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10 tips for effective freewriting and other exercises

Todd Arnold

  1. If you want to incorporate informal writing assignments into a class, why not start on day one?  Asking students to write informally about themselves is one way I’ve approached this.  My informal writing prompt is: “Who I am, and what I’m all about (educational & professional goals, hobbies, interests, beliefs, etc.)” 
  2. Let students know early on (i.e., announcements, syllabus) how informal writing assignments will factor into their grades.  Beware that “ungraded” can translate as “not worth my time.”  I use a simple system of check-plus, check,check-minus , or 0 (outstanding, satisfactory, below expectations, not completed).  These scores then factor into the 10% of points that I usually allocate to attendance/participation. Let them know who their audience is: themselves, their classmates, you?
  3. Ruled 4 x 6” or 5 x 8” index cards provide a good format for brief, informal writing assignments in class.
  4. When students write something down, they become intellectually and emotionally invested in the subject.  I certainly can’t prove it, but I believe that their attention in lecture and their involvement in discussion increases as a result.
  5. A short reflective writing assignment at the middle or end of a lecture can help students integrate and process the material you’ve just presented to them.  And again, it helps students become more invested in the topic.
  6. If you use small-group activities in lecture, consider prefacing them with an informal writing activity. Students will have a minute to clarify their thinking and will be more likely to open up in discussion.
  7. If you use essay exams, consider having a mock essay question a couple weeks before your midterm or final.  Even if you can’t commit to evaluating their responses, students will benefit for having seen a “typical exam question.”
  8. You can get more elaborate, asking multiple or complex questions with up to 10 minutes of writing time, but be sure to focus ample class time to your follow up.  Try to integrate students’ written responses into this summary.
  9. Freewrites about big projects that are coming due can help focus students’ attention on looming deadlines and can help expose (or better yet, prevent) plagiarism.
  10. The quality of your freewriting exercises will parallel the quality of your questions.  Try to ask good, clear questions.  But don’t be afraid to fail once in a while too.