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Informal, in-class writing activities

Pamela Flash

Informal, 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.

What follows 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.


Freewriting, 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.

There are 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 can’t think of anything to say, I can’t think of…” or “Nothing nothing nothing” if their minds go blank. Once their self-consciousness or resistance lowers, ideas will begin to flow again.

It’s important, particularly in the case of focused freewrites, that students take a few moments after the timer has gone off to read over what they’ve 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 to discussions.

Note also that freewriting is often personal and messy. It should be a low-stakes writing activity for students, and should therefore remain ungraded.

This excerpt is from a timed freewrite and shows the student’s subsequent highlights.

highlighted freewrite

One-minute papers

One-minute 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.

The following are examples of prompts:

  • Any discipline:
    Create a bumper sticker that would summarize yesterday’s lecture.

    Without referring to the text, jot down one or two points that surprised you.

  • Anthropology:
    Try to view this slide through the eyes of a member of your target subculture. List your observations in the order they occur to you.
  • Medical Ethics:
    “People suffering from schizophrenia or manic-depressive disorder should/should not be forced to take their medication" (Bean 124).
  • Algebra:
    Think of examples of your own personal experience to illustrate the uses of vector algebra. You might consider such experiences as swimming in a river with a steady current, walking across the deck of a moving boat, crossing the wake while water-skiing, cutting diagonally across a vacant lot while friends walk around the lot, or watching a car trying to beat a moving train to a railroad crossing. Use one or more of these experiences to explain to a friend (a Kinesiology major) what vector algebra is all about. Use both words and diagrams (adapted from Bean 121).


Scenarios 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.

Sample prompts include the following:

  • Create a hypothetical dialogue between 3-5 individuals who have different perspectives on, but definite stakes in, your argument.
  • Write a short letter to the author of this novel in which you pose unresolved question(s).
  • You are Adam Smith. You have an intercom connection to WorldCom. What do you say?
  • Write 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.


Logbooks (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.


Microthemes, 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:

  • History:
    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 history.
  • Wildlife 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 group.

Teaching 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 you’re 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.
  • Whenever 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.
  • Before 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 aren’t going to be judged on the quality of their exploratory writing.
  • Be clear about time limits (“I’ll 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 developments.
  • If you collect student writing, summarize, or at least highlight and comment on your findings during a subsequent class.

Effective write-to-learn assignments...

  • Are short (3-15 minutes)
  • Ask students to write a word, a sentence, question, or a paragraph or two
  • Are integrated (explicitly) into class content, objectives, and activity, and, are optimally, utilized in subsequent writing projects
  • Elicit multiple responses
  • Where appropriate, receive some content-focused (versus mechanics-focused) response
  • Aren't formally graded, but count toward a portion of the grade

Now 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; you’ve 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 assignments:

For in-class short-writes:

  • 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.
  • Follow 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.
  • Collect 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 plus).
  • Ask students to keep their writing until the semester’s end, then hand in their five best for grading.

Three important caveats:

  • Freewriting 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.
  • Whether 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 project’s cumulative grade.
  • Anticipating 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.

For longer informal assignments:

Longer pieces 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 student’s ideas are obscured by error-ridden writing, you won’t be able to respond to them.

Writing supportive 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.

Grading informal writing assignments:

Respond with a simple check plus (excellent), check (satisfactory), or check minus (sub-adequate) and, if time is limited, minimal comments:

check plus

“Your insights on issues relating to privacy in health care reporting are strong and could be developed into a compelling argument!”

check mark

“You’ve named some of the most important issues involved with privacy and health care, but don’t develop any of them persuasively.”

check minus

“You’ve summarized the articles and have responded thoughtfully, but don’t answer the assigned question.”


Bean, John. C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.