The assumption of informality?

In terms of social communication and interaction, I am not a stickler. I am not offended by spelling and capitalization errors in emails to me or in social networks.

Student work in my discipline, though, is more formal. I have expectations for clear college-level English writing, with all its rules. That is the communication form of a university education. Proper construction, grammar and spelling (and an advanced vocabulary) make the clear presentation of complex ideas possible. They are required.

I suspect now that in online classes, though, there is a tendency to transfer the informality of other online communications into college work. Because it’s the web, the student default is to communicate informally.

A number of years ago, I changed the way students submit their written work. Having read about and seen the benefits of students being exposed to the work of their peers, I have them submit their writing in a forum rather than privately to me via a test or essay. I assess the work in that forum, but only the student can see his/her own grade. I then point to the best work as examples. At the time I changed over, the literature and anecdotes claimed that students writing “in public” in this way are more careful with their work, because it is being seen by their colleagues rather than just the teacher.

I may be seeing the opposite. Their writing is often poor in their assignments. My colleagues, whom I consulted on this problem, think that I may not be communicating high enough expectations at the beginning of the class. And that may be true – since it’s “in public”, I tend to let them practice, commenting generally on any overall problems of content or construction. I have promised myself to enforce proper writing (through grades – that’s the only “enforcement” we have) earlier in the semester next time.

But I am very interested in defaults when it comes to education, i.e. what do most students think when they use this technology? what do most students automatically do when asked to complete a task? where do most students get lost? how do most students assume things should be?

And I wonder whether the fact that they are writing in a student forum means that the default is to write informally. Since I provide a fairly rigid structure for the assignments, the informality comes out in the form of sloppiness in vocabulary, spelling and grammar. I have assumed thus far that they don’t have the proper skills to write at the college level. But one colleague assures me that they do, if only my expectations are raised.

I wonder also whether those who demand that written work be submitted in a Word document, rather than inside an LMS assignment box, get a higher level of work. Perhaps a Word document implies greater formality than a submission to the teacher, which implies greater formality than a post in a forum. I do have anecdotal evidence: I asked my on-site class to write a paragraph about an article, typed and submitted on paper. The level of writing they exhibited was higher than in the assignments they submit online.

So I’m not sure the extent to which the default of informality is a factor. Do they really not know how to write college-level English, or has no one ever expected it from them? Do they assume that because it’s online it isn’t formal? And are their levels of formality implied by the technology, and they simply follow?

12 thoughts on “The assumption of informality?

    1. And that would be another question – your site is open to the world, as opposed to in an LMS. One of my colleagues has his students blogging in public, and claims that produces higher levels of formality than when they are “only” working in the presence of other students.


  1. I’d guess in it’s structure a forum suggests a conversational tone, like how we speak differently at a cocktail party vs a business meeting.

    But another factor is the forum being a public place, like they way people are more prone to litter in a park then their own home. A personal blog is not only just public, it is more a visible extension of the self.

    Still very interesting observation. I guess you could put out some expectations for forum norms, and imply the weight of the grade hammer. I totally like the idea of them seeing each other’s work. Maybe the forum as a place to post links to more formal writing and where to have the conversations about the works?


    1. Last year I stopped calling them “forums” or “discussion” and began calling them things like “Sources and Writing Board”. Although I have told them in the instructions that formal writing is expected, and that I will be grading down, I do need to do this earlier. But I do cringe at the grade as a hammer, even though I’ve accepted that as the main tool I’ve got. I may need to post again on the fact that many of the students who need the most guidance do not even check their grades until the end of the semester.

      Another interesting aspect is that the students who write only informally do not pick up on the fact that their more advanced colleagues are writing more formally, as directed by the instructions. In that sense, the forum isn’t social enough. Next semester I will be separating the writing forums from true “discussion” forums (as you say, they need a place to converse) – maybe that will help.

      I think you’re right about “public”. A paper given to the teacher, or submitted only to the teacher online, is “private” unless the student or teacher shares it with others. A forum seems less formal (apparently regardless of what you call it), but inside an LMS may have a “closed” feeling that leads to even more informality. While a truly “public” space may enforce a different norm.


  2. Hi Lisa, this is something I think about a lot as I teach online. So, long comment warning, ha ha. My classes are not writing classes; they are just Gen. Ed. classes, but I have chosen to make them into writing classes because it seems that this is the most valuable skill I can help my students with, and some of them need a lot of help.

    I don’t really have a problem with informality in what the students write (in fact, I rarely ever see that, except in emails to me, but that’s fine – I don’t expect formal writing in emails). The real problem I see is haste and sloppiness, which I think is a result of time (lack thereof), nothing to do with technology per se. So, a big goal is to get students to slow down, proofread, and read their writing out loud before they share it with me and with others. I cannot magically add extra hours to the day (and that is really what a lot of the students need: more time), but I can make my expectations clear, and I think it helps a lot. I have a brief checklist that I ask them to include in their blog posts, and a more detailed checklist for the formal writing they turn in to me each week.

