Does it have to be so boring? Using active learning to liven up your classroom

Each semester, I open my class by explaining to my students that, as a graduate student adjunct lecturer, I’m in the unique position of simultaneously being a student and a teacher. I understand, I assure them, the fatigue of sitting through a 3-hour lecture class. While that acknowledgement builds a sense of shared experience, it also holds me accountable be more creative in my teaching approach.


But why is it so easy to feel bored in the classroom, and what can we do about it? In the age Vimeo, Vine, Snapchat, and Instagram, educators need to adjust to accommodate increasingly shorter attention spans. Neuroscience research has demonstrated that students can sustain their attention for only ~15-20 minutes before drifting. Students are also increasingly dependent on multimodal presentations of information (Metros, 2008), for example through visual graphics in articles, accompanying pictures in textbooks, and readily available video streams to supplement written material. According to the cognitive-affective theory of learning with media (CATLM; Moreno 2005a), humans have separate neural channels for perceiving information, and we have limited capacity to receive information through the same sensory modality (visual v. auditory v. tactile etc.). Information enters into long-term memory as a joint function of the number of streams in which information enters, along with motivational factors, and emotional salience (Moreno & Mayer, 2007). Taken together, this research tells us that, as educators, we should be incorporating more breaks into our classes, presenting information in multiple ways, and creating a meaningful connection to the material.


In keeping with this research, trends in education have shifted towards active learning. This refers to instructional methods that engage students in the learning process through meaningful activities (Prince, 2004). These methods stand in contrast to the passive learning that occurs when students receive information in a single representation (verbal v. non-verbal material) and single sensory modality (auditory v. visual input) (Moreno & Mayer, 2007). Along the same vein, educators are focusing on collaborative learning, which describes group work where students interact to pursue a common goal. In addition to encouraging more active learning, these strategies incentivize cooperation and more closely mirror the collaborative demands of many work environments. There has also been a push towards problem-based learning in which instructors introduce a real-world problem and provide context and motivation. These strategies often result in self-directed learning as the students seek novel resources and learn to navigate complex problems in a context that feels relevant to career aims.  All of these strategies share a common goal of allowing students to interact more deeply with the material and one another in order to improve educational outcomes.


Over the past several years, the WAC fellows and coordinators have compiled a wonderful collection of active learning strategies that can be applied across disciplines (for some discipline-specific ideas, see: Emerson & Taylor, 2004; Gee, 2003, Knight & Wood, 2005; Metros, 2008). Keep in mind that these activities will likely require some tweaking to fit the needs of your course. In general, it is important to be specific in your assignment, transparent about the activity’s function, and clear about where students can turn for help. When having students engage in group work, be sure to clarify whether they will be graded individually or as a group. Always be mindful of your role as an instructor in each activity. Decide whether you will you serve as facilitator, participant, supervisor etc.


Here is a selection of activities/strategies:


  • Graffiti: Pose a question, quote, or bit of text. Ask students to spend several minutes responding in the form of a free-write. Have students select specific words or phrases from their notes and ask them each to come up and write them on the board. After all the students have written their responses, engage in a class discussion about the range of responses. You can help identify trends across reactions.
  • Chalkboard annotation: WAC fellow Hilarie Ashton uses a similar strategy to graffiti in her classes. She writes a question, quote, or bit of text on top of a large sheet of oak tag or the board. She asks her students to come to the front of the room at the same time and write their responses directly on the sheet. In addition to having her students think more deeply about the material, this encourages them to converse with each other and share ideas in more intimate conversations.
  • Concept maps: Help students engage with a question or topic by depicting the relationships among related concepts pictorially. Students should aim to form connections among arguments, evidence, and themes in order to deepen familiarity with the concept. More information can be found here: (
  • Debate: Pose a controversial or complex argument and split the class into two teams to debate its merits/drawbacks. Debates can be quite formal by requiring preparation and setting high stakes (e.g., extra credit on a quiz or one homework pass), or they can be held informally to encourage extemporaneous reasoning.
  • Role-playing: George Guida, one of the WAC faculty coordinators, recently shared this example from his writing course. In order to help his students learn character composition, he has students come to class “in character”. Classmates will interview the character about his/her life experiences, beliefs, relationships etc. This allows students to deeply consider character traits, brainstorm new directions for their writing, and provide one another with feedback.
  • Instant feedback: Hand each student three post-it notes: red, yellow, and green. After explaining a complex or new concept, gauge student understanding by asking them to stick one of the post-its to their desk: red shows they don’t understand, yellow signifies tentative understanding, and green means they’re good to move ahead.
  • Think-pair-share: Ask students to consider a concept, quote, text etc. and free-write for several minutes. Have them pair up with a partner to share their reflections. Come back together as a group to discuss.
  • Snowball: Open the class by asking students to write questions about course material or homework readings on a piece of paper. Have them crumple their papers and toss them into the center of the room. Towards the end of the class, have each student select a “snowball” and try to respond to their classmate’s question. Randomly select several to review as a class.


