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Developing Confident and Responsible Writers in the Digital World

April 12, 2021 • Mark Hofer & Adam Barger

Teaching and learning in the digital world brings the dual possibilities of promise and peril. Digital tools and expanded connectivity afford instructors a wide array of instructional possibilities. Learners benefit from access to information and the ability to more easily collaborate with peers. These affordances are balanced by several constraints as well. One particular challenge is ensuring academic integrity in digital spaces. In stressful times, students can be pressed for time, feel anxious, or lack confidence in their academic writing abilities. The easy access to buying pre-written papers online through sites like Edubirdie makes the temptation to cheat strong. Consequently, there is a need for countering potential dishonesty in the writing process with sound pedagogical solutions that thrive in the digital age

One approach to encouraging honesty in the writing process is to design experiences to develop confident and responsible writers. The following instructional design and feedback tips can help minimize student anxiety and encourage a culture of integrity in the classroom while strengthening students’ writing skills. 

1. Scaffold the paper assignment into manageable tasks and mini-assignments.
In this approach, instructors identify the building blocks, or scaffolds, required for success on an assignment and lay them out as separate tasks that build to the whole. Consider the following scaffolds for a typical research paper:

• Begin by having students select a topic from a list of possibilities you provide. 

• Engage students in preliminary research that culminates in an annotated bibliography of ten sources. This will challenge students to engage in reading and summarize what they learn. 

• Encourage students to develop a thesis statement that synthesizes what they’ve learned so far from their annotated bibliography. 

• Assign students to build a structured outline where they note their key assertions and provide supporting evidence as they build the argument of their paper. 

These small steps continue throughout the semester to culminate in their final paper. This approach helps students garner small wins, see progress, and build their confidence as they go. Just as importantly, it will result in stronger papers for you to assess!


2. Provide benchmarks and check-ins as formative assessment opportunities

 Opportunities for feedback help students assess their progress and adjust along the way. Check-ins and feedback can be formal or informal as well as instructor-led or through structured peer feedback opportunities. 

Taking the example above, you might require that students turn in their annotated bibliography and thesis assignment for feedback in a one-on-one meeting or in writing. This check-in can be critical to ensure that students are on the right track; however, the argument outline might be assessed informally through a peer-review process. You can offer a set of guidelines for students to use in providing feedback on the outline or consider an anonymous peer feedback tool like PeerGrade

Providing these opportunities along the way for feedback and guidance can help students progress effectively toward the goal of developing confident and responsible writers.


3. Refer students for extra help if they might benefit from it. 

 Academic writing at the college level can be difficult for students – particularly early in their coursework. Fortunately, at William & Mary, students have access to the Writing Resource Center (WRC) in Swem Library. The WRC is staffed by trained undergraduate student consultants who can help in a variety of ways.

In addition to the helpful support that the WRC consultants provide, it is reassuring for students to know that they have auxiliary services for writing support available and can learn from their consultant to improve their writing. 



Instructors and students both benefit from scaffolding the writing process for small successes and structured feedback. Instructors will receive higher-quality papers to grade at the end of the semester. Students will feel more confident in their ability to complete the work and, therefore, be less likely to cut corners or cheat. Finally, even if a student is inclined to explore unethical options, it would be much more difficult to do so with smaller, scaffolded assignments and formative assessment opportunities along the way. For more information on building a culture of integrity in teaching and learning, see the list of resources below:

• Building a Culture of Academic Integrity

• Buying College Essays Is Now Easier Than Ever. But Buyer Beware

• Cheating, Inc.: How Writing Papers for American College Students Has Become a Lucrative Profession Overseas

© 2021 Mark Hofer & Adam Barger. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.

Meet the Authors

Adam Barger
STLI Associate Director of Academic Innovation

Adam oversees the studio’s digital teaching and learning programs and collaborates with faculty and staff across campus to explore new and innovative teaching approaches and technologies. He equips faculty and campus partners with pedagogical and technological resources for their teaching and research goals.

Mark Hofer
STLI Director and School of Education Professor

Mark teaches courses on educational technology, curriculum and learning design, and innovation. His research work focuses on educational innovation, deeper learning, educational technologies, and designing professional learning experiences for teachers, school leaders, and university faculty.