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Teaching with writing in large classes

Robin Brown

"You want the assignment to teach writing so that you don’t have to."

Many instructors don't use any writing in large classes because teaching writing in addition to course content will further increase their workloads. These suggestions for using writing in large classes are designed so that writing becomes a help to teaching the course content, rather than a hindrance. The following "riffs on writing" in large classes offer general principles for incorporating writing assignments into large classes:

Rewards: Reward all writing that is done. Any writing assignment you give should be taken up and evaluated. Comments can be minimal, especially if you have made the guidelines for the assignment specific and clear. But unless the writing is made to "count," students probably won't perceive it as worth their effort.

Introspection: Give writing assignments that allow students to think about their own learning process in the class. In-class writings and informal, out-of-class assignments can give students a chance to evaluate their own progress and success in the course.

Formality: Consider the distinction between formal and informal pieces of writing. Formal pieces require more time spent teaching and evaluating the writing process; informal assignments give students a chance to use writing to explore the course content without too much emphasis on the writing process.

Feedback: Be sure that all student writing assignments have someone else's input and response. Use writing partners or groups so that students can get feedback from one another as well as from you.

Steps and Structure: Give writing assignments that have small, definable segments, controlled structures, and easy-to-follow steps.

Here are some ideas for informal writing assignments in large classes:

  • Have students write proposals for larger, more formal writing assignments or course projects.
  • Consider requiring short memos or responses periodically throughout the term to monitor students' progress in the course and their understanding of course material.
  • If you assign a longer, more formal paper, use informal writing assignments to help students frame a research question and report on the progress of their research.
  • After particularly complex or crucial lectures, have students write a 5-minute, in-class response to the lecture, identifying issues that are unclear or which warrant further discussion. Begin following classes by addressing these questions.
  • Select two or three key quotes or passages from assigned readings. Have students write informal responses to these passages, then use the writings to initiate group discussions.
  • When larger assignments are due, have students write an accompanying memo that evaluates their performance on the assignment.