For more information about these techniques, be sure to join us for our WAC faculty workshop, Creative Classrooms, on Thursday, March 22 from 1:00-2:15 PM in N601A.




Emerson, T. L. N., & Taylor, B. A. (2004). Comparing student achievement across experimental and lecture-oriented sections of a principles of microeconomics course. Southern Economic Journal, 70(3), 672-93.


Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.


Knight, J. K., & Wood, W. B. (2005). Teaching more by lecturing less. Cell Biology Education, 4, 298-310.


Metros, S. E. (2008). The educator’s role in preparing visually literate learners. Theory into Practice, 47(2), 102-9.


Moreno, R., & Mayer, R. (2007). Interactive multimodal learning environments. Educ Psychol Rev, 19, 309-26.


Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-31.





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Brainstorm, Revise, Rinse, Repeat

Literacy theorist Anne Berthoff wrote in her classic article “Recognition, Representation, and Revision” (1981) that instead of supporting a view of revision as a one-off fix for an essay’s problems, faculty “can learn to teach revision as itself a way of composing if we consider it analogous to acts of mind whereby we make sense of the world” (19). My version of this as an undergraduate, and still to this day as a doctoral candidate, is to either print out different drafts of the paper and mark them up in pen, or create different electronic files that reflect the different drafts I’ve already written. The changes become visualized and also evolve, with the potential of a new draft never removed from the possibility of looking back at previous one.

Berthoff expands on this, calling revision not a “definite phase, a penultimate stage, but […] a dimension of composing. Revision is, indeed, re-seeing and it goes on continually in the composing process” (20-21). Revision, then, is continuous and is more than fixing. I’d like to frame brainstorming the same way: rather than a quick activity in which we think of possible ideas and then move on to the actual writing, brainstorming happens throughout the process of writing an essay. It’s continuous and it, too, is a way of making sense of the world, in the frame of ideas.

The traditional way of offering brainstorming as a writing tool is to have students make a list at the very beginning of the writing process. Sometimes brainstorming involves drawing a picture. And sometimes involves sharing ideas with others: swapping ideas in order to help each other narrow down a potential topic for an essay. It doesn’t, however, stop there. Students repeat the same processes when they are choosing supporting points, when they are delving into their research to find evidence, and even when they are formulating their conclusion. By acknowledging this continuity, we can help students take some of the pressure off of the front end of idea-generation, and remind them that there are many chances throughout the process of writing an essay to shape and reshape their own ideas.

Revision, too, is often framed is more of a definitive step then the way I want to consider it or the way Berthoff wants to consider it. Instead, students revise over and over, even before the official revision process is a shared in, that is, between draft one and draft two, for example. The closer they get to the final form of their thesis and supporting paragraphs, the more they are revising. Some of it happens in their head and some of it happens on the page.

