Journal of Nursing Education

BRIEFS 

Mentoring Students in Writing: "Gourmet Express" Versus "Fast Food Service"

Jeanne Merkle Sorrell, DAEd, RN; Hazel N Brown, EdD, RNC

Abstract

Remember the last time a student stopped by your office for help with writing a paper? Were you tempted to circle the errors hurriedly, telling the student to fix them before bringing the paper back for you to read? The authors refer to the above scenario as the "fast food service" approach to assisting students with writing; the focus is on the quick fix of spelling, punctuation, and grammatical and stylistic errors, in order to produce an appealing and attractive final product. In contrast, the "gourmet express" approach concentrates not only on a quality end product, i.e., a well- written manuscript, but also on the benefits of mentoring students throughout the writing process as they think, analyze, synthesize, and learn. By focusing on the writing process, as well as the final product, faculty not only help students learn to write, but also use the writing process to enhance learning.

The Problem

Students often have difficulty in making the transition between the type of writing required in most of their classes and the writing required for a formal research paper or thesis. Several reasons can be cited to explain this difficulty: limited previous knowledge and experience, poor self-concept related to writing, and lack of mentors in the writing process.

Limited prior knowledge and experience. Often professors assign a paper as a part of course requirements without providing guidance in how to write the paper. After all, shouldn't students have been taught to write long before arriving in the college classroom?

Yet we know that many students have had limited writing experience. They may enter the nursing major having written few formal papers. The result is often a trial-and-error approach in their writing.

Poor self-concept. Many college students have been told and have convinced themselves that they cannot write well. Professors' editorial notations on papers often emphasize negative aspects of the writing and provide little guidance for revision. One student, in examining her graded paper, stated, "There were only two comments on my paper and I got a C."

A nursing colleague stated that the best thing a professor ever said to her regarding her writing was to refute her "I can't write" perception with, "Yes, you can. You have excellent ideas. You just need to get an editor." Today this professor is a prolific author and takes great pleasure in expressing her ideas in writing.

Lack of mentors in the writing process. Most of the writing expected of students, from elementary school to the college cJassroom, is "mechanical" writing: taking notes, filling in blanks, and writing phrases to demonstrate what is known about a subject. Only 3% of writing in American schools is actual composing, where students organize sentences in logically sequenced paragraphs to express complex thoughts (Fulwiler, 1982).

Although nurse educators may assume that students who follow prescribed rules for spelling, grammar, and punctuation will produce good writing, research indicates that this is not the case. Educators often overlook how they learned to write, probably also by trial-and-error. In order to be effective mentors in the writing process, educators must communicate to students those strategies that facilitate the writing process.

Writing as a Process

In recent years, a quiet revolution has taken place in the teaching of writing. Educators in a variety of disciplines are beginning to focus not only on the final written product, but on the process of learning to write.

A new focus for composition emerged after Emig (1971) carried out research describing the process that occurs with writing, concluding that teachers greatly oversimplify the writing process. Researchers now distinguish between a theoretical "knowing what" and a…

Remember the last time a student stopped by your office for help with writing a paper? Were you tempted to circle the errors hurriedly, telling the student to fix them before bringing the paper back for you to read? The authors refer to the above scenario as the "fast food service" approach to assisting students with writing; the focus is on the quick fix of spelling, punctuation, and grammatical and stylistic errors, in order to produce an appealing and attractive final product. In contrast, the "gourmet express" approach concentrates not only on a quality end product, i.e., a well- written manuscript, but also on the benefits of mentoring students throughout the writing process as they think, analyze, synthesize, and learn. By focusing on the writing process, as well as the final product, faculty not only help students learn to write, but also use the writing process to enhance learning.

The Problem

Students often have difficulty in making the transition between the type of writing required in most of their classes and the writing required for a formal research paper or thesis. Several reasons can be cited to explain this difficulty: limited previous knowledge and experience, poor self-concept related to writing, and lack of mentors in the writing process.

Limited prior knowledge and experience. Often professors assign a paper as a part of course requirements without providing guidance in how to write the paper. After all, shouldn't students have been taught to write long before arriving in the college classroom?

Yet we know that many students have had limited writing experience. They may enter the nursing major having written few formal papers. The result is often a trial-and-error approach in their writing.

Poor self-concept. Many college students have been told and have convinced themselves that they cannot write well. Professors' editorial notations on papers often emphasize negative aspects of the writing and provide little guidance for revision. One student, in examining her graded paper, stated, "There were only two comments on my paper and I got a C."

A nursing colleague stated that the best thing a professor ever said to her regarding her writing was to refute her "I can't write" perception with, "Yes, you can. You have excellent ideas. You just need to get an editor." Today this professor is a prolific author and takes great pleasure in expressing her ideas in writing.

Lack of mentors in the writing process. Most of the writing expected of students, from elementary school to the college cJassroom, is "mechanical" writing: taking notes, filling in blanks, and writing phrases to demonstrate what is known about a subject. Only 3% of writing in American schools is actual composing, where students organize sentences in logically sequenced paragraphs to express complex thoughts (Fulwiler, 1982).

