Faculty Focus


One List to Rule Us All: The Benefits of Unified Writing Guidelines

Teachers collaborate to create unified writing guideline list

Many years after graduating with our undergraduate degrees, we can still remember the stress of being a student. One lesson that stands out from those years: if a student had five classes, that meant that student had five “bosses”—five instructors of varying skill and knowledge who all had different rules, expectations, and levels of rigor. Dr. X wanted a title page. Dr. Y wanted footnotes. Dr. Z wanted APA style. The list continued.

As current educators of undergraduate students, we have the opportunity to teach Introductory Psychology to young people from around the world.  Students who are clearly tired, stressed, but trying to maintain a positive outlook on their extremely busy lives. If we take the perspective of college students, they have five or six classes with different expectations. They often have sports and/or a part-time or full-time job. Some of the students may even have children. They are pulled in multiple directions, all while trying to balance a social life. They are stressed (Liu et al., 2018).

It is true; professors have specific guidelines that are often isolated. In our own department, one of us expected students to refrain from the use of etc. and use whereas instead of while in a comparison. For another of us, get, got, and very were writing banes. One of our adjunct instructors in the department did not really “do” APA according to the students. Although all of us had basic APA expectations, some of us wanted abstracts whereas others did not. Some of us measured margins with a ruler; others railed about the extra spaces between paragraphs. Collectively, we created a situation in which each of us had different, sometimes contradictory, expectations. Due to these variances, students lacked clear, consistent guidelines for the department as a whole, and professors received shoddy work that did not fit our individual expectations because students would forget which rule applied to which professor. Imagine if every time you played a game of basketball, the rules changed with each new referee. This situation is what we had created within our department.

We decided to make a change and educate the referees. The decision came from a place of exhaustion, frustration, and empathy for the student plight. The use of very would be banned because it was miserably (not very) annoying to read. We wanted to specify guidelines, unify our opinions, and reinforce good writing in all of our classes. We were, in short, no longer interested in reading subpar papers.  

As a department, we crafted a six-page document with cute emojis, rules, along with examples of misuse and correct use. We divided the possible rules into varying levels, and we decided which classes (based on their course numbers and sequencing) would fall within each level. First-year students were expected to master “The Naughty Nine,” a list which itemized nine of our collective pet peeves in writing. These rules were expected to be followed in all classes, cross-departmentally, regardless of professor. As students moved through the curriculum, they encountered levels two through five with rules including pronoun usage, parallel construction, comma usage, and professional wordsmithing. A key course for us, Abnormal Psychology, became a writing intensive course. As the classes became more difficult, the writing expectations increased, such that seniors were largely registered in level four and five classes.

Each of us handed out copies of the “Oh No No List” on the first day of the semester for all of our classes. We introduced this document as the holy grail of writing for the psychology department; a list lovingly crafted by the various professors in the department. A list that we would all adhere to and expect students to follow. No more guessing. No more “remember what Dr. X wanted that Dr. Z did not.” The same guidelines to rule us all.

To help reinforce the rules, especially the Naughty Nine, we often tested students on them. It might appear as a regular test question or as an extra credit question. Tests included title pages with errors, cover pages of journal articles that required a reference, or incorrectly written sentences that violated rules from different writing levels that students needed to correct. We held writing workshops, we battled the ever confusing “effect versus affect” conundrum, and we engaged the students in professional wordsmithing.

The impacts of the change were momentous, both for our department and our students. Instead of each of us being in individual silos focused on our own perspective towards writing, we now had a common language and purpose that helped band us together and support us in our student expectations. If one of us had a student who did not create a title page, we could support that professor with the assertion that, yes, Jim did learn all about APA last semester in Introductory Psychology. Hold him to the standard. He is capable. It turns out that when we hold our students accountable, they begin to do the same for themselves.

For the students, they truly enjoyed having clearly defined departmental boundaries that guided their writing endeavors. Yes, it was scary to hear that we were a cohesive group, but it was also reassuring. For them, it meant that their department was a unified force for their education. They could not pit one professor against the other. We also, in the course of this process, became a model for other departments. Many students would express their ire about other departments who lacked clear writing guidelines. With our department, they knew the expectations and it was truly up to them the degree of effort they exerted. We set the bar; they had to meet it, and they did!

The mechanisms that we used as a department could easily be adapted to other departments from varying disciplines. It starts with a conversation—a comparison of individual writing expectations. Each department typically has a common rallying point related to the discipline-specific writing style (e.g., Chicago, MLA, or AMA). Fleshing out adherence to the guidelines and standardizing expectations is a start on the road to consistently supporting student growth. Even a single faculty member can make a concerted effort to clearly lay out guidance for successful writing. Clearly communicated rules and goals at the start can help to stave off confusion and help decrease stress for both the professor and the students.

Diana Jacobs, PhD, has 27 years of experience as a professor in psychology departments at small, liberal arts institutions, 18 years at Earlham College followed by 9 years at Lindenwood University-Belleville.  She is well acquainted with the challenges of offering first rate undergraduate education with limited resources, constant recruiting, continuous retention efforts, and impending school closure. Currently, she is putting her extensive experience to good use by serving as an academic coach and consultant to other faculty members and their programs. She, along with her colleague, Dr. Trisha Prunty, have lively discussions of faculty issues on their YouTube channel, The Passionate Professors. 

Trisha Prunty has been a university educator since 2006, teaching topics ranging from neuroscience to human sexuality. She specializes in building professor-student relationships, mentoring undergraduate research, and bolstering interest in boosting presentation performance. She has primary experience in educating in small, liberal arts universities, starting with the University of Mount Olive in North Carolina, Lindenwood University—Belleville, and, most recently, Blackburn College in rural Illinois.

Reference: Liu, C. H., Stevens, C., Wong, S. H. M., Yasui, M., & Chen, J. A. (2018). The prevalence and predictors of mental health diagnoses and suicide among U. S. college students: Implications for addressing disparities in service use. Depression and Anxiety, 36(1). https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22830