Brainstorming and revision are entwined creative processes that students repeat again and again in the course of writing an essay. They work together as students write, refine, expand, and support their original ideas, and they can help to reduce the very real anxiety many students feel around formal writing. Particularly for beginning writers, the idea of producing a final version of the paper for a professor, for a grade, can be very intimidating. Participating in the writing process is always to brainstorm and always to revise, in a very continuous manner, and in a way that’s pressure-relieving. And emphasizing the ongoing nature of brainstorming and revision helps to keep students invested in and excited by their ideas, and emphasizing ongoing revision helps empower students to make changes as they go rather than leaving it all to the end.

One of the tenets of writing that most of us who have been doing it for a while know from experience is that it’s never really finished, just as Berthoff intuits. As writing teachers, we tend to avoid talking too much about that aspect with students, so that they are encouraged to get to a (necessary!) stopping point, but it’s as true for them as it is for us. The continuity of brainstorming and revision, just like the reality of never-ending edits (or at least the never-ending desire to edit) is part of the ongoing process of refining ideas, pushing past feelings, critically reviewing messy paragraphs, letting other people help, and, finally, sending something in and moving on to the next project.

Works Cited

Berthoff, Ann E. “Recognition, Representation, and Revision.” Journal of Basic Writing 3, no. 3 (1981): 19-32.

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Falling Out of Love with Writing

By Amanda Huminski

As academics, we’ve devoted years of our lives to the singular pursuit of knowledge around fairly obscure issues in fairly niche subfields in fairly thorny disciplines. Jokes about self-abnegation aside, the only thing that can explain such a single-minded commitment to these pursuits is that, on some level, we love reading and thinking and writing about our respective subjects. On some days this is truer for me than others, but in general, I’d have to agree.

However, as I was finishing coursework in my PhD program and well into my dissertation research, I realized that I had one core course requirement that I had yet to complete – a history course, outside of my area of specialization, on a topic I’d never spent much time thinking about, engaging with canonical texts that I’d managed to spend nearly a decade in academia avoiding. The course became, for me, a mere administrative hurdle that I had to overcome in order to get on with the business of doing my “real” work. As the semester came to a close, I was tasked with writing the final term paper for my final graduate class in my final year of coursework, and I found myself struggling to construct arguments, develop ideas, and just get words on the page in a way that I’d never struggled before.

In that same semester I was teaching an introduction-level Philosophy course to mostly freshmen and sophomores who were primarily enrolled as a means to meet a general Humanities requirement. In struggling to meet the deadline for my own term paper, I had a sudden empathetic revelation … is this how all of my students feel, all of the time? Surely not all of them, and not all of the time, but I was confronted with the obvious but somewhat heartbreaking possibility that my students probably don’t love reading and thinking and writing about Philosophy. As I was forced to relive the experience of grinding through an assignment on a topic I didn’t particularly enjoy, for purposes that, in the moment, felt completely arbitrary, my entire pedagogical mindset shifted.

The purpose of this anecdote is not to illustrate how, upon completing my term paper and my final graduate course, I felt a grand sense of accomplishment and was ultimately grateful for having gone through the experience. This isn’t that kind of redemption story. The purpose of this anecdote is to share the hard truth that sometimes our students don’t love the content of the courses we teach – and that’s fine. But thinking like an academic is different than thinking like an instructor. As an academic, I want to convince my students that Philosophy (or, insert your discipline here) is intrinsically fascinating and important and a worthwhile thing to study. As an instructor, I realize that even if I can’t convert my students into Philosophy devotees, there are important skills and concepts that I have an obligation to impart – and that I have to make it easy for my students to absorb them.

There are a number of ways to make courses more engaging and interesting to students, from presenting material for diverse learning styles to choosing appropriate examples and making connections to topics that are relevant to your student’s lives. All of that said, when it comes to the hard work of producing their own content, students often struggle, especially if it’s a subject they’re not otherwise in love with. And that’s fine. One way of setting your students up for success is to design assignments in such a way that guides and encourages them through the hard parts of the process. Writing a term paper or completing a cumulative assignment for a course you’re not in love with can be grueling (I speak from experience), but scaffolding, a basic tenet of the Writing Across the Curriculum approach, can help to ease these pains.

For more on scaffolding, see our previous workshop: Effective Assignment Design.

For more on developing an engaging environment in the classroom, come to our upcoming workshop: Creative Classroom.


