By Lisa Wathen

Learning in today’s digital environment has many advantages that would seem to maximize student success and prepare them for writing in college. Students have more access to content that can be differentiated. Teachers can provide feedback on student work that is much more timely, developed and seamlessly embedded in students’ learning environments. Students can write for authentic audiences and communicate more easily. Editing and revision tools can empower students to have greater ownership of the writing process, documenting their progress to make learning visible.

Unfortunately, how we expose students to technology can render it challenging for them to think independently, and they can lose the capacity for the sustained, focused writing that they will need for the rigors of college due to the following reasons:

  • Having been immersed in the world of texting, Snapchats, Twitter and Instagram, student brains seem wired for quick access to information and short bursts of learning.
  • With the “right” answer always available through a general search, students do not realize that they can think on their own.
  • Instead of using online revision tools to learn, students use these tools as shortcuts because they are either unwilling to commit the time it takes to learn from the tools or because they do not know how to use the tools within a productive revision process.
  • Students consistently write in digital environments that limit their words and encourage the use of emoticons, hindering the development of reading and writing vocabularies which are important indicators of college success.

How can we overcome these obstacles?

The answer is balance, and combining the benefits of technology with proven instructional practices so that the way students use and are exposed to technology accelerates their learning.

  1. Encourage student access to content, but involve them in inquiry based projects in which some of the time is spent in discussion and problem solving without using external sources. Genius Hours are wonderful learning experiences that involve writing that is less formulaic and can evolve naturally as students build expertise.
  2. Teach students how to use Google Scholar instead of Google as a default.
  3. Use online feedback and editing tools and encourage peer editing in which students talk about their papers and the changes they made to improve the paper. Require students to write reflections in which they must explain what they revised and how they made their papers better. Some good tech tools include:
  4. Give students opportunities to be mentors so that they see they can develop expertise. As they experience the satisfaction of having peers rely on them for help, students build the confidence to take risks and stop believing that the right answers have to come from someone else.
  5. Have students write for authentic audiences by publishing their work online but insist on a rigorous editorial process before anything is posted live. Reinforce the idea that a text needs to go through many revisions at the word, sentence and content levels before it can be shared so that students move away from the one and done mindset that comes with a reliance on revision tools as shortcuts.
  6. Teach students to approach every learning experience with a growth mindset by showing them how their brains learn and then letting them have the freedom to make mistakes and grow from them. Students will be less likely to rely on technology as a shortcut and more likely to use it as a means of developing their own skills and expertise when they receive praise for learning alongside specific feedback that helps them to grow.
  7. Instead of always providing students with the scaffolding that breaks content and learning into smaller chunks, teach students how to take a complex writing task and break it down themselves into more manageable chunks whether it’s a written exam or a prepared paper.
  8. Teaching students how to slow down and be mindful by focusing on the present moment can help students manage that initial feeling of being overwhelmed when faced with larger tasks, and give them the confidence to build the capacity they need to manage larger reading and writing tasks.

With these eight tips, teachers can avoid the challenges of writing in the digital age and start helping their students develop the writing skills that will be necessary to succeed in the 21st century.

For more on teaching writing in the 21st century, see:

Lisa Wathen is an English teacher who has piloted and helped to implement several technology integrations at her school. Connect with her on Twitter: @LWathh