How to Make Your Students’ Writing Matter—to Them and to You

By Chrissine Rios, MA, Kaplan University Writing Center

Academic writing doesn’t come naturally to most new college students.

(c) Writing formally can be like wearing stiff new shoes to a special occasion: uncomfortable if not also painful; the shoes demand more attention than the purpose of the occasion, and once it’s over, the shoes go back in the box. Not only do the expectations of academic style feel rigid, they can also seem prescriptive with the standards, rules, and criteria for grading. It’s no wonder that when students revise, they only concern themselves with presentation—making superficial corrections in spelling, mechanics, and usage. Students cling to the assignment rubric to determine the paper’s completeness and submit it to the Writing Center hoping the tutor who reads it finds nothing wrong.

Writing Center tutors are skilled academic readers, accustomed to providing revision suggestions on first drafts, and some make a good first impression—APA formatted title page, clear intro and thesis, no intrusive grammar errors, yet after reading to the end, the tutor goes to respond and has to scroll back to the title page and introduction to remember what the paper was about. The student never took her new shoes out of the box or did more than try them on, and so begins the work of the writing tutor: help the student re-see her draft, so she rewrites it with more audience awareness, focus on the dominant idea, structure, information, and voice. No simple task for either the tutor or the student.

“Most beginning writers refuse to rewrite,” explains acclaimed journalist and writing teacher, Donald Murray (2013). “Writing is always an act of self-exposure,” says Murray; “When we finish a draft, all writers feel vulnerable,” and since students are also writing to have their knowledge tested, “Any suggestion for a change in a draft is a personal insult” (p. 2). An Aha! moment can quickly turn to dread: “Now I’m going to have to rewrite my whole paper!” said my student while I was helping her paraphrase. She sounded defeated, and kind of angry with me. But this, again, is part of the my work as an academic writing tutor, helping students write beyond the assignment, to let go of correctness, and understand what Murray (2013) calls “the secret of our craft. Writing is rewriting” (p. 2).

When students are writing in the disciplines, and the writing process isn’t built into the curriculum as it is in a composition course, instructors can and should enlighten students in the art of revision and allow time for it.

reading laptop copyRevising is not the end of the writing process but the beginning (Murray, 2013)—it’s when writers re-see the entire draft and make decisions about focus, audience, form, structure, and language—the concerns that help writers discover what they didn’t know they knew and communicate it to the reader in a way that makes sense and matters. A revision worksheet or checklist can help. If you provide one to your students, does it include some or all of the following?

Assignment (The writing prompt, expectations, and guidelines): Does the writing fully address the requirements of the assignment?

Purpose (To inform, persuade, instruct, report, critique, compare/contrast, inspire, reflect . . .): Is the purpose of the writing clear and consistent throughout the writing?

Focus (Similar to photography—where the emphasis is, the dominant idea, clarity): Is the focus of the writing clear? Is it on one main idea?

Structure (The order of ideas, organization): Will the sequence of ideas make sense to a reader? Would any ideas raise questions that go unaddressed? (Why? Who cares? Who says? How so? What do you mean?)

Development (How the structural skeleton is fleshed out with information—content, context, research, specific details, illustrations, facts, examples, evidence, explanations): Are the ideas in the writing developed with enough information to sound authoritative, relevant, convincing, and clear?

Voice (The words, collocations, and patterns of language that project the persona and style of the writer and the formality or informality of the writing occasion): When reading the draft aloud, I sound _______________ (matter-of-fact, persuasive, light-hearted, folksy, logical and measured, sarcastic, impassioned, preachy, humorous, confident, unsure, surprised, honest, like me!). Is my voice appropriate for the subject matter and my purpose? Will it appeal to an academic audience?

Language (The use of rhetorical and literary devices: alliteration, anecdote, metaphor, analogy, assertion, authority, allusion, figurative language . . .): Are the rhetorical strategies and/or literary devices in the writing effective? Do they serve the purpose of the writing? Advance the argument? Clarify the focus? Ground ideas in logic? Reveal your integrity as a writer and researcher? Engage the reader?

That last one, language, could be part of “development” or “voice” too, and you may have your own way of defining other or all of the above ideas. Terrific! Your students would love to hear them. If you don’t yet provide a revision guide to your students writing academic papers, I invite you to develop one from my list and adapt it accordingly. It may make all the difference in helping make your students’ writing matter more, to them and to you!