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Engaging English Language Learners

I’ve thought allot about English Language Learners. Perhaps because 4.6 million students in the United States during the school year 2014-2015 were English language learners (National Center for Education Statistics 2014). Or maybe because new standards and assessments emphasized accountability, bringing additional challenges to ELLs. Either way, accommodating ELL students will require a little bit more effort. However, you do not need to become an expert in ELL to work with students. In fact, Writing Across the Curriculum has many useful classroom tools.

Start off by brainstorming the issues you’ve encountered with ELL writers in your classroom. In my courses I’ve noticed:

  • Limited class participation
  • Students are afraid to ask for clarification
  • grammatical errors, organizational issues and, odd vocabulary usage

While these can be frustrating, imagine how ELL students feel. Although the number of non-native English speakers is quite high, it is important to note that there is wide variation among these students. Students represent the entire spectrum of ELL writers, many are fluent in English, but some have only been in English speaking environments for 1-4 years.

Some ideas for success:

Engage students in language rich practices, this means focusing less exclusively on fluency and grammar and more on comprehension and communication. As professors we should try to avoid separating language from analytical practices and conceptual development. This may require teaching how to make connections, ask questions and solve problems a process that builds deeper understanding and more sophisticated language in students. Professors can help students learn writing skills in a number of ways.

 Scaffold assignments. Scaffolding is a central WAC principal. Begin with small, informal pieces that gradually build to the bigger final project. Over the course of the semester assignments can be broken into small pieces such as students submit thesis statements, or introductory paragraphs. This requires professors provide detailed, written assignment prompts.

Provide models of good work. Provide students with models of well-organized papers and highlight the specific points that are well written, such as clear topic sentences. I often use an (anonymous) example from a student’s paper to demonstrate how to effectively communicate ones ideas.

One-on-one meetings about writing. This can occur outside the classroom or professors can use class time to meet with students. This allows professors to provide feedback to students who might otherwise be reluctant to attend office hours. These one-on-one meetings can address general concerns or a specific assignment.

Writing-to-learn activities. To help build vocabulary especially discipline specific vocabulary, professors should introduce cooperative, collaborative writing activities that can promote discussion. This means less teacher-led, whole-class instruction, and more small groups, where students can practice language with their peers in a more personal, lower-risk setting.

Free write in class. Encourage students to write in their native language and in English. Professors can use free writing assignments to encourage students to write in their native language and/or in English. This can occur at the beginning or ending of class. Prompts can ask students to relate course material to their personal experience. Which can deepen students’ engagement with the material.

Peer Review. Research suggest that some ELL writers do not trust English-speaking writers peer feedback and that native English-speaking writers do not trust ELL peer feedback (Cox 2014). As instructors we can dispel this myth by explaining the value of peer review. One benefit of peer review is that students develop their own ideas while the process of reviewing another students’ work provides insight into the types of components needed to communicate findings and/or arguments effectively. Professors can provide students with prompt questions to guide the discussion and ensure students understand how much attention to devote to surface level issues. Professors can ask students to exchange papers before class, rather than during. This provides ELL students more time to read drafts.

Evaluation. Professors should evaluate ELL writers the same as native English-speaking writers. Resist the temptation to hyper correct grammatical errors. We do not want to crush a students’ potential, rather allow students to develop their ideas, become comfortable with course concepts, methods and reading. The WAC principle of high order concerns/lower order concerns is incredibly useful to highlight the strengthens of students’ papers. For a more detailed discussion on high order concerns/lower order concerns please see “Strategies for Evaluating Student’s Work.

Remember that academic discourse is a language in its own right.

Works Cited

Cox, Michelle. (2014). “In Response to Today’s ‘Felt Need’: WAC, Faculty Development, and Second Language Writers.” In WAC and Second-Language Writers: Research Towards Linguistically and Culturally Inclusive Programs and Practices, ed. Terry Myers Zawacki and Michelle Cox (The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press): 299-326.

