matter how badly learning disabled who cannot improve at all.

Ms.PhD said...

In my experience, students who want to improve their writing will improve with help and encouragement. I agree with the person who said practicing on examples from other people's writing can often help one see mistakes in one's own writing. There are good books available for biomedical writing (see Mimi Zeiger's workbook for example) that incorporate this kind of practice. But students have to be willing to make time to do this. I agree that it is much more instructive to outline common mistakes and highlight examples, rather than to just correct a draft without discussing the reasoning for the various changes.

Too many advisors do not know how, nor do they want to, teach writing at all. They often leave it until the end of the project, and then give up on the first draft and rewrite the paper themselves. Then the student feels defeated and doesn't want to bother trying.

I'm of the opinion that good writing requires 1. time, 2. time away to gain perspective, and 3. revision. Lots of revision. For students, even more time is required. And patience!

Of course I also think science students should be required to take more liberal arts courses in college, but I may be in the minority in that respect. And there are probably plenty of people who hate my writing! I care a lot more about getting the point across clearly than about whether I followed every rule of grammar exactly correctly. =p

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Credentials: I taught technical writing for 14 years and still provide a lot of feedback to students on senior theses (that they are being advised on by other faculty) and grad work.

The Huckin and Olsen book is the best I've found both for native and nonnative speakers. The chapters on focus and flow are excellent, as are the ones on the use of definite and indefinite articles.

Of course, the students who need
it most are least likely to actually open the book.

Some students see a correction and immediately look for all other
instances in the paper. Other students treat professors as unpaid copy
editors. Still others fail to correct even explicitly marked errors.
I get particularly annoyed at seeing the same error in the same place
in draft after draft---it tells me that the student just doesn't give
a damn.

Part of the problem is that many of the students I've seen lately have
no native language, being somewhat less than literate in 2 or 3 languages.