Making the Transition from Writing in High School to Writing in College

Three behaviors have over the course of about 40 years come to constitute a significant percentage of who I am—writing, teaching, and cycling.

Of those three, I have received the most formal education in teaching, completing all three of my degrees (BA, MEd, EdD) in education; in many ways, I am self-taught as a writer and a cyclist even though I would argue that I have developed a level of expertise in all three that are comparable.

Recently, I bought my first gravel bicycle and have been making the small but noticeable transition to gravel riding that has forced me to experiment with decades of cycling knowledge built on road and mountain bicycling in order to ride gravel at a level comparable to road cycling (my first and deepest cycling love).

This, I think, is at the core of all of my personas as writer, teacher, and cycling—behaviors that are all journeys and not aspects of my life that I can (or should) finish.

Even though, as I noted above, teaching is my primary career and what I have the most education in, I am perpetually learning to teach; and I count on my students to guide me along that path.

My teacher Self is grounded and guided by critical pedagogy; Paulo Freire‘s concepts of the teacher/student and student/teacher have always resonated with me since I started as a tinkerer in my first days as a high school English teacher and continue to depend on my students by inquiring at regular intervals “Is this working?” and “What can I do better?”

While the primary focus of all my teaching is the student, of all the content I teach, I remain most enamored with and frustrated by teaching writing.

I have now spent about equal amounts of time teaching high school students and first-year college student to write.

During the pandemic, I have also shifted one of my assignments slightly (from their final portfolio to their final essay)—requiring first-year writing students to submit as their final essay a reflection on what they have learned as writers as well as what they think they need to continue to address moving forward in their college careers.

I have read the first submissions of those reflections (and will blog about those in a week or so), but I also use the last class session to brainstorm on what worked for students in the seminars and what I can do differently (in this case, for spring 2021).

Several students during the brainstorming session requested that I provide some of the key elements of the course—those addressing their transition from high school writing to college writing—earlier.

One of the foundational lessons I learned about teaching, during my years as a high school English teacher, was the need to reduce upfront teacher-led instruction and replace that with students producing authentic artifacts of learning (essays, for example) combined with direct instruction grounded in their writing after the first submission of their work.

The feedback I received this fall suggests I have moderated too far, and thus, I am including below the first draft of a checklist I will provide students on the first day of class this spring, encouraging them to keep this throughout the semester as a focal point as they revisit these lessons and come to understand them better.

Here, then, is my Checklist: Making the Transition from Writing in High School to Writing in College:

Writing Process and Drafting

  • Writing a couple quick drafts the night before an essay is due is not genuinely engaging in the drafting process, and likely will not be effective in college (even if you received high grades in high school for this practice). Last-minute essay writing is behaving as a student (dutifully preparing an assignment as the teacher as required), and not as a writer or scholar.
  • Drafting from an approved, direct thesis (common in high school) may be a less effective writing strategy than other drafting approaches, such as the following: (1) “vomit” drafting (free writing as much as you can to create text you can reorganize and revise) or (2) discovery drafting (writing with a general idea of your topic and focus, but allowing yourself to discover and evolve your topic and focus). One commitment to the drafting process that may be different than when in high school is making the decision to abandon large sections of drafting, or even entire essays. Starting over after a discovery draft is not wasting a draft, but coming to see that writing is a way to better understand even if the text you created is not directly included in the submitted draft.
  • Committing to several days for drafting is necessary, and establishing a routine for revising that focuses on one revision strategy at a time (diction and tone, paragraphing, etc.) is often effective.
  • Reading and using as models published academic and scholarly essays along with public and creative nonfiction essays increases your toolbox as a writer. The symbiotic relationship between reading and writing should become more purposeful during college—notably that the reading and writing are for you and your learning, and not simply to complete an assignment.