Murray, D. M. (2013). The craft of revision, fifth anniversary edition. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from

The Extra Mile

Kyle Harley, Kaplan University Tutor

In recent weeks, more than one conversation on the topic of compassion surfaced among tutors and, oddly enough, I am very fortunate in that I simply listened. Now, I fully understand that this comment is absolutely groundbreaking and will forever change your day in so few words, but, levity aside, how often do we really trek down that “extra mile” to better understand our students’ concerns? If only to be the proverbial shoulder for a few minutes’ time, I think we can all benefit from a trip down Humble Lane, and my voyage began with a student who certainly needed the few minutes of humanity that sometimes avoid us entirely.

I wish I had a long and detailed narrative to accompany this experience, but the student was unable to grasp the assignment instructions in their original format. Never have I felt so poorly as an academic than at that moment; likewise, never did I feel more of a responsibility to put myself in her shoes and take a few steps, if only for a second. The assignment itself was not to blame—nor the professor, which I find myself excited to admit. Instead, the problem here, and I am not so sure that it is so much of a problem as it is a simple oversight, reverts back to our distance and lack of a physical presence in front of students. The primary concern of this student stemmed from not feeling comfortable enough in the online classroom setting to pose the question, and, as I am roughly paraphrasing, speak confidently with the professor regarding said concern. So I began to wonder.

Like in a face-to-face setting, we interact with many different individuals, and I stress the term individuals for a reason, which becomes even more complicated with the great services that we provide; but that comes with a bit of fine print—right?

Both fortunately and unfortunately, we do not physically see these students’ emotions when their faces curl up in confusion regarding an assignment, a grade they do not agree with, or even a term we use in seminar that sounds more akin to a foreign language than our own. We simply do not have that consistency; unless, of course, all parties partake in the technology available, but again we cannot presuppose our students’ technology, again, due to distance.

That said, are we truly that unfortunate? As experts in this cacophony that we term as the Internet, I think it is becoming more of our responsibility to try and find that comfortable ground to help students actualize their goals. Sometimes, despite our wanting to do so, this includes rephrasing an entire assignment, on one’s own time, to better assist our students. To put the matter into context, think of it this way: Some assembly required. We all love to read that, right? Well our students’ needs sometimes take on an added clause, and maybe asking just a few more questions would open their minds up enough to feel comfortable in this online learning environment we have created. Surely the convenience of being primarily online comes with the added perks, so my challenge to all those teaching in this e-world of ours remains simple: Go that extra mile. Corny as it may well be, at the end of the day, just hearing the person’s voice change from absolute distress to a happy and content student justifies our work—and I think we all could use a but of sunshine during what appears to be the second ice age. Be the warming presence that our students will return to.



Professor Complaints in the Tutoring Center

Molly Wright Starkweather, Kaplan University Tutor

As a writing center tutor, I sometimes see students come in for help with a chip on their shoulder. They feel wronged, whether in the wording of an assignment or with an accusation of plagiarism. They might identify their tutoring need as “help me with my APA,” but what they are really in search of is a sounding board to air their grievances. They might not even realize this unconscious ulterior motive, which reveals itself early on in the tutoring session, giving tutors the opportunity to choose one (or more) of several tutor-tried-and-true ways to get the session back on track:


  1. Draw a firm line. Some tutors will hear a student stray into professor-bashing and will allow only two “characters” in setting the agenda for the tutoring session, and those are the student and the writing task at hand. If a student has a complaint about the professor, then the tutor immediately says, “What does this have to do with what we are here for right now?” This is a firm stance to take, but it can be very effective.
  2. Set a time limit before moving on. Some tutors will allow a student to vent, but only for an allotted time before asking to see the writing or asking to see the assignment or asking the student what his or her favorite color is—anything to establish that the time for the airing of grievances is over.
  3. Head the complaints off at the pass with questions. Tutors often get into a good zone where we have a set list of questions we can ask a student to paint the picture of the writing situation. If a student starts talking about the fact that the paper is supposed to be informative but then complains that the professor plays favorites in class, interject with “So what is the word count?” or “How many sources are required?” or any other of our default questions. If the student seems set on complaining about the professor during time meant for improving writing, consider the first or second items on this list before moving on to the fourth.
  4. Refer the student’s complaints to the appropriate entity. Sometimes a student is actually seeking a resolution to his or her complaint and is not sure where or how to go about it. Sometimes what sounds like venting or complaining is actually communicating a concern about the student’s educational experience. Here at Kaplan, we are fortunate enough to be able to suggest the student reach out to the professor with those concerns and, if that attempt at communication does not work, we can refer the student to his or her academic advisor to handle the situation.

No matter what, it is important to never take sides. When it comes to our students, everyone is on the same side; we all want the students to critically engage with the topic at hand and demonstrate a mastery of skills, and we all want to do what we can to support that student in the process.