National Center for Education Statistics 2014

Additional resource:

National Council of Teachers of English Journal

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Back to Basics: WAC Philosophy and Course Design

In order to be engaged in the classroom, students at City Tech must have the basic skills required for college learning. As any student knows, being engaged takes constant work, practice, and motivation. The etymology of the word engaged is tied to risk-taking, to “have promised one’s presence,” “to undertake to perform,” to be entangled or ensnared. (“engaged, v.” OED Online). The exhaustion many of our City Tech students bring to the classroom (speaking from the experience of teaching Thursday evening and Saturday morning sections of College Writing) makes being engaged at all difficult enough. To ask our City Tech students to engage with us and with course material over and over again is asking a lot. How can we, as instructors, support them in this endeavor?

Without a space to practice the basic skills academic engagement requires, our students are swimming upstream. Alternatively, building time into each of our courses to review skills such as effective note taking, skillful / critical reading, and being a part of generative class discussions will help our students manage the task of being motivated and present in the classroom each day.

Writing Across the Curriculum just gave a student-workshop on notetaking and reading strategies (materials are available here), and will be giving this workshop again on March 29th at 4PM. By teaching students how to take good notes—notes in which they are processing information instead of simply storing it externally—instructors can nourish and inspire a consistent practice of in-class writing that promotes critical thinking and reflection from the get-go, changing how students understand what it means to engage with the information and concepts presented in their courses.

This workshop was given in collaboration with READ, as good reading skills are tied to note-taking. This is not self-evident to our students, who are often just trying to complete as much out-of-class reading as possible. In addition to reading difficult texts in class with my students, modeling how to write marginal comments and look up confusing words or references, I always have a discussion with them about how to skim readings effectively. If students believe that the only way to successfully read for college is to complete and understand every single assigned reading in its entirety, they will consistently feel like failures—and be more likely to give up on a reading a few pages in. In my classroom, students and I talk very seriously about discerning what the most important sections of a reading are; reading “the outline” of an article (the introduction, conclusion, and first and last sentences of each paragraph); and coming in with two, specific questions about readings, as well as pieces of information they find interesting. In reading selectively and purposefully, students begin to learn the shape academic writing takes, as well as how to manage heavy reading loads without giving up. When designing our courses as instructors at NYCCT, we should be mindful and realistic about how much out-of-class reading our students can complete, and how our in-class lessons might support them in this endeavor.

Finally, it’s not news that good class discussion helps students stay engaged, but most students have a simplistic view of classroom participation that is never challenged. In my experience, students believe that speaking as much as possible and showing instructors that they “know” the answer to a question counts as “good” participation, and staying silent is “bad” participation. Good classroom discussion often looks the exact opposite of this: students learn when they step back and listen to others speak; ask questions about the readings; articulate confusion and discontent—the list goes on. But we rarely, as instructors, take the time to talk about how to have, to practice, these kinds of generative discussions, or reflect on what a good class discussion looks like to start with.

An exercise I use in my classroom to “teach” students how to talk to one another in an academic context is called “Socratic Roles.” I divide the class into two sections (I tend to put the more talkative students in one and the less talkative students in the other). Then, I project some discussion questions on the board and tell one group to lead their own discussion while the other group takes notes based on these prompts. I do not speak or intervene in the students’ discussion for 5-10 minutes, taking notes on what my students say. After the allotted time, the groups switch, and the speakers become the note-takers while the note-takers pick up the discussion. Afterwards, we have a discussion about what makes a good class discussion, and students report back on their observations and tasks. In my experience, a large part of this debrief is the realization that a good discussion means actively making space for many different voices, and that different students have different relationships to class participation—some taking longer to formulate their thoughts, some preferring to listen, some who work out what they think out loud, etc.

The prompts in the handout can be adapted and changed based on what you, the instructor, would like students to pay attention to. My personal favorite is “list 2 important comments that are made” because when more than one student does this, the class realizes that different people learn from different pieces of information. I like doing this exercise in my classes, also, because if I organize the groups so the more introverted students have to talk, the extrovert students realize that they aren’t the only ones who can fill the silence / are doing the readings, which tends to be the assumption—and we talk about stepping back to allow for the presence of different voices in the classroom.

