- Isaac Asimov
Student writing serves two key purposes in courses – as a way for students to process and share their ideas and a way for instructors to assess their understanding. Too often, however, we might focus on a limited range of possible writing or response assignments in our courses. In a thought provoking blog post, Maryellen Weimer synthesizes results from a study of 405 sociology courses. In these courses, while instructors employed a number of different writing assignments, 81% were transactional in nature – essentially communicating information to the instructor. Beyond these kinds of transactional, brief comprehension or reflection questions and more formal papers, we have a number of different options for engaging students in writing and responses in our courses.
Key features of the strategy
Writing assignments can take a number of forms: informal to formal, formative to summative, creative to expository, divergent or convergent. While the audience for the work is typically limited to the instructor, writing assignments can be shared and opened for commentary and feedback to the classroom community or to a worldwide community online. Writing assignments can be completed in the traditional paper “blue book,” using a word processor, or a variety of forms of digital media. One could even extend writing beyond words on a page to multimodal writing, including mixed media creations comprised of text, images, and even video. With all these options, Weimer (2013) reminds us to ask, “Are the writing experiences offered to students accomplishing the goals that have been set for those assignments?” Within this constraint, we have a number of options, including the examples noted below.
Examples and Variations
Informal Writing with the PTA Strategy
Informal writing approaches may seem ill-defined or somewhat vague. Hudd, et.al, (2011) however, describe their “PTA” model to promote a series of cognitive tasks - prioritization, translation, and analogy. This approach to informal writing is used to engage students in strategies and processes that will ultimately encourage them to engage in thoughtful analysis and develop substantive arguments. Throughout the semester, students generate a series of informal written responses to prompts from the instructor each week. At the end of the semester, the students are encouraged to read back through their responses and prioritize them by identifying their strongest response, the one that challenged them the most, and the one that most clearly captures their values and beliefs. Then, they compare their earliest responses to those towards the end of the semester and describe changes they note in their responses, writing style, and developing understanding.
The Best Post Wiki
Greathouse & Rosen (2015) describe an interesting approach to collaborative writing in which groups of students responded individually and then as a group to weekly writing prompts throughout the semester on a collaborative wiki site. Each week, the groups collaboratively reviewed members’ individual responses to the prompt and “used all of the contributions to select, arrange, and construct the absolute best answer for the prompt… the most coherent perspectives of the group’s contributors in terms of understanding the content.” The prompts throughout the semester were deliberately designed to challenge students to engage in different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. By the end of the semester, groups had reached the highest level of the taxonomy – creativity – by creating a video public service announcement related to the content of the course.
Students are accustomed to writing formal reviews of the literature related to course topics, particularly in advanced level courses. Zipp (2011) describes an interesting alternative to this form of writing that she calls the integrated paper. She describes this approach as “a type of review of the literature that includes the analysis, synthesis and evaluation of information on a well-defined content area and includes the writer’s original thoughts and ideas on the topic which are based upon the available evidence.” She emphasizes that the key aspect of the assignment is in challenging students to make transitions and connections between the different segments of the paper, forcing them to understand the larger picture. Through a structured and detailed rubric, students are supported in developing substantive, thoughtful work.
Connections to 21st Century Skills and Technologies
Writing and responding support students in a variety of dimensions of the 21st century learning design (21CLD) framework. Writing encourages students to organize their ideas, clarify their thinking, and ultimately, construct knowledge. When students develop writing and responses together, like in the Best Post Wiki described above, they engage in collaboration. Finally, by writing in multiple modes for a particular audience, they can also develop their expertise in skilled communication.
A range of digital tools can support the writing process for students. Most basically, traditional and collaborative word processing tools help students to experiment with their writing, rearrange ideas, and receive and respond to feedback provided in the text by the instructor and their peers. Blogs, wikis, video sharing sites, and other ways for students to share their writing can be both highly motivating and engaging for students.
What strategies have you used to encourage students to explore topics in your classes?
Please post your comments below.
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