Essay Writing

  • A five-paragraph essay with a one-paragraph introduction (and direct thesis), three body paragraphs, and a one-paragraph conclusion that restates the introduction is inadequate in college; the form is simplistic thinking (most topics do not have only 3 points) and writing, and guarantees you will under-develop your discussion. The essay form is far more complex that a template, and your thinking as a college student needs also to rise above reducing all arguments and explanations to a direct statement (thesis) supported by three points.
  • Write to a clear audience (not your teacher or professor), recognizing that academic writing often has a well-informed (expert), specialized audience and that a public audience can range from being poorly informed or misinformed to being highly experienced and knowledgeable (public writing, then, may require you to navigate a much more complex audience than your academic writing).
  • Avoid overstatements, especially in the first sentences of the essay and in the last few sentences. Overstatements include “since the beginning of time” (or suggesting long periods of time such as “throughout history”), “many/most people argue/debate,” and “[topic x] is important [or unique or a hot topic].” See this brilliant parody from The OnionSince The Beginning Of Time, Mankind Has Discussed What It Did On Summer Vacation.
  • Your word choice (diction) creates the tone of your essay; many scholarly/academic topics are serious so take great care that your diction/tone matches the seriousness of your topic. The relationship between your tone and your topic impacts your credibility as a writer. Focus on vivid, active, concrete verbs (instead of forms of “get” and “be”), and take care not to write as you talk, avoiding slang and flippant phrases when examining a serious topic.
  • Always prefer active, vivid, and specific/concrete over vague or general. “Anger” instead of “how he felt”; for example: “John was upset that he couldn’t control his anger” is more effective than “John was upset that he couldn’t control how he felt.”
  • Rethink the essay form and paragraphing not as a set number of sentences but as important and purposeful parts of engaging your reader/audience while establishing your credibility. Your essays should have a multiple-paragraph opening the engages and focuses your reader by being specific and vivid, several body paragraphs with purposeful paragraph lengths (sentence and paragraph length variety are effective), and a multiple-paragraph closing that leaves the reader with specific and vivid language that parallels the opening (framing) but doesn’t simply repeat your initial thoughts.
  • Learn to use the tools available in Word (or other word processors): formatting using menus (and not simply inserting spaces, returns, and tabs to manipulate text), running your essay through the grammar and spell check (be careful not to leave your essay with the colored underlinings when submitting an assignment), and saving your text files purposefully (include your last name and assignment type in the file name) and in an organized way on your computer system (making sure you have a back-up process for all files).
  • Most academic essay writing is built from claims, evidence, and elaboration; however, the types of evidence required varies a great deal in writing among the many disciplines of the academy (history, sociology, economics, physics, etc.). For example, direct quotes are often necessary as evidence when writing a text-based analysis (analyzing a poem or an essay in philosophy), but many disciplines (social sciences and hard sciences) expect evidence that is data or paraphrasing/synthesis of concepts and conclusions from multiple sources at a time (synthesis). When writing a text analysis, quotes are necessary, but your own claims and elaboration should be the majority of the essay, and take great care to integrate quotes with your own words (avoid stand-alone sentences that are quotes only and be careful to limit block quoting).; when writing about topics (not specific texts) or making arguments, you should limit quoting.
  • Academic citation (MLA, APA, etc.) is different among the disciplines (you may not use MLA again after entering college, for example), and expectations for high-quality sources also vary among disciplines. Some fields such as literature and history require older sources, yet social (sociology, psychology, education) and hard (physics, biology, chemistry) sciences tend to prefer only peer-reviewed journal articles from within 5-10 years. Across most of academia, however, journal articles and peer-reviewed publications are preferred to books and public writing.
  • Text formatting impacts your credibility as a writer; set your font preferences to one standard font and size (Times New Roman, 12 pt.) and maintain that formatting throughout a document (only using bold or italics as appropriate for subheads or emphasis), including headers/footers.
  • Always submit essays with vivid and specific titles and your name where required on the document itself.

Another aspect of my class that requires students to thing and behave differently is that I do not grade assignments even though I do assign grades for the course (per university requirements)—what I have characterized as de-grading and delaying grades.

On the last day of class, we discussed what would eventually shape their course grades, and below is something I share to help think about grades assigned in a class where assignments are not graded.

When I think about final grades in a writing-intensive course, here are some guiding principles:

  • A work: Participating by choice in multiple drafts and conferences beyond the minimum requirements; essay form and content that is nuanced, sophisticated, and well developed (typically more narrow than broad); a high level demonstrated for selecting and incorporating source material in a wide variety of citation formats; submitting work as assigned and meeting due dates (except for illness, etc.); attending and participating in class-based discussion, lessons, and workshops; completing assigned and choice reading of course texts and mentor texts in ways that contribute to class discussions and original writing.
  • B work: Submitting drafts and attending conferences as detailed by the minimum requirements; essay form and content that is solid and distinct from high school writing (typically more narrow than broad); a basic college level demonstrated for selecting and incorporating source material in a wide variety of citation formats; submitting work as assigned and meeting most due dates; attending and participating in class-based discussion, lessons, and workshops; completing assigned and choice reading of texts and mentor texts in ways that contribute to class discussions and original writing.

This spring, with the guidance of my fall students, I am going to re-think and experiment with some of my core beliefs as a teacher—when to offer direct instruction and how to navigate the tension between my de-graded courses and the reality of grades in formal schooling.


Advice on Writing, Trish Roberts-Miller