Peter Wayne Moe
With a new quarter right around the corner, we’ll all be looking at our winter syllabi in the coming weeks, writing up new assignments, revising what we did last time we taught this course, and imagining new ways of handling our material. Much composition scholarship shows that students learn to write best when they write throughout a course—that is, rather than save all writing for a big paper due finals week, it’s better to sequence assignments throughout the term, with regular writing a vital part of the course calendar. This teaches students to write because they have many opportunities to work on their writing in a variety of assignments, but so too, regular writing also helps students learn course content as they struggle to put ideas into their own words, their own sentences.
What might writing look like that occurs throughout the term and isn’t a final paper? Here are a few ideas for informal writing assignments, taken from John Bean’s excellent book Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2011, pp. 131-45, 174).
Writing at the beginning of class to probe a subject. Give students a question that reviews previous material or stimulates interest in what’s coming. Review tasks can be open-ended and exploratory (“What questions do you want to ask about last night’s readings?”) or precise and specific (“What does it mean when we say that a certain market is ‘efficient’?”). Or use a question to prime the pump for the day’s discussion (“How does Plato’s allegory of the cave make you look at knowledge in a new way?”).
Double-entry notebooks. The double-entry notebook requires students first to reflect on course material and then later to reflect on their own reflections. It is thus also called a “dialectical notebook” or “dialogue journal.” On right-hand pages of a standard spiral notebook (or the right columns of a word-processed page using the column/table function) students are asked to make copious lecture and reading notes, based on the theory that putting course material into one’s own words enhances learning. Then, on the left-hand pages (or columns), students are to create an interactive commentary on the material—posing questions, raising doubts, making connections, seeing opposing views, linking course material with personal experience, expressing confusion, and so forth.
Practice Essay Exams. Occasionally throughout the term, the teacher gives students an essay exam question due in class the next day (the student is instructed to do the writing at home, setting a watch to simulate exam conditions). The teacher collects the practice exams, checks them off in a grade book, and then reads a random sampling. The teacher then makes duplicates of an A exam for class discussion. Discussion of the exam constitutes review of course material as well as explanation of how to write essay exams.
Writing Dialogues. Ask students to write imaginary “meeting of the minds” dialogues between people with opposing views (Kant and Mill on the use of torture to prevent terrorism; Jesus and the Grand Inquisitor on freedom; Copernicus and Ptolemy on the retrogression of the planets). Often these assignments make good out-of-class group projects for active learning wherein study teams of three or four students can write the dialogue together.
Help Students See that All Texts are Trying to Change Their View. Students tend to see texts as conveyers of inert information rather than as rhetorically purposeful messages aimed at effecting some change in the reader’s view of the subject. If students become more aware that texts are trying to change their views in some way, they can interrogate texts more actively, trying to decide what to accept and what to doubt. A useful exercise to help students appreciate the rhetorical nature of a texts is to ask them to write responses to the following questions:
Before I read this text, the author assumed that I believed …
After I finished reading this text, the author wanted me to believe …
The author was/was not successful in changing my view. How so? Why or why not?
The benefit of incorporating informal writing assignments such as these is that they not only help students become better writers but also they help students learn course material. They can be graded with a simple check/plus/minus, and with a quick read-through the instructor can quickly assess how well students understand what’s being covered in class.