These skills—effective note taking, active reading, and being a part of generative class discussions—are skills that are tied to writing, to self-expression and communication. Our students too often assume that being a good student means parroting back information, giving the “right” answer, and powering through any given assignment. As instructors, we must actively fight these assumptions at the foundation of what it means to learn. Building time into a course so that students can practice these skills lets them know that you, the instructor, are serious about their engagement, and that college learning isn’t a one-way street. Student engagement begins with active efforts on the part of the instructor. Taking some time to go “back to basics” with your students doesn’t take time away from course content—it empowers them, lets them know you’re serious about their engagement, and creates a space in which they have the tools to truly learn.

“engage, v.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, January 2018, Accessed 20 February 2018.

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If You Are Not Averse to Using More Technology in the Writing Process…

Students can correct some of their written grammatical errors (misspelled words, verb tense, punctuation, wrong-word errors) by reading aloud their drafts, as mentioned in “The Study of Error” (1980) by David Bartholomae (261-262) and in Engaging Ideas (2011) by John C. Bean (75-76).  I wonder if similar results can be obtained (i.e., fewer errors on the page) if a student were to use an iPhone, laptop, or computer to record his/her thoughts (arguments) about the topic of his/her paper and then transcribe those words.  When listening to the recording, it can be strange to hear one’s own voice, but the student can use this unsettling feeling to his/her advantage: view those words as someone else’s argument—this can help the student to be more objective when judging whether or not the argument really works.  And for students who feel stuck but for whatever reason do not take the step to discuss the essay topic with someone, talking out his/her ideas this way can be helpful in clarifying or generating ideas.  Sometimes an idea is formed or nixed when we hear ourselves trying to figure out something out loud.


It’s possible that students would find it annoying to stop the recording every time they are mulling over what to say next (in order to avoid long pauses in the recording and/or to save space in their iPhones, laptops, or computers).  Students might also say that remembering to stop the recording interrupts their chain of thought.  So would not hitting the pause/stop button help push the student to be quicker in coming up with the next statements for the argument in his/her essay draft?  He/she can always give this voluntary pressure a try.


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Writing Through Blocks

Students have many feelings about writing, from the whole range available to them. Many students have several feelings, ranging from intrigue to enjoyment to anxiety to fear. Sometimes it’s not even clear what feelings they’re having. In every class I teach, I make sure to mention that it’s possible to have any number of feelings about writing, sometimes many at once, and that they can change on a dime. I make sure to mention that advanced graduate students and faculty share their feelings, both good and bad. I make sure to say that as much as I love writing, sometimes I also hate it. Hating it doesn’t negate that love; it just goes alongside it for a while.

Even writer’s block, as a concept and as a phrase, is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy that can bring out a whole host of feelings about writing. It can inspire frustration in beginning writers even when they didn’t initially sense it. (The word “deadline” works similarly.) It can also help name a very real experience, though; sometimes naming things makes them easier to handle. I talk to my classes very openly about that feeling of not knowing what to write, or not knowing which word to use, or judging one’s own ideas before they even get down on paper. I remind them that part of the challenge of college writing is being able to come up with an effective, supported argument that responds to the assignment’s parameters. It doesn’t also have to be the be-all, end-all of their scholarly output. If it were, I’d worry I didn’t have anything more to teach them.

So how can you help students in your classroom who might be handling a variety of feelings about writing and struggling with different versions of writer’s block?

Scaffold the assignment. Scaffolding is a central principle of WAC pedagogy because, just like with a building under construction, it supports an in-progress piece of writing by instituting steps to the finish line. It gives you as an instructor the chance to make sure that students understand those steps, from pre-writing to constructing a thesis statement to outlining an argument to producing a rough draft. It also helps avoid procrastination and last-minute scrambling on the part of students.

