Improve students’ writing—without adding to your grading time

Accounting professors share tips for making students better communicators.

October 13, 2015

We all know that good writing skills will be essential to our students’ success. Employers reinforce the fact that they need good writers every time they visit campus. But it’s hard to teach accounting students to write! Our students typically chose to major in accounting because of a love for numbers—not a passion for language. And, though we may know how to write well (and love doing it), we usually didn’t learn how to teach writing.

Yet, despite these challenges, writing is such an important skill that it is worth the effort to convince our students to become stronger writers. With that in mind, here are five tips for helping students improve their writing without adding significant material or grading time to your classes:

Convince students that writing is an essential part of accounting.

Students may respect our knowledge of accounting and listen carefully to the stories we tell about our experiences in the “real world,” but they seldom believe us when we tell them they will need to write well to be successful.  Since they may not listen to us about this skill, bring a practicing accountant to class to tell them that good writing is important. Find a partner, controller, or recruiter who is passionate about good writing and have him or her share stories of how writing can help or hinder a career. Once students hear this message from a potential employer, they’ll start to think about writing differently.

Invite your campus’s resident writing experts to class.

Many universities have a writing center with faculty who specialize in giving short, eloquent, and often funny presentations on grammar, style, and other elements of quality writing. These presentations can last anywhere from five minutes to a full session, depending on your schedule. For example, one writing center presenter who came to our class showed the students two sentences: “Woman, without her man, is nothing” and “Woman: Without her, man is nothing.” The examples got a great reaction from the students, and her presentation was successful in catching the students’ attention and creating a desire to improve their writing skills.
Asking experts from the writing center or the English department to speak with your students will provide them the instruction they need without taking your time to relearn the formal rules that we use without thinking. As a bonus, these presentations will often help you to improve your own writing. One presentation early each semester is all it takes to get students thinking about their writing.

Give students many opportunities to write.

Good writing takes practice, so give students the option to write paragraph-length answers, instead of purely numerical answers, on exams, quizzes, and assignments. Ask them to write summaries of presentations or meetings they’ve attended for a few extra credit points. To reduce grading time, let students know that if you find two or more writing errors they will have to rewrite their paragraph summary in order to get credit. It only takes once for most of them to get the point. Alternatively, you can use a formal rubric to make the grading faster and more consistent. These methods will get students writing without adding significantly to your grading time.

To help students learn to edit their writing, consider using peer evaluations for some writing assignments.

Allowing students to review each other’s work gives the students an opportunity to see the mistakes other people make, helping them to become more aware of their own mistakes. Plus, the editing they do makes grading easier.
If you have your students write a term paper, set aside a class period for peer reviews. One way to do so is to have each student bring two copies of his paper without a name on them and place them in two piles on the front table. Ask each student to choose, read, and review two fellow students’ papers. In our classes, we usually ask the reviewers to sign the reviews to keep them kind and to encourage more effort. We also provide a checklist of things to look for, including spelling, grammar, punctuation, and the requirements of the assignment (introduction, arguments, etc.). At the end of the session, the reviewers put the papers back in piles at the front of the room, and each student now has two edited copies to help him or her revise the paper before the final submission.
You can also have the students meet in a group, read through each other’s papers, and give feedback face to face. This option is more intimidating for students but can work well with upper-division or graduate students.

Respond to bad writing in student emails.

Student emails are sometimes poorly written and formatted. To help students improve in this area, we try to patiently point out some of their most egregious errors. If students start thinking about writing even when sending emails, they are likely to improve in all aspects of writing.

Teresa Stephenson, Ph.D., CMA, and Jason C. Porter, Ph.D. are associate professors of accounting at the University of South Dakota.

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