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35 Suggestions for Teaching and Writing in your Classes

Chuck Lewis
Director of the Writing Program

The suggestions here address the following areas:

  • the role of reading
  • using classroom time
  • assignment design
  • working with sources
  • responding to student writing

Please think of these suggestions as illustrative examples of what I have found effective; they are neither comprehensive nor required.  Moreover, consider the underlying issues, questions, and choices in play; experiment with what does or might work for you; and feel free to ask more questions and share your own ideas with me.

Remember Reading

  1. Most academic writing involves engaging other texts, and reading therefore should not be a "hidden continent" in your class.  The students' reading practices should be something that you talk about and help with on a regular basis.  Preview reading assignments globally and incrementally.  Model critical active reading by posing specific questions, comments, guidelines, and suggestions. Provide them with the information about related assignments and outcomes before they read to encourage purposeful, efficient, and active reading.  Your pedagogy and assignment design should depict reading and writing as an integrated and recursive set of learning activities and outcomes.
  1. Early in the semester have a conversation with the students about the "material conditions" of their reading practices.  This can be a lively and revealing in-class writing exercise followed by class discussion.  Ask them about where and when and how they read—ask them about physical spaces, times and durations, personal quirks, the relationship between specific reading strategies and various kinds of materials (e.g., textbooks vs. novels), marking texts and taking notes, etc. Help them to become more aware of themselves as readers. Tell them about your own reading practices.
  1. Make regular use of informal writing and/or small-group practices to bridge reading, discussion, and more formal writing—this is standard WL fare.  The list is endless—electronic bulletin boards, in-class writing before discussion, small-group breakouts and report-backs, reading journals (open or structured), creative writing exercises.  All of these activities will alter participation patterns and can facilitate more engaged reading.  You don't have to read or grade everything they write in order for these exercises to be useful, especially if they provide material for discussion or for more formal written assignments.   This is often writing that makes writing happen.

The Classroom as a Writing Site

  1. Let your classroom be a place for formally integrating and modeling the writing process.  Students should be writing and sharing often, early, and in different sorts of ways in an assignment sequence.  They should be talking with you and each other about their reading, understanding of and approach to assignments, preliminary ideas and arguments, the search for and use of sources, drafts, etc.    If your only model of peer collaboration is the peer-editing of extensively realized drafts, it can be too little too late. Find activities and assignments to bridge "free range" class discussion and the solitude of writing.
  1. Talk about note-taking and the active processing of information and ideas when listening to each other and to instructors (from PowerPoint wonks to chalky free-associationists).
  1. In addition to opening class sessions with informal previewing WL exercises, consider the use of writing at the end of a classroom activity or session (something like the classroom version of the "second column" routinely recommended in note-taking or journal guides).
  1. When you have the students write in class, write with them. Share what you write.
  1. Without scripting, modeling, and or training, students are not always particularly effective as peer editors.  First, consider the potential of generative collaboration earlier (e.g., brainstorming, sharing resources) over editing later. For peer editing, give them a very concrete and limited list of objectives or focus points (purpose/thesis, paragraphing/organization, use of examples/sources, etc.).  Two models of exchange (try them both or mix them up): text-based reader-response (writer listens to the reader's experience and perspective) vs. author-based reader query (writer fields questions and does most of the talking). 

Good Prompts and Good Writing

  1. Clarify your learning objectives for each writing assignment—you should be able to articulate this to yourself and others as clearly as you would have them construct a thesis statement.  Consider the larger context of each assignment as part of a developmental sequence.
  1. Review the assignment in detail with your students. Teach them how to dissect a prompt more generally—this is itself a key reading/thinking step critical to successful writing.  It also provides you with an opportunity to invite questions, monitor understanding, and adjust the assignment. 
  1. A writing assignment should identify objectives, required elements, suggestions about process, and criteria for evaluation.  Assignments should make reference to past and future aspects of the class.  At the same time, work on focus and economy—obsessively elaborated assignments can turn into a lot of white noise.
  1. Another option:  let them write the assignment.  For example, you might have small groups discuss and then submit a handful of proposals (such as sample questions for an essay exam), which you can then select and reconfigure.  This is especially helpful as a learning exercise for essay exams (they are already actively processing material).

