Teaching with Writing

Whether you’re teaching a lecture course, seminar, precept, or lab, you can profitably integrate writing into the classroom experience. In fact, if you spend only three to five minutes per session on any of the following activities, you would be making a significant difference in students’ understanding of what it means to write—and therefore think—in your course or discipline:

Each of these activities is discussed in detail below.

In the Spotlight: The Writing Seminar Experience 

Use in-class writing to deepen students’ thinking

Ask students to write for two or three minutes on the spot—at the beginning of class to stimulate discussion or gather students’ attention; in the middle of class to make a transition in topic, work through a difficult issue or problem, or keep students engaged; or at the end of class to give students a chance to reflect on what they’ve learned, sealing it in their memories. There’s no need to collect this “low-stakes” writing, but you can use it as the basis of a class discussion or a two- or three-minute conversation among small groups of students. Not only does it deepen students’ thinking and give them practice writing; it also provides quiet students with a space to articulate their ideas. Once these students have written something, you can call on them with the assurance that they’ll have something to say.

Depending on what you’re after, the writing prompt you give students can be highly specific or as open-ended as “Take a few minutes to reflect on the reading you did for today.” You may even wish to design some prompts to help students make progress on a particular formal writing assignment. Here are a few sample prompts to get you thinking :

  • Identify and define one of an author’s key words.
  • Locate a “hotspot” in the text (i.e., a passage that seems important, striking, puzzling) and write a brief comment on what makes it interesting or suggestive.
  • Given a particular position or theory (e.g., in a journal article), find a passage in the text under discussion that supports or challenges it, and say briefly how.
  • Write a brief note to an author challenging a key idea or finding.
  • Agree or disagree with an author’s perspective or claim.
  • In the last five minutes of class, reflect on what you learned in class today and jot down the most important takeaways.

“Meta-teach” during lecture or discussion

The premise of a liberal arts education is that students can take skills, strategies, and information and apply them to other situations. Thus does the Anthropology major become a physician, the Music major a delegate to the United Nations, and the Chemistry major an entrepreneur. But only the most gifted students are capable of making these crucial “knowledge transfers” unaided. You can help students generalize their learning and transfer it to other contexts through “meta-teaching”—that is, taking a step back and naming or having students name the intellectual operation being performed. Meta-teaching takes only seconds to do, but it can help students see methodology where before they saw only “content,” and it can help them connect their classroom experience to their writing.

For example, if you’re discussing a graph, painting, case history, dataset, or other course material, point out to students when the analysis being performed, either by you or by them, is characteristic of the discipline, and explain that they should perform this kind of analysis in their papers. Or if a student’s or your understanding of the data or text challenges prevailing ideas, you can explain that most academic papers begin in just that way—by identifying the status quo, then challenging it. Or if a student comes up with an interesting idea that would make for a good paper, say so, and explain why, to help every student see what good inquiry in the course or discipline looks like. As the semester progresses, give students more opportunities to identify moments like these and practice articulating how it can apply to their next writing assignment.

Discuss scholarship in terms of writing

You can “meta-teach” scholarship, too, including journal articles, book chapters, and textbook introductions. In fact, it’s worth assigning good scholarly sources if only to give students some models for discipline-based writing. Otherwise, they’ll write according to their perhaps mistaken notions of what “scientific,” or “sociological,” or “historical” writing looks like.. Even advanced students typically have less experience reading peer-reviewed scholarship than you might expect, and few are likely to have considered what these sources can tell them about the discipline’s methods of written inquiry and analysis.

You can simply point out how a study models a particular approach to the material or makes a particular rhetorical move. For example, you might note that a source’s approach is to apply a theory, test a hypothesis, critique an argument, make a recommendation, or provide an explanation. Specific moves you could point out might include how the author frames the research question or problem, provides background information, performs analysis, handles counter-arguments, or integrates and cites sources. A focus on professional scholars’ use of sources—how they announce them, incorporate them (e.g., through direct quotation, paraphrase, or summary), cite them, and connect them to their own argument—can cultivate an ethos of academic integrity in your classroom and help students steer clear of plagiarism.

In the Spotlight: Source Charts

A more time-consuming but also more effective way to heighten students’ awareness of how course readings function as writing is to take a workshop approach. In a workshop, students themselves examine a source for what it can tell them about disciplinary discourse. Below are some questions you might ask students to answer in pairs or small groups. Even if you ask them to answer only one of these questions per reading, by the end of the term, they’ll know a great deal about writing in the discipline.

  • What are the main parts of this piece of writing, and what are the primary functions of each?
  • What are the elements of the introduction? the body? the conclusion?
  • Who is the author’s imputed reader, and how do you know?
  • What are the form and function of each source citation?
  • What style does the author use for documenting sources, and why do you think this style is preferred?
  • Consider the kind of academic writing that’s furthest from the kind represented by this source. What are the differences between the two?

