With the end of the semester fast approaching, our students are hunkering down and getting to work on expressing their understanding of material through exams, essays, orals, and other assignments. However, what students don’t always recognize is that when they are writing an essay or presenting an oral they are not only being asked to demonstrate their understanding of the material, they are being asked to do so in a way that is clear and concise. We want our students to communicate their ideas and understanding effectively. An essay that is written in a confused manner suggests that the student has not understood the material, even if this is not the case. So how can we help our students with this process?
Awareness is Key
Talking to our students about communicating clearly is a good way, at the very least, to draw attention to it. Let them know that when you are grading their assignments you are looking to see how clearly they understood the material and how well they supported their arguments. Remind them that this takes both an understanding of the material and the ability to express themselves clearly. This may encourage students to analyze how they approach the assignment and to make changes to areas of difficulty, incorporating an element of metacognition into the task.
A Second Opinion
When your students are writing their essay or preparing their oral, they should take a moment to make sure that it is clear to somebody else who would read it or hear it. This could be a peer, who has some existing knowledge about the topic, or to a friend or family member who may not have any. Even better would be to recommend to students that they show you a draft during your office hours or perhaps to a member of The Learning Centre during drop-in hours.
All About Organization
Another key approach to students successfully communicating their understanding in their assignments is for them to take the time to get their ideas organized before they start writing (a concept map might be a helpful organizer). Let them know that they shouldn’t just try to put down haphazardly all the information they know on the topic. Taking the time before they write to decide the information they want to discuss, and in what order, helps give their assignments a clearer structure and expresses an organized understanding of the material.
Weaker assignments tend to suffer from being too vague in their evidence and explanations. Students are sometimes under the mistaken perception that vaguely referring to some issue or information is enough to say they discussed it in their assignment. Take the time to discuss with your students the importance of being explicit in exactly what they are trying to say or prove. You can remind them that if they aren’t explicit about what they mean to say you might make assumptions about what they mean, and not always in their favour.
For more information on helping our students communicate their ideas clearly please see the Teaching Tip: Communication Skills in Your Discipline or contact us at the PDO!