The Teaching Workshop: More Writing without Extra Grading

Welcome again to The Teaching Workshop, where your questions related to pedagogy are answered. Each post features questions submitted by readers with answers from others within the profession. Have a question? Send it to PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook. For this special edition of the teaching workshop, we have an answer from James Lang who teaches English and has written fantastic columns on Teaching over at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Question: I think students should do a lot of writing to learn well, but I teach a large (70 or higher) class and so I don’t have time to grade a lot. What should I do?

Answer: This excellent and very common question stems from a perception that in order for students to learn from writing, their writing must be graded.  When we look more closely at the prospect of students learning from writing, this turns out be only partially true—which means that you can have your students learning from writing in some contexts without adding time (or not very much time, anyway) to your grading load.

But we first have to make a distinction between two kinds of writing that students might do in our courses, both of which can help them learn.

When students engage in summative writing, it means they are writing to produce some final product that you grade.  When faculty talk about student writing, they typically mean this kind of writing: research papers, response papers, reflection essays, etc.  Students usually have days or weeks to produce this work, and so it deserves a response from faculty.  It tells us how effectively they have learned the course material; it develops and polishes their communication skills; it provides us with an opportunity to correct, enhance, or stimulate thinking.

But students also learn—and can learn a great deal—from formative writing, which most frequently takes the form of low-stakes writing exercises completed in class or perhaps on a course discussion board.  This form of writing helps students engage in more exploratory thinking, in that they typically don’t have the time or opportunity to worry too much about polish.  In my case, almost every one of my classes begins with a 5-minute writing exercise which asks students to produce a single paragraph in response to a thought question that I pose on the reading they did for homework.

On the first day I teach the novel Lord of the Flies, for example, I ask students to write a paragraph in response to this question: “What is the root cause of the fighting that starts to emerge on the island?” No correct answer exists to this question, but it does require the students to think and to put their nose to the text.  I always ask them to cite me a sentence from the novel in support of their answer.  After they have written for five (or sometimes ten) minutes, we begin our discussion.

Building this kind of formative writing into your courses produces powerful effects with minimal preparation and grading time on your part—the essence of what I call Small Teaching, or the use of small changes to our teaching in order to produce big effects.

First, such writing requires all students to engage in some thinking at the outset of class.  They can’t slide into their seats, plop their notebook on the desk, and wait for you to do all of the work.  Second, it gives them some time to think about whatever question or issue you are going to pose in that class period, which means that when the discussion starts you won’t just see the same old hands eager to contribute their first impressions.  It also ensures that everyone has something to say, which means that you can occasionally draw a quiet student into the conversation with a gentle invitation: “So what did you write about?”

Most importantly, this kind of exercise gives the students frequent opportunities to do the hard work of gathering, organizing, and communicating their ideas.  It ensures that they engage with the course material. It requires them to arrange words on the page.  It solicits their first thoughts on whatever you are discussing, which then can be refined and reconsidered in light of the class discussion or your presentation of the material.  This, I would argue, constitutes the essence of learning: students encounter something new, form an impression, and then re-visit and refine my impression in light of new inputs.

But the best and most important point in all of this is that these brief writing exercises require little or no grading—because they will receive feedback on their work in the form of what happens in class that day, through your lecture or the class discussion.  I typically read through the writing exercises of my students and assign them a very tiny grade percentage, but that’s not even necessary.  You can simply collect them and use them for attendance, or read a random sampling, or grade them on a check/check-plus/check-minus scale.  It takes me 10-15 minutes to read through and put a quick mark on 25 of these exercises, so you might need 30-45 minutes for a class of 70.

I should note in closing that this represents only one possible way to elicit formative writing from your students.  Another simple and very common approach used by many faculty members is to close class in a similar way—only now, instead of asking them for first impressions, you can ask them for their more fully developed impressions: What was your key takeaway from our class discussion today? What did you learn today?  We have excellent evidence from the learning sciences that this simple question can help deepen student learning in substantial ways.

So by all means ask your students to write as much as possible, but don’t assume that everything they write needs a formal response from you with your red pen or electronic comments.  They do indeed learn from writing, and can absolutely do so when you formulate that work as writing to learn—not writing to grade.

Additional Resources:

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