Visualize. Another great way to get students to set aside their anxiety, or to lean into it, is to use Sondra Perl’s “Guidelines for Composing” are a time-honored meditation exercise in acknowledging the complex mix of feelings writing can inspire. The full Guidelines are a series of twelve instructions, prompts, and questions. The gloss that Perl wrote is:

  • Relax, stretch, clear your mind, try to attend quietly to what’s inside–and note any distractions or feelings that may be preventing you from writing.
  • Start with a list of things you could write about. Often we can’t find what we really want to write about till the third or fourth item–or not till that subtle after–question, “Is there something else I might have forgotten?”
  • As you are writing, periodically pause and look to that felt sense somewhere inside you—that feeling, image, or word that somehow represents what you are trying to get at—and ask whether your writing is really getting at it. This comparing or checking back (“Is this it?”) will often lead to a productive “shift” in your mind (“Oh, now I see what it is I want to say”).
  • Finally, toward the end, ask, “What’s this all about? Where does this writing seem to be trying to go?” And especially ask, “What’s missing? What haven’t I written about?”

The full Guidelines are available here.

Freewrite in class. As part of your scaffolding, set aside some time at the beginning or end of a class session and have them jot down ideas. As with any freewrite, instruct them to keep their pen moving on the page, even if their sentences verge away from the paper topic. The next week, adapting Perl’s “Guidelines,” have them freewrite about one of those ideas. (You shouldn’t need more than ten minutes for either phase of this exercise in a given class session.)

Draw. Sometimes the best way to figure out ideas and words is to take the words out altogether. When students are in their head about whether their ideas are good enough and whether their sentences are strong enough, just letting them mind map or draw or even doodle can help pull them out of their anxiety and into their creativity.

Blog. Sharing ideas in writing can be less anxiety-producing in community. If students think about their audience as broader than just their professor, sometimes they are less inclined to try to please, or to write what you what they think you think they should write. Pre-writing or brainstorming in blog form has the added benefit of allowing students to give feedback to each other. Although peer review has the same effect, the added benefit of blog commenting is that it puts students’ work into a different kind of audience framework.

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Encouraging Effective Reading Strategies

In this post I would like to discuss some strategies for turning students into better, more active readers. By teaching our students how to engage deeply and actively with the texts they read, we are preparing them to be critical thinkers and thoughtful writers. This process begins with the instructor taking on both reading and writing instruction as her responsibility. The list below draws from my own teaching experience and from chapter nine of John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas (titled “Helping Students Read Difficult Texts”).

  1. Model your own reading process. As a college-level instructor, you are an expert and experienced reader. Allow your students to benefit from your knowledge! On the first day of class, pass out a guide describing your own reading practices. You may describe where you read, what you read with (pen and paper? tablet? computer?), and where and how you take notes (do you prefer marginalia or a reading notebook?). Most importantly, explain what you do when you get stuck, confused, or frustrated in your reading. Your descriptions of how you overcome such stumbling blocks may be general or discipline-specific; either way, they will help prepare your students for the inevitable difficulties of reading complex texts. (See below for the reading guide I provide for my literature students. Feel free to alter it to reflect good reading practices in your discipline.)
  2. Explain the genres and writing conventions of your discipline. Your students encounter varieties of texts in their studies and their lives. Prepare your students for your reading material by explaining what kinds of texts you will assign (ie. scholarly articles and textbook chapters, essays and poems) and describing the best strategies for reading them, keeping in mind the distinct methods we use to read different texts.  Similarly, you should teach your students how to identify the writing conventions of your discipline. If you assign articles from a peer-reviewed science journal, you should explain how to identify an author’s hypothesis, methodology, results, etc.; if you assign fiction, you might devote class time to discussing narrative point of view and irony.
  3. Avoid lecturing over readings. Though it is important to review difficult passages in class, the instructor should stifle her urge to “lecture over” or “explain” the text to her students. Over-explaining a text, argues Bean, teaches students that they do not need to read the assigned material (Bean 168). Instead of explaining the reading material to your students, encourage them to read actively and bring their own explanations, conclusions, and questions to class.
  4. Create active reading assignments. You can goad your students into reading and participating actively by constructing low-stakes reading assignments. For example, you may require your students to submit reading logs or response notebooks that record the questions, comments, and insights that occur as they read. These assignments may also be tailored to address the specific reading troubles your students encounter. If your students have difficulty comprehending a writer’s diction and syntax, you may ask them to write “translations” of particular moments of the text or to produce a glossary of new vocabulary. If your students have trouble comprehending the structure of a writer’s argument, you may ask them to provide a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of what the text “says” versus what it “does” (Bean 170-1). Finally, a warning: reading quizzes are sometimes necessary, but recent studies suggest that they promote “surface” rather than “deep” reading (Bean 168). Keep in mind that our goal should be to produce students who have an active, critical relationship to the texts they read and who do not merely search for “right answers.”

