The assignments below are generally short, informal, perhaps ungraded writing assignments that instructors might consider adapting to their classes. Students often appreciate the opportunity to explore their thoughts on paper in a way that relieves the pressure of a longer, more formal writing assignment.
The Question Box
Having students write anonymous questions about the content of lectures encourages them to think more critically about what they are hearing. Students can be asked to write these questions before, during, and after lectures. They can deposit their questions in a cardboard box near the exit of the lecture hall. During subsequent classes, the lecturer actually incorporates these student questions and insights into the presentation material, usually by reproducing the remarks on transparencies and projecting them directly to the class for comment and response.
Anticipatory Writing or Freewriting
Instructors can ask students to write informally (or to engage in a “freewrite”) about a particular course topic before they read, hear a lecture, or participate in a discussion about it. Such anticipatory writing helps students connect their previous knowledge with new information and prepares them for fuller participation in reading, lecture, or discussion.
- EXAMPLE (from a sociology course on criminal justice, before lectures about police corruption): “List the factors you can think of that lead to police corruption. How do you think those reasons might vary from urban to non-urban police forces?”
Microthemes or Minute Papers
Brief essays, written in class or as homework, ranging from a 3 x 5 card to a page in length. This kind of assignment is designed to encourage students to reflect on what they’re learning, to give feedback to instructors, and to promote specific cognitive skills, such as summarizing, argument, analysis, problem solving, or hypothesizing from data. Some benefits: students must learn to see right to the heart of an issue, to select only major points; instructors can emphasize a particular issue or type of thinking, can learn what students understand and what they don’t, and can read the microthemes quickly.
- EXAMPLE (from any course): To be written quickly and submitted at the end of the class—”What was the most important thing that you learned today?” “What were the main points of today’s lecture?” “What questions remain uppermost in your mind?” Begin the next class meeting by reading aloud selected microthemes.
- EXAMPLE (from a course in gender and the professions): “You are a writer for a major advertising firm. You have been asked to design two written advertisements for a vacation in England, one of which will attract men (Esquire) and the other to appeal to women (Ms.). You think, however, that two ads are unnecessary. Write a memo to your boss and explain why.”
- EXAMPLE (to promote specific kinds of thinking in any course): Provide students with a thesis that they then have to support in the microtheme with specifics. From a finance course: “Choose one of the following propositions and defend it in two pages: The price earnings ratio of a stock does/does not reflect the rate or return that investors in that stock will achieve.” Or provide students with specifics that they must draw a conclusion from. Or ask students to apply a theory to a new set of facts. Or ask students to explain (perhaps in outline form) a process for solving a problem.
- EXAMPLE (from a course in physiology): “Some organs of the body are functionally unique single structures (e.g., one heart, one spleen). Others are found as functionally redundant pairs (two kidneys, two lungs). Explain how the human brain might be cited as an illustration of both kinds of anatomical structure.”
These are one-, two-, or three-page exploratory “think pieces” requiring students to react to some aspect of an article or book or lecture. Typically the instructor asks students to take an idea that has come up in class lecture or discussion or in readings and develop it more fully. These pieces of writing should be treated as exploratory drafts; students might pick 2 or 3 such texts to revise and submit for grading at the end of the term. They will be most effective if instructors assign or allow students to choose a persona to adopt, a particular situation to respond to, an audience to address, a particular purpose to fulfill. To set this up, instructors should assign students a professional identity, a situation, and even a rhetorical form (letter, memo, etc.).
- EXAMPLE (from Professor Lee Hansen’s Econ. 450 class): “Imagine that you are serving as the principal economic adviser to Secretary of Labor Brock who asks you for a two-page analysis of Reissman’s proposal (attached) for a legislated four-day, 32-hour week; this would entail amending the Fair Labor Standards Act. Explain the likely effects of such legislation on measured employment and unemployment, total hours worked, the labor cost index, and earnings.”
