teaching with writing
informal, in-class writing activities
exploratory writing, when assigned regularly, can lead students to develop
insightful, critical, and creative thinking. Experience tells us that
without this prompted activity, students might not otherwise give themselves
enough time and space to reflect on class content, or to forge connections
that will allow them to remember and use ideas from assigned readings,
lectures, and other projects. These brief writing activities also allow
instructors to get a general sense of students grasp of course
concepts and materials, and can, in turn, inform future lecture notes,
class plans, and pacing.
is an annotated listing of some of the more common write-to-learn activities
assigned in classrooms across the disciplines at the University of Minnesota.
a form of automatic writing or brainstorming trumpeted by writing theorist
Peter Elbow, requires students to outrun their editorial anxieties by
writing without stopping to edit, daydream, or even ponder. In this technique,
all associated ideas are allowed space on the page as soon as they occur
in the mind. Five-minute bouts of freewriting can be useful before class
to spark discussion; in the middle of class to reinvigorate, recapitulate,
or question; and at the end of class to summarize. It is also useful at
many points in the drafting process: during the invention stage as students
sift for topics, and during the drafting process as they work to develop,
position, or deepen their own ideas.
at least two types of freewriting assignments: focused and unfocused.
Focused freewrites allow students opportunities to initiate or develop
their thinking on a topical, instructor-supplied prompt, for example, What is a
virus? Unfocused freewrites, on the other hand, allow students to
simply clear their minds and prepare for content activity. In either form,
students are instructed to write generic phrases like I cant
think of anything to say, I cant think of
nothing nothing if their minds go blank. Once their self-consciousness
or resistance lowers, ideas will begin to flow again.
important, particularly in the case of focused freewrites, that students
take a few moments after the timer has gone off to read over what theyve
written, highlighting useful and interesting ideas that may be glittering
from amidst the verbal rubble (see example below). These insights might
then be developed into formal writing assignments, or at least be contributed
that freewriting is often personal and messy. It should be a low-stakes
writing activity for students, and should therefore remain ungraded.
is from a timed freewrite and shows the students subsequent highlights.
papers are usually written in class on an index card or scrap of paper,
or out-of-class via email. The limited space of the card forces students
to focus and also presents such a small amount of writing space that it
usually lowers levels of writing anxiety. On their cards, students may
be asked to summarize, to question, to reiterate, to support or counter a thesis
or argument, or to apply new information to new circumstances. Such writing
helps students to digest, apply, and challenge their thinking, achieving
enough confidence to contribute fruitfully to class discussions. These
short writing assignments also deliver quick, valuable feedback to instructors on what students are learning.
are examples of prompts:
are short, imaginative writing activities that allow students to broach
a topic or apply content to new contexts. Examples of scenario activities
include writing letters, editorials, memos, and persona pieces such as
dialogues or role play.
include the following:
a hypothetical dialogue between 3-5 individuals who have different perspectives
on, but definite stakes in, your argument.
a short letter to the author of this novel in which you pose unresolved
- You are
Adam Smith. You have an intercom connection to WorldCom. What do you
a letter to an elderly and taciturn patient (who has recently been diagnosed
with diabetes) explaining what is meant by the glycemic index of foods
and why knowing about the glycemic index will help her/him to maintain
healthy blood sugar levels.
(called journals* in some contexts) provide students with opportunities
to think through material in their own voices. They may be structured
or unstructured, requiring students to complete frequent short entries
in which they, for example, summarize material, connect course topics
with their observations and experiences, answer questions you design,
or reflect on their own notes using double-entry notebooks. Unlike individual
short writing assignments, logbooks compile student writing throughout
an assignment, a unit, or semester and, like portfolios, allow students
to see the development of their observations, ideas, and skills. These
notes may be kept in notebooks, binders, or electronic folders.
* You are
cautioned against calling the logbook a journal or diary. Students may
associate those terms with strictly personal records of intimate thoughts
and wishes and day-to-day activity. Students need to be clear that the purpose
of a logbook is the open (public) record of ideas and findings.
conventionally similar to the one-minute paper, have, in practice, taken
the form of one-page papers written outside class. Informal and exploratory,
these assignments should, again, present students with low-risk situations
where they can feel free to speculate and work through their thoughts,
paving the way for more sophisticated analysis and evaluation. Examples
include the following:
Write a microtheme of
between 250-350 words on the following topic: China and India both
had dramatic encounters with Western countries during the nineteenth
century. Select an encounter each country had with the West in
the 1800s and compare and contrast the Chinese and Indian responses.