Winter Reading for Online Faculty

The Four Agreements: A Toltec Wisdom Book by Don Miguel Ruiz ( 138 pages)

Reviewed by Amy Sexton, Writing Center Tutor, Kaplan University Writing Center

Who should read this book?   Ruiz deems his book “A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom”, and while readers may not attain personal freedom from this little book, the four agreements are simple, easy- to- remember mantras that educators and others in helping careers may find especially helpful. Committing to the four agreements may also help those who have self-image issues or are struggling with relationships in their lives.
Summary:     Drawing on the ancient knowledge and wisdom of the Toltec culture, Ruiz suggests that we should make the following four important agreements with ourselves in order to live our best lives:

Be impeccable with your word.

Don’t take anything personally.

Don’t make assumptions

Always do your best.

Ruiz posits that being impeccable with our word will help us avoid gossip, which he describes as toxic. Similarly, we can avoid others’ emotional poison by refusing to take anything personally.   We all make assumptions about ourselves and others, and controlling them, Ruiz suggests, will keep us from having unrealistic expectations that can also result in emotional turmoil. Finally, if we strive to always do our best, then our best will always be enough.

Why I Picked This Book: I first read The Four Agreements around eight years ago, which was also when I began working in online education. Over the years, I have often remembered Ruiz’s advice to take nothing personally and found it helpful when dealing with miscommunication and other issues that sometimes occur in distance learning.   Ruiz also provides examples in his book that instructors can relate to.  For example, when explaining why gossip is toxic, he describes a current student who hears from a former student that the instructor of the course is horrible. The current student, if he or she believes the former one, will begin the course with a preconceived notion of the professor that may or may not be accurate but will still result in the student’s experience being altered.

Favorite quotes from the book:   “Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves.”

“The world is very beautiful and very wonderful. Life can be very easy when love is your way of life.   You can be loving all the time.   This is your choice. You may not have a reason to love, but you can love because to love makes you happy. Love in action only produces happiness. Love will give you inner peace. It will change your perception of everything.”

Inductive vs. Deductive Writing

Dr. Tamara Fudge, Kaplan University professor in the School of Business and IT

There are several ways to present information when writing, including those that employ inductive and deductive reasoning. The difference can be stated simply:

  • Inductive reasoning presents facts and then wraps them up with a conclusion.
  • Deductive reasoning presents a thesis statement and then provides supportive facts or examples.

Which should the writer use? It depends on content, the intended audience, and your overall purpose.

If you want your audience to discover new things with you, then inductive writing might make sense.   Here is n example:

My dog Max wants to chase every non-human living creature he sees, whether it is the cats in the house or rabbits and squirrels in the backyard. Sources indicate that this is a behavior typical of Jack Russell terriers. While Max is a mixed breed dog, he is approximately the same size and has many of the typical markings of a Jack Russell. From these facts along with his behaviors, we surmise that Max is indeed at least part Jack Russell terrier.

Within that short paragraph, you learned about Max’s manners and a little about what he might look like, and then the concluding sentence connected these ideas together. This kind of writing often keeps the reader’s attention, as he or she must read all the pieces of the puzzle before they are connected.

Purposes for this kind of writing include creative writing and perhaps some persuasive essays, although much academic work is done in deductive form.

If your audience is not likely going to read the entire written piece, then deductive reasoning might make more sense, as the reader can look for what he or she wants by quickly scanning first sentences of each paragraph. Here is an example:

My backyard is in dire need of cleaning and new landscaping. The Kentucky bluegrass that was planted there five years ago has been all but replaced by Creeping Charlie, a particularly invasive weed. The stone steps leading to the house are in some disrepair, and there are some slats missing from the fence. Perennials were planted three years ago, but the moles and rabbits destroyed many of the bulbs, so we no longer have flowers in the spring.

The reader knows from the very first sentence that the backyard is a mess! This paragraph could have ended with a clarifying conclusion sentence; while it might be considered redundant to do so, the scientific community tends to work through deductive reasoning by providing (1) a premise or argument – which could also be called a thesis statement, (2) then evidence to support the premise, and (3) finally the conclusion.

Purposes for this kind of writing include business letters and project documents, where the client is more likely to skim the work for generalities or to hunt for only the parts that are important to him or her. Again, scientific writing tends to follow this format as well, and research papers greatly benefit from deductive writing.

Whether one method or another is chosen, there are some other important considerations. First, it is important that the facts/evidence be true. Perform research carefully and from appropriate sources; make sure ideas are cited properly. You might need to avoid absolute words such as “always,” “never,” and “only,” because they exclude any anomalies. Try not to write questions: the writer’s job is to provide answers instead. Lastly, avoid quotes in thesis statements or conclusions, because they are not your own words – and thus undermine your authority as the paper writer.


