student writing January 4

Write with Your Students to Promote Writing-as-Thinking

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The single greatest strategy that I know to stimulate classroom learning is to write with students at the beginning of class.

Consider your own pre-class ritual to see if writing with your students might profit you and them. In my classes, students funnel in to reach their seats. At the start of some classes, students yell, tease one another, and laugh about subjects unconnected to the class. One complains to another about a different class, “Well, I said to her it sounds like you’re telling me to rewrite the paper!” They both laugh.

In another class, students shuffle in quietly. Some place their heads on their desks. Some just stare out the window. Still others fidget. Another is worried about her sick cat back home.

Of course, I’m overgeneralizing. Often our classes exist in the spaces between these two extremes. But what’s common to all—I don’t think this constitutes overgeneralizing either—is that students don’t consider pre-class as the time to prepare for class. Instead, they tend to use it exclusively for out-of-the-classroom experiences, sending a few texts, checking the score to last night’s game, maybe studying for an examination. They don’t see the need for transitioning into learning.

I remember for a long time feeling powerless to get students “in the mood” to think about the subjects of the class when they arrive: to take out their ear buds, open their books, have their pens at the ready. Even worse, I empathized! I could understand why they see this opening time as theirs; only the final tock of the clock signals class starts and the inevitable, “I’m yours for just one hour” or however long the class lasts.

As teaching professors, I think we can forfeit those settling moments before class officially begins by providing something greater: showing students how we, as professors, need to think when class starts. But thinking is very hard to do. The brain may need retraining to begin thinking in different contexts (Oakley, 2014, p. 25).

Therefore, the best way to engineer “opening thinking” is to bring it in unawares: to show it by example so the intellectual gears start moving in the right direction as class begins, all without undue introductions, syllabus corrections, and directions. That trio deadens classroom enthusiasm quickly and leads us away from prolific writing.

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professor and student meeting to discuss writing December 11, 2017

Meaningful Learning through One-on-One Conferences

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Graduate students frequently get the chance to meet one-on-one with their professors. Yet at the undergraduate level, especially during the first year, students rarely get that chance, unless they take the initiative to come to office hours or schedule a meeting.

This is unfortunate. I teach first-year writing, and at least once every semester, I meet one-on-one with each of my students, usually to review a draft of their first paper. My students love these conferences, partly because they offer a chance for personal contact with their instructor, and partly because the conferences provide them with uniquely meaningful feedback.


student writing conferences April 24, 2017

Student Writing Conferences: Metaphors and Office Décor

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Faculty know that holding student writing conferences will overwhelm them, or at least that is what they’ve heard from colleagues. They’ve even heard such advice from those who never conference with students to provide individualized attention and feedback on their writing.

Perhaps the most disheartening is that conferencing faculty need to take on new and enervating roles as scheduler, negotiator, and time manager. And yes, reader—let’s not forget all those papers conferencing professors “have to read” before students arrive at their office doors!


College students working together in class. March 28, 2016

Establishing a Writing Community in the College Classroom

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When I hear the words “writing community,” my mind conjures up an elementary school classroom. I picture the warm, fuzzy second grade teacher wearing a warm, fuzzy sweater, handing out stickers and cookies as the students prepare for an authors’ tea. At this special event, parents will make the appropriate cooing sounds as their small children enthusiastically share their writing within the classroom.


November 11, 2014

Reporting, Reacting, and Reflecting: Guidelines for Journal Writing

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Every October, members of the Canadian Forces College’s National Security Program—a master of public administration program for senior military personnel and senior public service professionals—have the opportunity (and privilege) to travel to Ottawa to meet with high-level policy practitioners. The intent of the trip is to allow our students to compare what their in-class readings have taught them about governance and executive leadership with what actually happens in the national capital on a daily basis.


April 7, 2014

Helping Students Overcome Their Fear of Writing

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Most students in my developmental writing classes claim they “hate” writing. It’s a familiar refrain. But, it is less about “hate” and more about a lack of preparation in the subject area. They do not have sufficient experience with the writing process in order to understand what to do. It is not until they gain this experience and realize for themselves what is wrong and what is right with their own work will their writing improve. This personal realization has to happen. It is key to neutralizing their fear and boosting their confidence.


July 12, 2013

Too Many Papers to Grade? Two Solutions

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I mostly teach basic technical writing, and I face the same problem that confronts many of us who teach writing. It’s hard enough getting students to do the assignments, and almost impossible to get them to do a first draft. But writing takes practice, and if you require students to practice, that leads to an inevitable mountain of papers to grade. At my college, the trend is toward bigger classes and fewer course hours in English. This makes giving students the chance to practice all the more important, and providing the necessary feedback all the more challenging. I’d like to share a couple of solutions I’ve devised that help me deal with both these problems.


March 11, 2013

Better Research Basics, One Sentence at a Time

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Breathes there a professor of any subject with soul so dead who never to himself hath said, “Today’s undergraduates are hopeless at research!” (apologies to Sir Walter Scott). It is easy to blame high schools or freshman English classes, but that doesn’t fix our problem. As a frustrated educator of future teachers (Clouse) and a 20-year veteran of teaching college writing and research (Nelson), we obviously sympathize and often feel blamed. We have found that a better approach is an interdisciplinary effort that gives students ample opportunities to practice and develop their writing and research skills. The cumulative effect of this approach not only benefits faculty, but our students seem to appreciate and feel less intimidated working within this method as well.


March 6, 2013

What Types of Writing Assignments Are in Your Syllabus?

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Thanks to the Writing-Across-the-Curriculum movement we are having our students write more and we’re using a wider range of writing assignments. Right?

If that’s what you’re doing, it’s consistent with the actions of faculty teaching undergraduate sociology courses; as documented by an analysis of 405 different syllabi. Almost 95% of those syllabi described some type of writing assignment and most of them required more than one.


aligning assignments with course goals December 5, 2012

Designing Assignments that Accomplish Course Goals

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I’m betting that many of you are in the midst of grading a large stack of papers, projects, or other final assignments. Too often these end-of-course pieces of work don’t live up to our expectations or students’ potential. It’s easy for us (especially the elders among us) to bemoan the fact that students aren’t what they used to be. It’s better to use our discontent to consider whether our course assignments are effectively accomplishing our course goals.