What obstacles stand between students and success on their assignments? What can faculty do to alleviate those obstacles?

The most valuable and rewarding things we do are also the most challenging. We feel accomplished when hard work pays off, not when we get something for free. When given a writing assignment, our instinct is to find the easiest way to complete it, saving ourselves trouble and avoiding problems. But for writing assignments, that’s a trap—the more troublesome and problematic our response, the more effective and successful an assignment is likely to be. Not all instructors acknowledge that trap, and not all students know to avoid it. But by routinely checking for ways to add complexity and nuance to our thinking, we can become better writers, more successful learners, and more interesting people.

In an effort to set students up for success on their writing assignments, professors Corrine E. Hinton and Catherine Savini provide guidance for how to navigate those assignments, from instructions on reading (and re-reading) the assignment sheet itself to shaping a response to the prompt that is, like I said above, challenging enough to be worthwhile. And really, these authors provide not so much instructions to follow as habits of mind to adopt as we move through our classes.

Savini’s Counterintuitive Prompts

For her part, Savini provides wayfinding guidance that by her own admission at first seems counterintuitive. She argues that, to make a writing assignment easier, students should:

  • look for something troublesome
  • seek out difficulty
  • find problems

We can further simplify these suggestions to the following: If a question can be answered with “yes”, “no”, or a Wikipedia article, that question isn’t worth writing about. On the other hand, if a question is detailed, specific, and complex enough that we have to work to even understand what we’re asking, that question probably deserves attention.

We Already Teach This in Essay Assignments

This idea actually connects back to what many schools teach high-school freshmen about essays. It’s commonly accepted practice to place a thesis statement at the end of an essay’s opening paragraph. But few teachers ever explain why that’s common practice. Most of us convey the rule—grabber in the first sentence, thesis in the last—without also expressing the justification. The opening line of a paper needs to compel readers into it and highlight the topic. Often that is best done through some potentially contentious statement. (That approach is akin to “look for something troublesome.”)

Then, the introductory paragraph provides an overview of the topic to get readers up-to-speed with it just enough to understand the thesis statement. That introduction is necessary because a thesis should be complex, and not everyone knows enough about any given topic to engage that complexity. In other words, the introductory paragraph exists to make readers smart enough to follow the thesis. That means a thesis statement should be sufficiently complex as to necessitate a solid introduction.

Troublesome Knowledge

The idea that we should seek complexity or problems goes against the way most schooling works. We usually give students textbooks that claim to contain everything needed about a particular subject. We often administer tests looking for the correct answer of something already known. Many teachers grade writing as though it’s a cat-and-mouse game, assuming a 100 and counting down from there based on errors the teacher catches. But life isn’t full of pre-solved problems, pre-known answers, or known-effective writing. Instead, we have to improvise, adapt, and create. Those processes, like the process of learning, can be messy.

In 1999, David Perkins introduced the concept of troublesome knowledge—the kinds of things that we struggle to wrap our brains around when we’re introduced to them. Because it is difficult to learn, this kind of knowledge is often very valuable. In essence, it’s knowledge worth knowing because it’s hard to learn. By seeking out that which is difficult to understand, we can challenge ourselves to change how we think and grow in our understanding.

Discourse Communities

Savini also mentions the concept of a discourse community—essentially, a group of people that work toward a shared goal and in some way use writing to do that work. When we become full-fledged members of discourse communities, the way we think changes to align with the norms of the group. Our understanding and perception of the world around us shifts because we look at things through the eyes of a group member. At first, that shift can be troublesome. But that’s why it’s rewarding.

The Role of Discourse Communities

When people work together to achieve a goal, they benefit from a unity of purpose and a shared determination. That kind of collaboration allows people to work more efficiently, knowing that everyone has the same objective. Along the way, such alignment leads to more-efficient communication and alignment of values and beliefs. In short, discourse communities make work more efficient and make thinking more consistent. That’s a good thing.

The Challenge of Discourse Communities

Unfortunately, discourse communities also come with drawbacks. The drawbacks are felt most acutely by beginner students: first- and second-year college students and anyone enrolled in a class outside their major. Because introductory classes work to help students work like members of a specific community—the community of writing scholars, in my case—they challenge students with new troublesome knowledge. In most cases, they present a lot of troublesome knowledge. And when first-year students have to take introductory classes across a variety of disciplines to complete their general-education requirements, those students spend their days swamped with troublesome knowledge from all sides. It can be unsettling. But if students learn to channel that struggle into problematic questions that prompt complex thesis statements, they can use the challenge of troublesome knowledge to their advantage.

Fruitful Questions

The last of Savini’s points I want to highlight is the fruitful question. Like I’ve been saying, challenging things are usually more valuable than easy things. The same goes for questions: If they’re easy to answer, they’re not usually worth asking. Savini specifically warns against yes/no questions. Often called binary questions, these generally lead nowhere because once their answer is clear, simple, and direct. More interesting questions, usually phrased with why or how, prompt an explanation instead of a pat answer. And for students who need to write lengthy papers in response to open-ended assignments, elaborate explanations win over short, pat answers any day. Of particular note, Savini also shows that a brief question can work as a teaser or title. But by modifying the question slightly, a variation can carry a lengthy discussion.

Here’s hoping our semesters—and our assignments—will be full of challenging, troublesome, rewarding ideas and valuable questions.