Letters to Authors
A personal response to an assigned reading in the form of a letter. The informal style and imagined possibility of letters often makes them easier to write than essays.
- EXAMPLE: “Pick an author with whom you disagree or whom you admire. Write a letter to this person expressing your views.”
A short text in which a student role plays a particular figure, perhaps in the form of a journal entry or a letter.
- EXAMPLE: “Imagine that you are William Buckley and you are getting ready to debate Noam Chomsky on American foreign policy in Central America. Write down the points you intend to make in your debate. In order to anticipate Chomsky’s own arguments and be prepared, also write down what you expect to be his main points and how you will respond.”
Argumentative and persuasive texts geared to the classroom community or to a broader group.
- EXAMPLE (from a philosophy course): “Write an editorial for The Progressive or The National Review in which you support or argue against parents’ and doctors’ use of sophisticated biomedical techniques to detect potential birth defects in fetuses.”
Journals (special notebooks in which students write regularly) provide students with time and a requirement to think about course material and to engage in an ongoing written dialogue with their instructors. As Toby Fulwiler explains, journals can help individualize learning and encourage “writers to become conscious, through language, of what is happening to them, both personally and academically.” Students can use journals to
- record thoughts, insights, and impressions about course material
- ask questions and speculate; clarify, modify, and extend ideas
- respond to reading, lectures, or instructor’s questions
- begin thinking about ideas that can later be developed into more formal papers
- discover connections between course materials; prepare for exams, class discussion, or course papers
- gain fluency in writing.
Journals are different from other kinds of assignments in the freedom they provide for thinking that isn’t directly evaluated by the professor; they can provide a place for personal responses and for experimentation. Because journals are personal and because instructors need to make students feel comfortable being tentative and taking the kinds of risks that journals offer, it’s important to allow students leeway in the kinds of entries that they choose to write. Some students respond well to using a journal to sponsor their own topics in an unstructured way, while others seem to need more specific guidelines for journal writing.
Even though instructors do not usually grade journals for content or expression, they should, however, expect students to write regularly and thoughtfully in their journals. Part of a discussion or participation grade or a percentage of a student’s overall grade is often based on the effort exhibited in regularly writing in the journal. (Many instructors give their students A’s for a journal-keeping requirement if students regularly write in it and “No Credit” if they don’t.) One way to stress the importance of journals is to integrate them with other class activities. For example, journals can be used as a place for students to write at the beginning or end of class; instructors can periodically ask students to read entries aloud in class as a way to open up discussion. Students can also be asked to develop formal papers out of promising journal entries. And because journal writing takes place over an extended period of time and emphasizes developing thinking, some instructors have students review and write an introduction to their journals as a culminating assignment.
To make students take a journal assignment seriously and to encourage good thinking, instructors must read and respond to the journals, especially early in the semester. To keep the reading load manageable, instructors often
- skim journals to check on progress
- collect journals on a rotating basis
- respond briefly to selected entries that appear interesting or that students have selected for response; responses can take the form of a personal comment or a question to prompt further thought.
Double-Entry Learning Logs
These are special journals in which students respond to the material they read for class, on the one hand, and “talk with the teacher about the readings,” on the other. In these logs, students summarize key information (rather than just highlight key passages in the books or articles themselves) and respond to the reading—raising questions, drawing parallels, voicing objections, confessing confusion. If instructors respond to these logs, they can focus and direct students, point our ideas for fuller treatment in formal papers, suggest other reading, answer questions, challenge ideas. (Students can use a variation of this technique as they take class notes: in the right-hand column they can summarize, respond to, or question the detailed notes in the left column.) A word of caution, however: journals and learning logs are time-consuming for both instructors and students, and if instructors assign them, they may have to adjust the amount of reading as they assign or else use the logs for only certain readings.
Summary of the class lecture or discussion, prepared by a student selected as secretary-for-the-day; duplicated for all class members, presented, and discussed briefly at the beginning of the next class.
