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While discussion and lecture are often the most appropriate uses of the limited face-to-face time you have with your students, adding in-class writing to your teaching repertoire can increase student learning and engagement with course materials, and support deeper understanding of and participation in lecture and discussion. The in-class writing activities we suggest here all can be accomplished with limited class time and none require you to do any formal grading.
Brainstorming and Idea Generation
What is it? Students write--and keep writing--for a certain period of time.
Good for: Brainstorming, low-stakes writing assignments
How to: According to Peter Elbow (1973), a writing scholar and advocate for freewriting, "The idea is simply to write for ten minutes (later on, perhaps fifteen or twenty). Don't stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing? The only requirement is that you never stop."
What is it? Students write for a certain amount of time, then pick a topic to focus on and continue writing.
Good for: Generating ideas for a paper or project
How to: Have students freewrite for five or ten minutes and then instruct them to choose their favorite sentence or the idea they find most compelling and then use that as a jumping off point for another five to ten minute freewrite.
Checking for understanding
Background knowledge probe
What is it? A diagnostic pre-test.
Good for: Checking to see what motivations, beliefs, values, misconceptions, and background content knowledge students bring to class.
How to: Give students two or three short answer questions or 15-20 multiple choice questions. Consider sharing your findings with the class.
Clear skies/muddy waters
What is it? An informal way to assess students’ learning midway through the semester.
Good for: Getting an understanding of what concepts students understand and which concepts students find most challenging. The findings of this activity can be useful for faculty hoping to tailor future classes to meet students? needs, as well as for students who wish to identify what they already learned and what course content they need more time with.
How to: On an index card or piece of scrap paper, have students write down: (1) the muddiest or most confusing point covered that day in class and (2) the most important or clearest point that they are taking away from the lecture.
What is it? Periodic reflective writing.
Good for: Having students engage metacognitively with the course goals, set their own personal goals, and track their progress toward both.
How to: At the beginning of the quarter, ask students to identify in writing which course goals listed on the syllabus are most important for their educational agenda, and to set 1-2 additional goals they have for themselves. At midterm and then at the end of the semester, ask students to return to this document and write a short in-class reflection on their progress towards the goals. Additionally, when students hand in assignments or tests, ask them to write a paragraph that answers the following question: Why are we doing this assignment? What do you personally hope to take away from this project?
For a list of classroom activities that can help you check your students' understanding of class material—and get them writing—take a look at these examples of classroom assessment techniques.
Working with readings
What is it? A collaborative activity for writing summaries.
Good for: Identifying the main ideas in a piece of writing using one's own words; practicing reading and writing about difficult texts.
How to: Assign an article for students to read before class. In small groups, each student focuses on one section of the article and writes one or two summarizing sentences on a slip of paper. Then the group puts together a summary, determining which pieces of paper to include, remove, or move around in order to create the best summary.
Silent Socratic Dialogue
What is it? A peer-to-peer writing activity.
Good for: Prompting students to engage with the arguments and claims made in their assigned readings; involving all students in active discussion.
How to: Students arrive to class having completed the reading. Each student responds in writing to a question about the reading posed by the instructor, then students trade their written responses with a peer. After reading the response, each student writes a question on their peer's paper that asks the writer to clarify or expand the response in some way. The cycle of silent written exchange (question, response, question, response) continues until the instructor asks students to wrap up the discussion by writing a final closing comment on the paper before them.
What is it? An activity for identifying perspective and prioritizing information.
Good for: Identifying bias in writing; technical or informative writing analysis; working collaboratively to generate ideas.
How to: Pick a breaking news story that is being covered by the media the same day of class (something that just happened as opposed to an ongoing, larger news story). Have students form small groups, then have each group find an article on the topic from a different news outlet. Each group should analyze what they read: What information was emphasized? What quotes were used and to what effect? How was the event framed? Then, each group reports back on their findings, comparing the different coverage.
What is it? Writing to evaluate what counts as plagiarism and cheating.
Good for: Giving students time to practice applying plagiarism and academic honesty policies to real situations; increasing students' awareness of plagiarism and how what counts as plagiarism varies across contexts.
How to: Either as an in-class or homework assignment, ask students to read the syllabus and the university policies regarding plagiarism and academic honesty. Next, present students with different situations where the definition of plagiarism and cheating may apply. (Show)
- A student copies and pastes a paragraph from Wikipedia into an essay without citing Wikipedia as a source.
- A student copies and pastes a paragraph from Wikipedia into an essay and properly cites it with a parenthetical in-text citation and with an entry in her references section.
- A student copies and pastes a passage of an essay she wrote for her English class into an essay for her History class.
- A student was assigned to use APA citation style in a research paper but used Chicago style instead.
- An international student from South Korea asks her American roommate to correct the English grammar mistakes in his lab report.
- A struggling student asks an older sibling for help writing a difficult paper. The older sibling edits some sentences and adds a few paragraphs to the student's draft before the student hands in the paper.
- A student includes a bar graph found online in a paper for his economics course. He does not include information about where the graph came from in his paper.
- A student includes a bar graph found online in a PowerPoint presentation for her economics course. She does not include information about where the graph came from in her presentation slides.
- A student includes a bar graph found online in a flyer she designed for student group on campus. She does not include the information about where the graph came from in the flyer.
Working in pairs, students write two or three sentences in response to each prompt arguing that the situation involves plagiarism, cheating, both, or neither. The class then discusses each situation as a group, with the goal of moving towards consensus about what counts as plagiarism and cheating. Finally, students write their own "fuzzy situation" to share and discuss with the class. This activity could be expanded to include a discussion of copyright and intellectual property issues that students might encounter. (Lesson idea courtesy of Stephen Skalicky).
What is it? A brainstorming activity to help students strengthen and expand an argument paper.
Good for: Understanding the importance of addressing multiple perspectives in argument-based writing; making global revisions to a draft-in-progress.
How to: Define and discuss the following terms with the class: argument, claim, naysayer, counterargument, concession, and rebuttal. Ask students to draw out a conversation between themselves and a naysayer regarding the argument that they are currently making in their paper. The conversation must include an identifiable claim, counterargument, concession, and rebuttal. Students get feedback on their work from a peer and use what they came up with in class as a guide for revising their paper to address the arguments of naysayers.
Elbow, Peter. (1973). Writing without teachers. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
In-class writing exercises. The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.