In the Spotlight: Quantitative Source Functions across the Disciplines

Discuss strategies for approaching writing assignments

As long as the assignment allows for a wide variety of responses, it’s not cheating to discuss how students might approach it. In fact, discussing approaches to an assignment can form an important part of students’ learning about what’s valued in the course or discipline, and can help them formulate ideas that are both complex and distinctively their own. While it’s tempting to append a few words of advice to the assignment prompt and leave it at that, a discussion that takes place in class will be more meaningful and engaging for students, provide them with an opportunity to ask for clarification and guidance, and, perhaps most important of all, give them a jump on the assignment, which they might otherwise sit on until the night before it’s due.

You can discuss the assignment directly by asking students for their ideas about how to approach it. This discussion will give you a chance to offer some ideas of your own, convey your expectations (if you want an argument rather than a report, or vice versa, you need to say so), and warn students away from pitfalls. Alternatively (or in addition), you can discuss the assignment indirectly by leading a workshop that will actually get students started on the work of writing the paper. One method is to give students an assignment that asks them to approach a source or texts in a particular way rather than giving them topics per se. In class, have students brainstorm topics that will work for the assignment, put these on the board, then ask students to choose one and freewrite on it for one or two minutes. With little time investment, students will have learned how to come up with their own topic and even begun engaging it.

In the Spotlight: Crafting Assignment Sequences

One final idea: you can model a response to the assignment in class discussion. Just be sure to make explicit that you’re modeling a response; otherwise, many students won’t make the connection. It’s also a good idea to make the source(s) you use in the modeling exercise off-limits when it comes to the assignment itself. So, for example, if the assignment asks students to place a film in a particular context, you can model the assignment using an off-limits video clip. In this way, students can learn the complex analytical operations necessary to write the paper—operations such as applying a theory, critiquing a claim, or comparing texts in a given framework—and then practice these operations in their own papers.

Workshop current students’ writing

All sophomores, juniors, and seniors have taken Writing Seminars, and all first-year students are in the process of doing so. This means that nearly the entire student body has experience providing constructive criticism in response to student writing. You can capitalize on students’ experience by workshopping some of their writing—a partial or whole draft, or a short exercise, such as a paper proposal or even an annotated bibliography. Next to giving students detailed comments on their writing, workshopping is the best method for showing students, in practical and concrete terms, the kind of inquiry and analysis valued in your course or discipline. And, of course, workshopping is more efficient than writing individual comments on drafts.

In the Spotlight: The Writing Workshop and Its Variations

Discuss exemplary writing from former students

A variation on the writing workshop is to lead a discussion of a model student paper from a previous course or precept. The purpose is for students to see how another student intelligently frames an inquiry, provides context, structures ideas, performs analysis, and integrates sources—all of which are specific to the course or discipline. While it usually makes sense to workshop current students’ writing with their names attached, it’s best practice to strip all identifying information from writing by students who aren’t part of the classroom experience (e.g., from a different section or previous semester).

We recommend asking students for their written permission to use their anonymous writing in your teaching. A Google form or email could make the request:

I give/do not give my instructor permission to use the writing I have produced in this course for teaching, training, and studying. I understand that my name and other identifying information will be removed from my writing.

Organize and promote writing groups

You can capitalize on students’ experience of workshopping writing in the Writing Seminar by organizing them into writing groups of two or three students each. Writing group members typically give each other feedback on drafts outside of class, though you might set aside a few minutes of class time to get the groups going. Participating in a writing group will mean, at the very least, that students will have started working on their papers well in advance of the deadline and, at the very most, that they’ll give and get helpful feedback while enjoying a free exchange of ideas. Either way, the result will be better final papers with little time expenditure on your part.

While some students will form writing groups voluntarily, it’ll be more successful if writing groups are built into the assignment sequence. This means you’ll need to require a draft with its own deadline, in addition to a deadline for writing groups to meet and a separate deadline for the final version of the paper. You should also ask students to attach a cover letter to the final version of their papers in which they discuss their writing process, the advice they received, and how they incorporated it. The cover letter will not only let you know who participated in the groups (and who didn’t); it will also give you a starting point for your comments on the paper. Finally, you might ask students to follow common scholarly practice by including a note in the final version in which they acknowledge the feedback and support they received in writing the paper.

In the Spotlight: Effective and Ethical Research

The easiest way to form groups is by paper topic, but, in any case, don’t worry too much about group composition; even weak writers can give excellent advice. And don’t worry too much about students giving each other bad advice, either; what’s true for professional scholars and scientists is true for students: the responsibility to decide which advice to take and which to reject is theirs and theirs alone. By the deadline, students exchange drafts by email or hard copies in class, or by posting to a Discussion Board on Canvas. If you want to monitor the exchange, simply have students submit a copy of their drafts, or look on the Discussion Board forum to see who has posted. Or just let the process unfold; the cover letter on the final version or the “Acknowledgments” will let you know who participated.

You can enhance the writing group experience by giving students guidelines for providing feedback. For example, you might tell them that you specifically want them to discuss the effectiveness of the graphs and written analysis, or the summary and application of a theory in interpreting a case. If the class is very small (under 15) and the writing groups are meeting to discuss drafts of research papers, you might even meet with the groups yourself. Obviously, this is a time-consuming option, but it may save you ink in the long run and is almost guaranteed to be a highlight of the semester—the kind of intense intellectual exchange that students came to Princeton for in the first place.