Discuss these two responses in terms of at least one trend in world
Conservation and Management:
Write a microtheme addressing an issue
or concern based on a news release from a non-governmental organization
(NGO) or other stakeholder group. The news release of the NGO should
be from the period November 1999 - January 2000. Write the microtheme
from the perspective of a natural resource agency person (you). The
microtheme will be addressed to me, your supervisor. You will express,
and defend, either your opposition or your support of the perspective
raised in the news release. You will be expected to use the World Wide
Web (WWW). In addition, give the WWW address for the NGO or stakeholder
with Informal Writing Assignments: Some Notes on Procedure
- When introducing
the activity, give students your rationale for assigning it. Avoid
characterizing it as a fun little writing activity.
- If youre
using a prompt, present it both orally and visually by writing it on
the board or projecting it on the screen. Exceptions include disciplines
where response to oral instructions is valued.
possible, do the activity yourself before presenting it to students
and/or do it along with them in the class. This makes a significant
impact on student motivation.
students write, describe next steps. Will the writing be collected?
discussed? included in an assignment portfolio? graded? If students
are going to be able to be truly informal, they need to know that
they arent going to be judged on the quality of their exploratory
- Be clear
about time limits (Ill stop you in 5 minutes) and
when time is almost over, give a one-minute or 30-second warning.
- At the
completion of the assignment, ask students to reflect on insights and
- If you
collect student writing, summarize, or at least highlight and comment
on your findings during a subsequent class.
short (3-15 minutes)
students to write a word, a sentence, question, or a paragraph
integrated (explicitly) into class content, objectives, and activity,
and, are optimally, utilized in subsequent writing projects
appropriate, receive some content-focused (versus mechanics-focused)
formally graded, but count toward a portion of the grade
What?: Responding to Informal Writing
If the primary
purpose of informal writing is learning (rather than communicating what
has been learned) and if the intended audience is usually limited to
the writer, how are instructors advised to grade or respond to the
writing generated by these activities? Unlike finished student work
elicited by more formal assignments, informal writing is not assessed
for style or grammar; youve asked students to formulate and pursue
ideas in a creative and potentially messy process. With this in mind,
consider the following strategies for working with completed informal
- Do nothing
more: continue with the discussion, demonstration, or lecture, confident
that the activity succeeded in allowing students to deepen their
understanding of the target content.
the activity by giving students class time to voice ideas and/or questions
they may have uncovered by writing. In large classes, ask students to
discuss ideas from their writing with a peer in order to share or synthesize
responses that you then pull into discussion.
the writing with or without student names. You can read them quickly
for your own information, and then summarize this information in the
next class session, or you can grade them (check, check minus, check
- Ask students
to keep their writing until the semesters end, then hand in their
five best for grading.
often results in personal writing that students should not be asked
to make public. Make sure that you are clear about audience before the
assignment is undertaken.
or not their informal writing receives a grade or comment, students
should be given credit for doing it. Allocating a percentage of their
final course grades to informal assignments and/or class participation
can allow you a place to accumulate the minor number of points given
to these small assignments. You might also ask students to compile
and turn in all process pieces like drafts and informal writing
with a final project, and allocate a percentage of that projects
that students may be as unfamiliar with un-graded assignments as they
are with the whole concept of writing-to-learn, expect that their engagement
with either aspect may require some discussion of rationale on your
part as you introduce the activities.
of writing done outside class (microthemes, logbooks, response papers)
are read for content. Instructor or peer comments should focus primarily
on relevance to the assignment and quality of ideas. Criteria for success
in these assignments is usually based on the thoughtfulness of students
responses and their ability to think coherently on paper. If you find
that a students ideas are obscured by error-ridden writing, you
wont be able to respond to them.
and engaging comments is, of course, the ideal as these comments will
reinforce the idea that these informal assignments are indeed about exploration
and the pursuit of insight. If writing substantial comments is not an
option time-wise, you (or a classmate) can still note brief questions
and reactions in the margins.
Informal Writing Assignments:
a simple check plus (excellent), check (satisfactory), or check minus
(sub-adequate) and, if time is limited, minimal comments:
insights on issues relating to privacy in health care reporting are
strong and could be developed into a compelling argument!
named some of the most important issues involved with privacy and
health care, but dont develop any of them persuasively.
summarized the articles and have responded thoughtfully, but dont
answer the assigned question.
John. C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing,
Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: