When Students Have Nothing to Say

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A common complaint from students is that they have nothing to say in response to an assignment.  Part of the challenge hiding behind that complaint is, I think, the very challenge of assuming a voice of academic authority a la David Batholomae’s “Inventing the University.” But sometimes the problem isn’t finding an academic voice, but breaking down the assignment and what it’s asking for.  And sometimes, yet again, the issue is understanding what an argument is and what it looks like.  I thought I would share some of the strategies I use with students when they feel like they have nothing to say.


First, I encourage them to come into my office hours to discuss the reading.  In part I offer that to make sure they’ve done the reading and more importantly that they understand the reading, but I also start there because when they start talking through the reading they also start saying something.  I might prompt them with questions (“What did you underline?” “What felt important?” “What does this author really care about?” “What part confused you the most?” “What did you think was the most compelling evidence the author used?”) but just having them talk through the reading gets them saying something and often helps them increase their overall comprehension of the work.


Next, I walk them through the assignment to make sure that they understand it. Often we do this work in class and I will also often have groups work on sample arguments for the assignment that we discuss and assess as a whole.  In office hours this work can be even more focused.


Then I help them find an argument.  Again I find a conversational model useful.  I ask them to talk through a response to the assignment and then jot down key words and phrases that I feel have the most potential to lead them to an argument.  I offer these back to them as seeds they can use or as a scaffold for a developing argument.

Of course often what students mean by not having anything to say is that they don’t know how to meet page length requirements.  They’re afraid that they won’t have enough to say.  I tell them that working closely with quotations from the text is the best remedy to that, as each quotation (and its accompanying analysis) adds length and strength to the paper.  Once they have an argument sketched out, I will also ask them to find some quotations that they think might work in supporting the argument.


Often when students leave, they have all of the material they need for a solid draft.  It usually takes only a bit of hand-holding and, as they reflect on the process, they find that it’s all work that they can do on their own for the next paper.  Each successful draft, even if it’s not a successful argument, reinforces that they have something to say, even as they continue to acquire the requisite skills to say it well.

About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.