Information Sheet #25

March 8, 1989


[Since 1980 several publishers have introduced textbooks specifically for helping college instructors develop and improve composition instruction in writing-across-the-curriculum programs. Examples within this small genre include New Methods in College Writing Programs, ed. by Connolly and Vivaldi; The Journal Book, by Toby Fulwiler; Teaching Writing in the Contest Areas: College Level, by Stephen N. Tchudi; and Helping Students Write Well: A Guide for Teachers in All Disciplines, by Barbara E. Fassler Walvoord. Of these publications--all available in the Writing Center--the most practical and immediately adaptable is Walvoord's book, now it its second edition. In addition to her suggestions for assigning and responding to formal papers, Walvoord also offers some useful guidelines for students doing various kinds of informal, one-draft exercises. The following excerpt is from her chapter "Writing in Class" (pp. 14-16).]

Short, carefully planned in-class writing exercises can dramatically increase students' mastery of the subject matter and of analytical skills and make students more active participants in their own learning. Further, these activities need take little or no instructor time outside of class. The time they take in class does not cut down on the number of minutes the instructor can spend for lecturing or demonstrating; however, sometimes learning is better served by fewer lecture minutes and more time for students to process and articulate what they are learning. Again, instructors must judge what activities best serve the goals of the course and the needs of their students. If you're imparting priceless wisdom in lecture but tests show that students aren't absorbing as much of it as you wish or that they can't manipulate or apply the concepts you're explaining, significantly improve student learning. Below are some suggestions:

  • Before beginning a lecture, announce your topic and ask students to write for five minutes about what they expect you will say or to jot down at least three questions they would like to have answered about the topic. At the end of the lecture, ask whether their questions were all answered or how the lecture was different from their expectations.
  • At the end of the class period, take five minutes for everyone to write a summary of what was covered or to write down the most useful or surprising thing in the lecture, demonstration or film.
  • When the third pair of eyes closes in slumber, stop the lecture and ask everyone to write for five minutes. You can have them summarize, ask further questions, anticipate where they think the lecture will go from here, or muse about how the material they are being taught makes them feel, questions it raises for them, ways it may be applied in their lives or professions.
  • A discussion period that begins, "Are there any questions on the reading?" sometimes results in deadly silence. Help students be ready to speak by giving them five minutes to write down two questions. Then, when the discussion begins, even the normally quiet students are likely to volunteer.
  • When an argument has been presented in class, stop for five minutes and ask students to write down all the counterarguments or counterevidence they can think of.
  • When a new technique has been introduced, ask students to write for five minutes, describing the technique to someone who was absent from class.
  • When you've used a new teaching strategy, ask students to tell you, in five minutes on paper, how they responded to it. You may pick up some tips on how to use it more effectively next time.
  • Pose any question, definition, or comparison you want you students to master, and have them write the answer.

Once the class has written a short exercise, there are several ways to handle it:

  • Simply go on. Trust that the writing has served its purpose.
  • Give students a chance to ask questions or to clear up confusions they discovered while writing. You might have each turn to a neighbor and, in pairs, share their answers. Most students can learn something from someone else's answer, and some inaccuracies can be cleared up by peers.
  • Begin a class discussion or blackboard list of, say, all the counterarguments to a certain position, so that individual writers can complete or revise their lists.
  • Collect the papers. You can read them for you own information, or you can grade them. Some instructors award points for each exercise; students build points toward the final course grade. Or students may keep their writing until the semester's end, then hand in their five best for grading.

[Allow me to add a concluding comment. Students really appreciate it when I also write in class and share my writing with them. To teach we sometimes have to model. And one last point: regular in-class writing assignments can substantially improve class attendance and preparation. That factor alone makes these assignments worth our serious consideration. RLM]

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