Your Students are 13 Minutes Away From Avoiding Plagiarism

By Chrissine Rios, MA, Kaplan University Writing Center

Avoiding plagiarism begins with knowing how to quote, paraphrase, summarize, and cite sources. Knowing the university plagiarism policy can help too, for it will typically clarify the stickier matters of unintentional plagiarism and self-plagiarism. Faculty and students should re-visit the school policy from time to time, in fact. The definition of plagiarism is not universal. It can also change. In 2014, Kaplan University changed its Plagiarism Policy to the Academic Integrity Policy. As a result, the KU Writing Center has been updating the plagiarism and citation resources with the new wording to ensure faculty and students have the most current and reliable information.

One resource was especially important to update: “Avoiding Plagiarism: An Interactive Self-Assessment.” This one video tutorial had nearly 6000 hits last year. At just over 13 minutes long, the tutorial features nine college writing situations where plagiarism may be occurring. Each scenario is followed by a quiz to help students determine their current understanding of plagiarism and learn why, when, and how to cite sources, even in PowerPoint presentations and rough drafts. The tutorial also highlights key excerpts of the Academic Integrity Policy, links to the newly updated Basic Citation Guidelines resource, and ends with a hotspot that opens the Writing Center homepage, so it provides quality instruction, key information, and access to immediate and additional support in one short video.

Share it with your students today! Click here:

(c) Kaplan University Writing Center

Avoiding Plagiarism video: click to open.

Three Common APA Mistakes Students Make

By Amy Sexton, Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor

Learning and using APA Style, or any citation style, can be difficult for students. While there are many areas where students may encounter confusion, in the writing center we often see students repeating the same types of mistakes, and, unfortunately, some of these mistakes tend to look like plagiarism. By understanding some of the most common mistakes students may be making and the misconceptions that may be behind the errors, tutors and teachers can help students learn how to correctly use APA Style and avoid issues with plagiarism in their writing.

  1. Citations and references do not match. – Often students will use one piece of bibliographical information to cite a source in-text and then begin the full reference with a different piece of information. For example, I often see the title of the article, journal, or book cited in the text when the reference, correctly, begins with the author’s last name.   Another very common error occurs when students cite in-text with the URL for the source.   While there may be a number of reasons that students make this type of error, one possible reason is that they are attempting to establish credibility by including the medium in the text of their essays. My advice to students when they make this mistake is to do a careful comparison of their in-text citations and full references to ensure that the information in each citation exactly matches the first word in the reference.   It is also usually helpful to remind students that APA follows an author-date system to cite in-text and that information like an URL does not indicate the author or the year.
  2. The student includes too much information in references. I often see references with information like the author’s university affiliations, professional titles, and degrees. Similarly, a reference might include information like the number of charts and tables in an article.   There may be a couple reasons that students err by including too much information in references. They may simply be copying all of the bibliographic information from the source and then pasting it on their references page.   Student writers also may be including extra information to show that their sources are credible. In this case, it is helpful to remind students that references generally should have only four key pieces of information: Who, When, What, and Where.
  3. Sometimes students’ work reflects an attempt at APA, but all of the elements may not be present. For example, students may have in-text citations but no references on a references page, or, they may have no in-text citations but complete references. Sometimes, there may be some in-text citations, but not enough. In these cases, there may a couple different misconceptions in play.   Students may not fully understand, for example, that both citations and references are required for successful use of APA. In this case, I find it helpful to remind students that each serve separate and important purposes. Citations indicate what information in the students’ work has been borrowed from other sources and which outside sources the information has been borrowed from. Full references are included so that the reader, if desired, can locate the source that the writer has cited.   Finally, sometimes several passages in the students’ work have obviously been borrowed from outside sources, but there is not sufficient citation.   For example, I typically see only one citation at the end of the paragraph mainly composed of source material.   This may especially occur when students are writing about topics that they may have initially been unfamiliar with; thus they may struggle with citing entire paragraphs of paraphrased material. When I see this issue in students’ writing, I often direct them to a helpful post from the APA Style Blog, Citing Paraphrased Work in APA Style.     In this post, APA Style Expert, Timothy McAdoo (2011) poses the question of what to do when writers need to “ clearly attribute multiple ideas within a paragraph yet maintain a readable and interesting text” (para. 2) and invites readers to share examples in the comments. Several readers share examples that include providing the author’s name in the running text of the essay. Students can review these examples and see how to successfully attribute paraphrased work and, hopefully, avoid insufficient citing.

By knowing some of the common mistakes that students make when learning to use APA and the misconceptions that may be behind those mistakes, tutors and teachers can take a proactive approach to helping students understand the correct use of APA Style and avoid plagiarism.


McAdoo, T. (2011). Citing paraphrased work in APA style.   Retrieved from