Although nurse educators may assume that students who follow prescribed rules for spelling, grammar, and punctuation will produce good writing, research indicates that this is not the case. Educators often overlook how they learned to write, probably also by trial-and-error. In order to be effective mentors in the writing process, educators must communicate to students those strategies that facilitate the writing process.

Writing as a Process

In recent years, a quiet revolution has taken place in the teaching of writing. Educators in a variety of disciplines are beginning to focus not only on the final written product, but on the process of learning to write.

A new focus for composition emerged after Emig (1971) carried out research describing the process that occurs with writing, concluding that teachers greatly oversimplify the writing process. Researchers now distinguish between a theoretical "knowing what" and a "knowing how" competence (Lunsford, 1979), indicating that educators must be knowledgeable about the process of writing, as well as what the final product should be.

Emig (1977) integrated research from fields of biology, physiology, and composition to describe a new theory of the writing process. The writing process is viewed as a cycle of reinforcement and feedback involving hand, eye, and brain, with the act of writing reinforcing and stimulating analytic processes in the left hemisphere of the brain. EnUg1S study led to further research on the process of writing, focusing attention on ways in which the writing process itself helps to clarify thinking (Alien, Bowers, & Diekelmann, 1989; Humes, 1983; Thaiss, 1983).

Strategies for Mentoring Students in the Writing Process

When writing is viewed aa a process, rather than a static product, the mentor's potential influence becomes apparent. Zey (1984, p. 7) defines a mentor as "a person who oversees . . . the development of another person, usually a junior, through teaching, counseling, providing psychological support, protecting, and at times promoting or sponsoring." The transition of a student from novice writer to author may include any or all of these relationships (Hollenbeck, 1983). One ultimate purpose of a mentoring relationship is to help the mentored individual (protégé) grow, to move to a higher level of performance.

An important question for nurse educators is: How can the mentoring relationship be implemented to guide students effectively through the writing process without sacrificing a large amount of faculty time? Three strategies are suggested for accomplishing this goal:

* written guidelines for students,

* writing workshops, and

* writing conferences.

Written Guidelines

In mentoring students in writing a formal paper or thesis, a packet of written guidelines is a necessity. Course guidelines also should include detailed information about the purposeis) and expectations of an assigned paper, and criteria to be used for grading (Sorrell, 1989). When an assignment involves a writing activity that the student may not have experienced before, examples of former exemplary papers may be particularly helpful. Providing explicit guidelines, plus opportunities for students to read examples of previous effective writing, can facilitate understanding of the purposes and expectations of the writing assignment.

Writing Workshops

A writing workshop is an efficient way to present important information about writing to a group of students, ensuring that they have received "basics" about writing, which otherwise might need to be repeated by each individual faculty member. The workshop can be one session or multiple meetings of varying length, designed to meet the individual needs of the group of students and faculty.

An objective of each session should be to help students understand that the process of writing can actually help them think and know what to say. Research has demonstrated that students tend to focus too early in their writing on grammatical structure and the multitude of rules for writing. Placing themselves too soon in the role of "judge," whose critical eye judges each aspect of punctuation, spelling, grammar, and tone, can stifle the creative process (Flowers, 1981).

The format of the writing workshop should provide students with opportunities to learn and practice specific techniques for getting past writers' blocks and gaining control of the writing process. Students may benefit from experimenting with what Flowers (1981) calls the "madman" role in writing. In the madman role, students write about their ideas in a burst of enthusiasm, without judging what is appearing on paper. In this way, they experience the feeling of writing past their writing blocks. One writing technique that many students find helpful is "free writing." In free writing, students write for a specific period of time, perhaps 5 minutes, without stopping to cross out words or correct punctuation. The writing frees the "madman" to put down uncensored ideas. Students often express surprise at how much they can write during such a short time. When preparing to write formal papers, they can use this technique to help them focus their thoughts quickly, rather than staring anxiously at a blank sheet of paper. Some material from the "raw" free writing may be useful in helping to identify ideas of interest that they want to pursue in formal writing.

Other useful techniques to discuss and practice in the writing workshop are "journal writing* and "webbing." Using a journal to record ideas, without critiquing them for substance, correct grammar, or punctuation, encourages students to write regularly and to see that writing can be enjoyable. The journal entries provide a wealth of ideas for future writing projects. If the journals are shared with faculty, they can provide insight into students' ideas and interests for a writing project. Another technique for thinking through ideas on paper is "webbing," in which students draw a diagram of the various ideas they are considering. This technique helps students to identify important relationships between ideas, as well as ideas that, even though interesting, may be irrelevant to the specific aims of the paper.

The workshop is not only effective for presenting students with information to facilitate the writing process, it is also an efficient means for communicating procedures that faculty want students to follow in writing assignments. Faculty may present principles for organizing each section of a research paper, such as the introduction, conceptual framework, review of literature, methods, results, and discussion sections. Guidelines for different editorial styles can be presented, as well as rules of usage, commonly misused words and expressions, and tips on editing and proofreading. Also, faculty may wish to discuss with students how to select and work effectively with a mentor in the writing process.