Ways of Writing

  1. Develop a series of assignments that systematically reflect the key writing skills you want to them to address in your class.  For example, if you want them to develop skills of summary, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, create prompts that focus (recursively and sequentially) on these rhetorical operations.
  1. Make a list of rhetorical modes or "patterns of development" that can be the focus of very small assignments, as well as parts of larger ones:  example and illustration, narration, description, process, comparison, analogy, cause and effect, classification and division, definition, etc. 
  1. If you like "open" writing assignments (and there are good arguments for this), you should be involved in the development and modeling of this process, which is also a good plagiarism-buster.
  1. Try designing assignments that explicitly invite students to explore voice, style, audience, context, and genre convention. Refer them to some style guidelines.  Try creative writing exercises (writing a letter, use of first-person narrative, imitation, persona-premise, specified audiences beyond classroom, etc.  Expose them to and have them analyze differences among disciplinary conventions (voice, tense, citation, format, etc.).

Writing with Sources

  1. Don't compartmentalize research.  The isolated "term paper" often presents a drop in student writing because it combines (in part because we tend to conflate) the many distinct steps—identifying topics, locating designated sources, finding undesignated sources, evaluating sources, clarifying arguments, establishing a stance or position with respect to those sources, writing process, and use and documentation of sources.  Instead, integrate working with sources on a smaller and then incrementally developed basis throughout the course.  To elaborate on some of this:
  1. Do you want them to learn how to read bibliographic entries?  This question lies somewhere between comprehension and evaluation.  Consider spending some time reviewing a sample bibliographic list.  Are they clear on books vs. periodicals?  Hard copy vs. electronic database?  Academic vs. other?  What are the markers or differences important for them to learn in your view?
  1. Do you want them to learn how to find cited sources?  Give them a short and useful list of titles and have them locate these sources, something like a treasure hunt in which they bring back evidence of their locating the source (such as the first sentence of each source).  Have a class discussion about where and how they found these materials.  This can also be a nice way to bridge "assigned reading" and "research" if they are sources you want them all to read but find themselves.  I like to use these for a small group exercise.
  1. Do you want them to know how to write a bibliography of sources they select and find themselves?  In some sense, this is just the opposite of the activity/ability described above.  Assign an annotated bibliography.  This can be especially useful early in the process, before topics are fully developed.  Either with instructor or with peers (in-class small groups), they can address each other's bibliographic format, discuss their annotations, and use these discussions as prompts about changes in direction, things to do, idea sharing, etc.  The preliminary/prospectus bibliography is a good WL exercise. 
  1. Question:  How might software like RefWorks or Endnotes inform your pedagogy, in terms of creating a custom database, documentation management, etc.?
  1. Do you want them to learn how to evaluate the sources they find?  Do you want to give them a screened bibliography or a customized database?  Do you want to identify the sorts of places you want them to look, or do you want to set them free to wander into the wilderness?  Consider spending some time on modeling this.  Talk to them about the cues you use:  publication source, authorial credentials, date, textual traits, etc. 
  1. Do you want them to learn to use, cite, and document sources?  Don't wait until the research paper—do it all semester.  Any writing assignment in which they respond to reading (except, I would argue, informal WL exercises such as in-class prompts) should include direct quotations and other references, textual citations, and a list of works cited.  If they have some practice with this aspect of research writing, it's one less unfamiliar thing to address while they are struggling with searching, finding, and evaluating sources. Expose them to at least two citation formats (e.g., APA, MLA, and Chicago), if only to make them aware of this aspect of writing in academia.  Be sure they have access to good reference guides.  Talk to them about why we cite sources and general patterns about how (e.g., "citational two-step" of textnotes and bibliographies).
  1. Talk about research as a dynamic or recursive loop and not just a static or linear sequence—and design your activities and assignments accordingly (time and order).  They need to search and re-search.  Have them pitch a topic, then find a couple of sources to verify their selection in terms of interest, relevance, and feasibility (access, difficulty, etc.).  In many cases, research needs to come before the topic selection in any focused or developed sense, just as research often needs to be revisited after the topic has evolved.  Create "epicycles" and "meta-loops" in the process so that students aren't stranded with poor topics and materials.
  1. Assign an abstract early in the process (or call it a prospectus).  Have each student give a 3-minute presentation for feedback (especially question-and-answer rather than evaluative comments) to the class; the jump from writing to speaking can tease out lots of things.  Similarly, a 5-minute conference with a student earlier is more often productive and efficient than responding to a full-blown draft later.
  1. Address the issue of plagiarism repeatedly and variously.  Explain what it means and describe its typical manifestations. Acknowledge the "gray" areas.  Have a broader exchange about intellectual property.  Have a conversation about why we use and cite sources more generally.  Address motives for plagiarism and techniques for avoiding/detecting it.  Design assignments that make plagiarism unlikely.  See the information on plagiarism in other areas (for students and faculty) of our website.
  1. As students find sources, they need to start thinking more extensively about how the sources are related to one another, as well as their own positions and purposes as writers.  I have a variety of what I call "data to dialogue" prompts in order to tease some of this out, which are basically questions for them to consider, such as the following:  Who agrees or disagrees with whom? Can you synthesize patterns or other relations among two or more sources?  How have these sources evolved historically?  How does this particular source fit into your own purpose? In terms of your overall conceptual relation with your sources (or more local deployments of them):  Are your sources in the foreground spotlight?  Are they background chorus?  Are you facilitating a conversation among them?  Essentially, students need to develop an ongoing habit of analysis and synthesis as they work with their sources; some list of questions for them to engage in relation to their sources can be very productive. This needs to happen during research, as well as drafting and revising, when they need to attend to these questions more locally and concretely:  Why this source here?  Put differently, we need to train them to be thinking about rhetorical purpose—not just composition process.