    Unfortunately, some students treat the checklists like “terms of service” – they just check things off without actually having done them. Still, it means when I call that to their attention, they realize that they need to pay attention to the checklist and that, in turn, prompts them to slow down and proofread. Most of the time anyway! I emphasize the idea that when they ask others to read their writing (me, other students in class), taking that extra time to proofread is politeness as much as anything else.

    Another thing that I think really makes a difference is that for the formal writing they turn in to me, I give sentence-by-sentence feedback, and they revise until it is correct (revising their webpages, that is – these projects are Google Site websites, and they read each other’s websites just as they read each other’s blogs and make comments). That experience of close revision is new to almost all of them, and it comes as a revelation!

    To let them know from the first week of the semester that I take writing mechanics seriously, I do a detailed assessment:
    They get sentence-level comments back from me, and it also gives me a heads up about who will need extra help.

    One other thing I do is to prepare writing help materials for the most common errors that I see:

    I never penalize students in terms of grades for problems that they have with their writing (no grade hammer!), but I do expect them to work (and work and work) to improve their writing. When they see my commitment to their writing for the writing’s sake (not related to grades or grading), that seems to make a big difference. Of course, that’s a commitment it’s easy for me to make, purely for selfish reasons, ha ha – I really enjoy reading their writing, and the better their writing, the more I enjoy it.


    1. Hi Laura! Thanks for your detailed comment – I remember reading about your revision method in another context, but it’s good to have the whole thing in one place.

      My writing assignments are done like scaffolding. Each week we have a different era we’re studying, so each week the writing is slightly different as it focuses on that era. If they revise what came before, they’ll “miss” writing about that week’s era. So perhaps what I’m trying to do is too difficult – having them fix problems with current writing as examples, but expecting them to do better the next time. Each week’s assignment has the same pattern (thesis, paragraphs with primary sources as evidence), but they get more complex as we go along (starting with three sources, for example, and ending with three paragraphs featuring three sources each).

      So I also expect them to work and for their writing to improve, but perhaps it’s more difficult because it isn’t the same assignment they’re working on.

      And I couldn’t possibly do sentence-level commenting with 200+ students (the very idea makes me want to crawl under a rock).


  3. Agreed, Lisa – balancing workload is crucial. When I first taught this class, I was pretty naive – I just assumed that I could have the students write new material every week… but when I saw had badly they needed help, I switch to a write/revise pattern that goes all semester long
    I have no regrets about that – the projects are literally half as long as they were the first semester I taught this class… but they are a hundred times better! (Well, okay, not a hundred times better… you get the idea.). Every student benefits from revising, even if they are just doing light editing – and some students really are substantially rewriting. So, the alternating system works for all the students (for me too, as my weeks alternate between being heavy and light all semester long).
    For their weekly blog writing, there’s no revision, and no feedback from me – but they read and comment on each other’s work, and that has its benefits too.
    I work with 100 students like this each semester, and it’s a full-time job. I could never do 200. But maybe giving sentence-level feedback on just one paragraph of their writing each time would be good…? It seems that my students are really struggling with many sentence-level problems, and I don’t know any way that will improve without specific feedback and the chance to revise, and with confirming feedback about the revision. I guess some people can “pick things up” from reading, but my impression is that the students who are struggling with writing are also not enthusiastic readers either.
    Anyway, the would-be linguist in me enjoys the whole process. I wouldn’t take this approach if it were not something satisfying for me as a teacher, while also being useful to the students.


  4. Lisa, it would be so cool if we could somehow share students – I’m working on all this sentence-level stuff and creative writing, while you are doing the larger-scale writing skills and analytical writing. Combine them, and the resulting writers could take over the world! 🙂


  5. Hi Lisa,
    Very interesting post and conversation here. You have me thinking about my own writing expectations in the online course I teach. I’d say I have the reverse of the issue you describe here. I create ‘safe’ spaces in the form of small group blogs (Inside our LMS. My students are second degree adult learners who have zero desire to learn to manage their own online space….so I do not require it. Just using the LMS is challenge enough…..and that could turn into a whole ‘nother’ comment….)

    I construct their writing prompts using an approach called (rightly enough) ‘Writing to Learn’ ( The work of Peter Elbow is very helpful here.

    I WANT to see thinking as it happens/unfolds. This is sometimes messy and not always well-formed. I want to see the evidence of engagement with the learning materials. Students struggle with the expectation that this writing (and commenting) is our sub for f2f in class discussion – so conversational. They have been hammered so hard and so often about citing and style and such that they can barely compose an original thought. It takes iteration based on copious amounts of feedback from me for them to find their voice.

    So, while I do very much appreciate the need for students to learn to communicate scholarly habits of mind and to do so in a formalized fashion, I try to make sure that I am clear on when and where that more structured voice is required….like in explanatory text for their project they build in my course.
    Thanks for helping me think through my own expectations – again…


    1. Thanks, Cindy. Yes, I should probably be focusing more on engagement with the material and new ideas than formality. I did talk to my classroom students today about the formality of their posts, and how more universities expect formal work submitted online. But I don’t want it to block the expression of their ideas!


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