Essay on teaching writing intensive courses

Teaching Writing Intensive Courses
February 7, 2014

Writing fosters deep learning because it is a higher-order skill. Writing is one of the best ways for students to truly learn and internalize material. Students who take thorough notes while in class, reading, or study are already writing, but as instructors, we also have the opportunity to further foster this deep learning through writing assignments. Ideally, these assignments should be numerous and low-stakes so that students have the opportunity to get regular feedback and frequent practice using critical thinking skills.

Additionally, we sometimes become frustrated by the gap in our expectations of student writing and the reality of what we get. High enrollments in each class (at least at the institutions at which most of us teach) and the time it takes to give adequate feedback, of course, also frequently limit the amount of writing we can realistically assign. There are workable solutions to have students write often and for instructors to not be overwhelmed with paperwork

First, we must remember that just by writing (and reading) often students will gradually improve and even develop their own writing voice. Students will improve even when we do not mark every error. On this note, we must remember that just because students complete an assignment does not mean we must grade it every-single-time or that we have to provide detailed feedback. Just by writing students are learning. Occasionally, informal and ungraded writing assignments can enhance a class discussion or provide a much needed moment of reflection.

Let me give an example: I give my students a quiz at the beginning of every class. For classes that meet once or twice a week, these are 5-to-10 minutes, and for classes that meet once a week, they are 15 minutes. These quizzes count as 25 percent of the overall grade. These always consist of several questions that require thoughtful sentences; these usually require recall and sometimes they require synthesis or application.

There are not enough hours in the day to fully read and provide detailed feedback for all of the quizzes each week. Instead, I skim over each one and use the check, check minus system without trying to distinguish between an 82 and 87, for example. Also, for these quizzes I do not necessarily look for complete accuracy but responses that indicate a developing knowledge of material. This method takes no more than 30-45 minutes each week for about 50 students. I provide general feedback to the class and remind them each week that if they would like more specific feedback on any aspect of the quiz to let me know. I also, of course, look for students who need more detailed feedback and meet with them before or after class.

Finally, this quiz has become the most effective method I have found for getting students to regularly review the material, to safely and regularly practice engaging in the discourse of history, and for launching the class on a strong note. (These quizzes also work wonders at completely eliminating tardiness!) The same core goal of these quizzes could be achieved through the use of blogs, discussion boards, journals, or reading logs, for example.

One more note about quizzes: Occasionally, I have found it necessary and useful to give what I call an “ambiguous quiz.” There were a handful of occasions this past semester where students who pretty clearly did not read the material (such as a chapter over the beginnings of enslavement in Jamestown) were guessing what the answer was according to things they have heard in movies or heard somewhere along the way. So I started occasionally giving quizzes that absolutely required some knowledge of the assigned reading. For example, “What was the petition you read seeking?” or “In terms of methodology, compare and contrast the type of primary sources used in the readings this week compared to all of the other weeks.” (The brief answer was “this week’s reading only had images, whereas the other weeks were letters.”) This subtle change worked wonders at getting students to realize that reading the material was absolutely necessary.  

Major exams and essays also provide useful opportunities for students to practice writing.

My students probably get the most direct and personal feedback with their midterm exam.

Students receive a list of five possible questions for both the midterm and final on the first day of class, and I encourage them to start studying early and to practice responses. I offer to review any practice responses, as well.

On the day of each exam, I select two of the five and students answer both. For the final, students also write one cumulative essay, for which they also get the question in advance. These questions ask students to synthesize, evaluate, and organization information in order to formulate an opinion about the topics.

For example, one of possible questions for the midterm exam in the United States History since 1877 is:

What do images, songs, movies, and writings, for example, from 1870-1945 tell us about how people felt, responded to the times, and/or advocated for change?

The cumulative essay question on the final exam in this same course is:

If any theme or “red thread” can tie virtually everything in United States history together it would be both the apparent gap between proclaimed ideals and the “reality” AND the never-ceasing grassroots movements and protests by individuals seeking change. Write an essay that traces the most important events and themes since 1870 and that describes what you have learned this semester.

Since students get questions before hand, these exams not only assess learning but give students an opportunity to truly explore material. I will spend 10-20 minutes reading and grading each one. I have found very detailed comments on essay exams are particularly important because students come to college with little practice at taking such exams.

I am also a big fan of assigning out-of-class writing assignments. We will spend time during class well before the assignment going over how to write effectively. When grading such assignments, I tend to point out a limited number of errors related to writing style and move on. Also for the sake of time, I only write a few comments on these essays because generally the comments are about the same for each student. “You need to provide evidence.” “This is summary, not analysis.” “Missing citation.” Rather than writing the same comments over and over (and cluttering each paper with marks), I spend a good 15 minutes with the entire class going over areas for improvement. I again emphasize that if they have more specific questions or would like more detailed feedback to please talk with me. Usually just a few students are interested in conversations where we really get to discuss how to improve as a writer.

Such out-of-class assignments open the door for plagiarism; however, plagiarism can be virtually eliminated by regularly changing writing assignments, having unusual writing assignments, regularly offering to clarify any questions and to review papers in office hours before the due date (there will always be surprisingly few who take such opportunity), and by requiring students sign and submit a detailed academic honesty pledge with each assignment. In my experience, Turnitin is not helpful in preventing plagiarism but only in catching it.  

I love writing and tell students that writing is essential to learning. Students will generally complain about writing, regardless of the amount, and beg for multiple-choice assignments until they see they CAN write and CAN learn more effectively with writing intensive assignments. I explain writing gives students room to be flexible, creative, and truly show their learning. I explain a multiple-choice test could ask, “In what decade was the Civil War finally inevitable?,” with choices of 1770s, 1790s, 1830s, and 1850s. In this case, only one answer could be “correct.” In reality, any of these answers can be correct.

With written assignments, students have an opportunity to do better and their knowledge is focused on meaningful, lasting information. Writing moves assessment beyond low-level knowledge, as in basic recall, and moves students toward critical, creative, high-level thinking. And this is what education is truly about.


Andrew Joseph Pegoda is completing his Ph.D. in history at the University of Houston, where he also teaches. He studies race, culture, human rights, and education. He blogs here and here.



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