Glossary of key terms in a course, with students producing definitions, examples, illustrations, maps, diagrams, etc. During the first part of a course, students identify main terms and major concepts; during the second part, students collaboratively compile the course dictionary. The audience for the dictionary is students who will take the course in future semesters.
Students read half a story, chapter, book, or experiment, or a partial data set, and then predict the rest and justify their conclusions.
“Write to Learn”
“Write to Learn” assignments are used in many disciplines to keep students writing frequently and informally.
Incorporating short writing assignments in a college classroom can provide many benefits for students, including giving students more writing practice and helping students explore ideas. For faculty, one of the main benefits of using “write to learn” assignments is that you don’t have to grade them in conventional ways and yet they help students think about and learn the course content.
For effective “write to learn” assignments, consider the following guidelines:
- Assign short writing assignments in class (3-10 minutes).
- Ask students to write a word, a sentence, question, or a paragraph in response to class discussion or homework.
- Elicit multiple responses throughout a class period via brief written responses.
Freewriting is perhaps the simplest way to encourage students to write with ease. Students may have encountered freewriting before and may have different associations with the process than you, the instructor, do, so if you encourage freewriting in your class, be sure to clarify what you mean by freewriting and the purpose of the freewriting activity before you begin!
- Take a look at this short summary on the benefits of freewriting by Peter Elbow.
- This link offers both an explanation of the benefits of freewriting and some sample questions that can be modified for different disciplines.
One-minute papers typically include a specific prompt that must be responded to efficiently. Also, teachers can use one-minute papers to gauge the effectiveness of a particular lesson or discussion.
- This link provides a general overview of how to use one-minute papers in a college classroom.
- This link suggests ways to incorporate various types of one-minute prompts.
Microthemes are condensed writing activities that actually require significant thought before writing (distinguishing it from the freewrite). Because of their size—usually fitting onto a notecard—it is quick to grade, and is less intimidating to the student.
- This article by Ray Smith, Director of the Campus Writing Program at Indiana University, Bloomington, is a useful and brief explanation of the theories behind microthemes.
- This website breaks down the microtheme into four interdisciplinary categories.
Many educators are moving away from the term “journals” and are beginning to call them logbooks or notebooks. The logbook encourages students to keep responses to readings, lectures, experiments, or class discussions. Creating a dialectical logbook ensures that students will both recall and reflect. This link offers specific examples of a few different ways to envision the dialectical notebook.
Have students ask a question, hypothesize possible answers, then ask new questions based upon information gained through lecture or reading. May be used during single lectures or across a series of lectures, may be done individually in class or assigned for homework, may form the basis for small group discussion or individual presentations.
Scenario Prompts using “Small Genres”
Create short scenarios related to course material for students to respond to in “small genres” such as letters, editorials, memos, short “plays,” etc.
Sample Scenario Prompt: You have been invited to address the City Council meeting to advocate for the issue of [insert issue] and must provide the Council members with a handout offering a short summary of your main points and three bullet items, with brief explanations, of your supporting reasons.
Have students prepare examination questions which may be used on quizzes, midterms, and finals. Here, the instructor will gain some insight as to whether the students have grasped the main concepts for a topic. Also, the students will more carefully evaluate their notes, since it is their own exam they are composing. PDF here (page 11).
Writing Out of the Day (WOOD)
Students will be asked at the end of each class period to summarize what was learned that day. The instructor will also write along with the students. The class will read their summaries to each other and rewrite anything they might have missed in their summary as a homework assignment. PDF here (page 17).
Semester-Long Project/ Exam Preparation Journals
This method provides strong intrinsic motivation for exploratory writing and uses course exams to drive a maximum amount of learning. To use the method, the teacher, early in the course, gives out a list of essay questions from which midterm and final exam questions will be drawn. Students are instructed to devote a section of their journals to each question. Then students gradually work out answers to the questions as course material builds and develops. Some teachers allow students to use their preparation journals during the exams.
John Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2001), 109.