Generating, Responding to, and Evaluating Writing

  1. Work with students (as well as have them work with each other) earlier in their writing process.  If your first response to student writing is to the final draft, in some sense it is "too late to teach."  Think about ways in which "how to respond" is tied to when and why you're responding.  Give some thought to the limits of "terminal" feedback, editing, and evaluation as teaching tools.  Try not to grade anything substantial that you haven't seen before or talked about with the student.
  1. A 10-minute conference early in the process can save you both time and energy and can facilitate more effective writing; however, students should always have something written (an abstract, an outline, an introduction, a list of topics, a set of questions, etc.) before a conference. Consider the collaborative and workload advantages of meeting with students in small writing teams of 2-3. Encourage your students to be problem-posers and solvers in these sessions.
  1. When you talk about writing with the student, consider putting the paper away and talking—and listening! Ask questions and give the student a chance to offer you a verbal version of process and production: What is the assignment?  What is your topic?  Your main point?  How did you go about organizing this?  Why did you make those choices?  How did you use your sources?  What do you think are the problem areas?
  1. Consider limiting marks on drafts to "talking points" for your own reference before a conference.  The time spent writing comments can sometimes be used more profitably in discussion.  Much of the research on the effectiveness of written markings and comments is discouraging. Limit yourself to 2-3 key global "higher order" questions and suggestions.  Sometimes "letting go" of the "gatekeeper" role can actually facilitate students' more dramatic engagement with and revision of draft writing.  If you respond like a proofreader, they will too—which is great for teaching how to edit and polish, but not for engaging in substantial rethinking and revision.  Why exhaustively "work over" surface error if the piece needs to be substantially rewritten? (Note:  this is not necessarily a rhetorical question.)
  1. Consider limiting your local markings involving mechanics to circling surface errors. They have responsibilities too.  Or look for patterns of the most serious or frequent errors. Do one section of a paper and stop.  When you return papers, require that the students review and track down errors in class with a handbook and/or your "walkaround" help. Another option here is to make a brief and very focused classroom presentation about the most common and serious errors.  Give examples from students' writing.  Another option is to develop your own shorthand for mechanical error with which the students are familiar and for which the students can refer to a handbook that you show them how to use.  However, avoid being too elliptical or opaque or oblique in your margin comments (!, ?, awk, yes, no, not clear, more, less, etc.) unless these are talking points for discussion or are explained (as in your own "shorthand" handout).
  1. If you try to catch and fix everything they will see nothing. If you "rip up a paper," it becomes an exercise not in forensics but in forensic medicine—and you should take the time to reconstruct the crime for them face-to-face.
  1. Most of your attention to mechanics should be directly related to students' writing.  Drills and lectures ("An Overview of Ellipses in our Day") are less effective than talking about error in students' own writing, although some "guerrilla grammar" can be fun and effective.
  2. Encourage or require students to use the writing center at least once.  It is critical for you to understand and to communicate to them how to perceive and make use of this resource appropriately and productively.  Also, direct them to this site!