Common Points of Confusion 


Why do students struggle with writing? One reason is simple confusion, and this confusion often occurs in predictable ways, at predictable points in students’ thinking processes.

This resource outlines several of the most common points of confusion with writing, and it offers faculty simple ways to head off these problems.

Problems with Thesis Statements

Students need to understand both what a thesis looks like and how to develop one.

Point of Confusion: Students can write a thesis but are not sure which type to use.

In many cases, students become confused about thesis statements’ structure because, when they hear “thesis statement,” it has not always meant the same thing in all their previous courses. For example, the most common problem occurs when students conflate thesis statements, which make a clear argument, and purpose statements, which merely preview the paper’s organization. To complicate the issue, even traditional thesis statements can vary in structure and complexity. Some disciplines prefer a simple position statement (that does not preview the paper’s main supporting reasons); some faculty are happy with a simple listed-based thesis (claim+3-4 supporting reasons); others prefer compound-complex sentences. (See the Moody Writing Center handouts “Thesis vs. Purpose Statements” and “Different Types of Thesis Statements”).

There is no need for faculty to spend a great deal of time on this issue, but there are some straightforward ways to clarify, for students, what a good thesis looks like in that discipline:  

  • Tell students what type of statement makes sense for their project and why.
  • Explain how this type of thesis/purpose statement fits within the larger discipline.
  • Offer short examples of what an effective thesis looks like for this kind of project. Often, this might be a brief discussion of how a course reading demonstrates the type of focusing strategy they should follow.

Fuzzy Understandings of Critical Thinking

Why do students struggle so much with critical thinking? First, critical thinking involves higher-order thinking. It begins with understanding course principles; then it goes several steps beyond this foundation to applying, evaluating, and synthesizing knowledge. Second, critical thinking can be a fuzzy term. For students to be successful, they need to know what kind of analysis is expected, and they need to be skilled at that analysis in the first place.

Point of Confusion: Students see words in an assignment that clearly require some form of analysis or higher-order thinking but are unsure of what that analysis looks like.

For example, any assignment that requires students to make an argument requires at least some level of critical, analytical thinking. Often, students try to let their sources do all the analytical work for them, simply quoting the best phrases of experts. In other cases, students do not pay attention to the subtleties of assignment language. Consider, for example, the different implications of common wording for analytical assignments (analyze, evaluate, examine, discuss, describe, compare, synthesize, consider, reflect, respond, etc.)

Again, clarifying expectations does not require undue faculty time. Some options for heading off this kind of confusion though might include:

  • Name the type(s) of analysis that is required or recommended. Often, this is obvious, as with an exegetical course. In some cases, it may be less obvious to students. If students frequently focus too much on the obvious or lean too much on rehashing others’ positions, it may be worth the time to clarify this in class briefly and direct students to relevant resources.
  • Model this kind of critical thinking and show examples, which might include highlighting how readings demonstrate the thinking students should imitate. The advantage here is that comments on good writing and good analysis can potentially be inserted, very concisely, into existing lectures or discussions about course content.
  • Discuss who uses this type of analysis, when, and why. Reflect on when students may have already seen something like it—or how it differs from their default approaches.
  • Offer informal, low-stakes practice sessions in class or via short assignments.
  • Offer immediate, brief feedback on their initial practice (instead of reserving the lion’s share of feedback for major papers that occur later in a course).
  • Partner with the Writing Center and library to offer students additional practice outside of class.

Genre Uncertainty

Genres (common types of writing) can be one of the most effective tools for helping students adapt what they know about writing to new courses. However, there are times when genres provide more bewilderment than help.

Point of Confusion: One genre is known by many different names

For example, depending on its length, audience, and purpose, a synopsis of a book or article can be called a review, summary, precis, or report. Students writing one of these may not immediately recognize how it builds on similar work from other courses, so faculty teaching summary-focused reviews may want to explicitly remind students of these connections.

Point of Confusion: The same name is used for many different but related genres

Again, reviews provide the most common point of confusion. There are synopsis-based reviews, reflective reviews, and critical reviews—all called “reviews” for shorthand. (See the Writing Center handout “Three Types of Reviews.”) Students comfortable with one of the review types may assume that a new “review” assignment is the same as what they did in the past. To avoid this, name the type of review and help students understand both its purpose and structure.

Point of Confusion: The same genre can be used many different ways in different classes

The classic example is the traditional research paper. These are really more of a meta-genre. Though research papers in different classes share many features, they can vary to surprising degrees.

Research papers can be used by almost any discipline and vary in purpose (argumentative vs. informative), audience (academic vs. public), length (6 to 20+ pages), expected modes of critical thinking (varying by discipline), types of evidence (expert opinion, textual analysis, quantitative data analysis, etc.), and the roles students are expected to play (prove their knowledge, analyze or synthesize differing views, or make original arguments in response to existing debates). So while students can follow general academic writing guidelines anytime they hear “research paper,” it is understandable if they sometimes bring habits or expectations that may be out of sync with the current project.

Ways to bring clarity and encourage students’ success

However, despite the possibility for confusion, genres can be powerful guides for making effective writing choices. This is because genres provide a framework for responding to common writing situations. For example, literature reviews often explain how the writer’s work fits into the existing research, clarifying the necessity and importance of the writer’s project. In this way, a literature review gives the writer more than a format to follow; it provides guidelines for balancing many key elements of writing, such as audience, purpose, organization, style, as well as methods for selecting, evaluating, synthesizing, and integrating sources.

Genre awareness helps students make connections between classes when they recognize:

  • How the assignment fits within a common genre—a common type of writing project that they may have seen before or that they may use again in the future

To support students, faculty in all disciplines can:

  • Make students aware of whether the assignment does fit into a common genre, and if so, who uses it, why, and when
  • Explicitly refer to prerequisite courses that use this type of writing
  • Explicitly discuss any likely confusion (what could students easily misunderstand?)
  • Provide links to handouts or resources that refer to this genre
  • How this genre works in this course and discipline

To support students, faculty in all disciplines can:

  • Show successful examples of this type of project (it does not need to be an example of a response to the class assignments)
  • Discuss the samples or assignment in class (or on a short video posted on Canvas, in an optional extra class workshop, in small TA-led groups, etc.).
  • Help students understand when professionals in this discipline use this type of writing. What type of debates are involved? What is the purpose of this type of writing? How is it usually organized and why? What are some common expectations beyond formatting? What—specific to this type of writing—distinguishes highly successful from mediocre work?