Writing Conference

The writing conference is an important strategy for mentoring the writing process. Faculty and students need to agree on the purpose of the conferences, what is expected in meeting times, responsibilities of each party, and expectations related to any publication of a final manuscript.

The goal of the first meeting should be to establish a beginning mentor/protégé relationship and to consummate an agreement to work together on the desired project, with a sound understanding of the expectations of each member. Each successive meeting should have a defined goal, with a specified beginning and ending time. The last part of each meeting should involve a review by both mentor and protege of the substance of the meeting, what is to be done before the next meeting, and the time and date for the next meeting.

The student who has good conceptual ideas, but finds writing these ideas a problem, may benefit from bringing a tape recorder to the conferences. Many students who do not express themselves clearly in writing can readily talk about their ideas. In "thinking aloud" with the tape recorder, the student may see new perspectives and relationships (Hollenbeck, 1983). The mentor may then say, Tou said that very well; now listen to your ideas on the tape recorder and write about those ideas you just expressed."

During the conference, faculty should help students become more aware of purpose and audience in their writing. If a student writes to an imaginary colleague, it may help to focus the writing appropriately. Students' peers also can be very helpful in the writing process, and faculty may find that small group writing conferences, where students read aloud their writing to each other and ask for suggestions for improvements, are effective and efficient ways to coach the writing process. An especially important aspect of the writing conference is to communicate to the student the need for revision of multiple drafts, with early revision concentrated on ideas and organization, and later revision attending to details of style, grammar, and punctuation.

Research on Good and Poor Writers

Research has shown striking differences in strategies that good and poor writers use in writing (Walvoord & Smith, 1982X An understanding of these differences can guide nurse educators in mentoring students effectively. Poor writers tend to be easily satisfied with first drafts. When they revise, they think of changing words or crossing out, revising only at the level of single words or sentences. They may try to do everything perfectly on the first draft and get "stuck" on word choices or punctuation that should be ignored until their basic ideas are written down. Also, research indicates that poor writers have little concept of the audience for whom they are writing.

Good writers, on the other hand, have been shown to be less satisfied with first drafts. They revise extensively, concentrating in the early stages on appropriateness of content and clarity of expression, and wait until the final stages of writing to worry about specific word choices and punctuation. Good writer? also shape their writing to meet a specilic purpose and the needs of a specific audience.

Research strongly suggests that the writing of poor writers will improve if faculty can teach them how to act like good writers. Nurse educators can serve as effective mentors to students by capitalizing on this research.

Summary

Is writing a process or a product? Ib be an effective and an efficient mentor in the writing process, the answer must be "Both!" The final written manuscript is important, but the process by which the student learns to produce that manuscript is equally important. A graduate student recently remarked to one of the authors: "How did you learn to write? I don't remember anyone ever talking to me before about how to write. Professors seem to feel I should already know how."

When writing is thought of as a cognitive process, rather than a static product, the benefits to be gained from coaching this process become evident. Many students are hungry for information about becoming better writers. Too often we offer them the "fast food service" approach, concentrating on the appearance of the final product, rather than the potential benefits to be gained in the preparation of the product. It is by mentoring students in both the process and product aspects of writing that nurse educators can realize the satisfaction of moving away from "fast food service" and investing their energies in the "gourmet express" approach, where the emphasis is not only on helping students learn to write, but also helping them use writing to learn.

References

  • Allen, D.G., Bowers, B., & Diekelmann, N. ( 1989). Writing to learn: A reconceptualization of thinking and writing in the curriculum. Journal of Nursing Education, 28, 6-11.
  • Emig, J.A. (1971). The composing processes of twelfth graders. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
  • Emig, J.A. (1977). Hand, eye, brain: Some 'basics* in the writing process. In C. R. Cooper & J. Odell (Eds.), Research on composing: Points of departure. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
  • Flowers, B.S. (1981). Madman, architect, carpenter, judge: Roles and the writing process. Language Arts, 58, 834-836.
  • Fulwiler, T. (1982). Writing: An act of cognition. In C. W. Griffin (Ed. ), Teaching writing in all disciplines. San Francisco: Jos sey- Bass.
  • Hollenbeck, A.R. (1983). Mentorships and learning to write: Reflections on process. In C. Thaiss (Ed.), Writing to learn: Essays,and reflections on writing across the curriculum. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
  • Humes, A. (1983). Research on the composing process. Review of Educational Research, 53, 201-206.
  • Lunsford, A.A. (1979). Cognitive development and the basic writer. College English, 41, 38-46.
  • Sorrell, J.M. (1989). Responding to student writing. Nurse Educator, 14, 24-26.
  • Thaiss, C. (Ed.). (1983). Writing to learn: Essays and reflections on writing across the curriculum. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
  • Walvoord, B.F., & Smith, H.L. (1982). Coaching the process of writing. In C. W. Griffin (Ed. ) Teaching writing in all disciplines. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Zey, M.G. (1984). The mentor connection. Homewood, IL: Dow Jones-Irwin.

10.3928/0148-4834-19910601-13

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