Example: A Guide for Effective Reading (Literature)

Reading a work of literature is not like reading a text message, a menu, or a street sign. Whereas those forms of media merely communicate information (“I’m not home yet,” “All sandwiches come with fries or salad”), literary texts present a narrative. The word “narrative” refers not only to the events of a story but also to the various elements that make it up, including the narrator’s language, descriptions of setting and character, a diversity of moods and emotions, and a multiplicity of philosophical and psychological vantage-points. Such a complex work requires more patience, concentration, and participation from its readers than other forms of written language. Please consider the following recommendations in this spirit.

  1. Always read with a writing utensil and a piece of paper. Mark passages that are interesting, exciting, humorous, confusing, or which you would like to revisit later. You should draw from these notes during class discussions, while studying for tests, and while composing your final paper.
  2. If you prefer to read on a tablet, use an annotation feature to highlight important moments in the text. Do not read on your cell phone.
  3. Use a dictionary to look up any words that you do not understand. If you do not look up the meaning of a word, you will never know what you are missing.
  4. If you do not understand a sentence or a paragraph, re-read it. If you still do not understand it, read it aloud. This is especially helpful when reading plays or poetry.
  5. Sometimes you have to re-read whole stories, chapters, or books to grasp their meaning. You will be amazed how much clearer a difficult text can become when you know what to look for.
  6. Steer clear of reader’s guides such as SparkNotes, which are marketed to lazy high schoolers and are often oversimplified and inaccurate. More importantly, these summaries leave out of the most important part of any work of literature: its language. If you need help thinking through a text, I am happy to recommend useful essays by qualified writers.
  7. Lastly, please write down any questions that occur to you while reading and share them during class discussion. If you are confused about something, your classmates probably are, too.

Works Cited

Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2nd Ed. Jossey-Bass, 2011.

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The Good Old-Fashioned Notebook

Scaffolding assignments are very helpful for guiding students toward completing a long essay, but what can students do more independently to keep the momentum going?  Well, the plain old way of carrying around a notebook to jot down ideas shouldn’t be dismissed (a digital notebook would be fine too for those who would prefer that).  The student can even make “diary” types of entries from time to time if necessary: if there are days when the student is coming up against a wall, then he/she can write a few sentences to say that it has been difficult making headway with part X of the essay.  At the very least, a problem has been identified.  You as the professor can use this assignment as a low-stakes one that will not be graded but will be collected once or twice.  Ask your students to spend about a half hour on this activity three or four days per week.  Inspire them by saying that this can help their ideas to marinate and that they might come across a nugget when they look back at what they wrote a week ago.  This assignment has the possibility of making students who procrastinate feel guilty about procrastinating, but that can be viewed in a good way—it might push them to write a few lines eventually!


On a more abstract level, you can tell your students that an essay, coming from the Old French word essai/essay, is more or less “The action or process of trying or testing” (OED) and “A trial, testing, proof; experiment” (OED)—this can help your students feel that it would be okay to write in a messy way at the notebook stage, if they felt at first any pressure to come up with sparklingly great ideas.  If students worry that their notebook entries might wander away from the topic too much, then let them know that part of the trek to a “finished” essay involves trying out different ideas (in fact, it can be argued that no essay is ever truly finished—there is always more to explore).  The student who recognizes how some ideas are wandering a bit at the notebook stage will have more time to wrestle with rewriting them, as opposed to making the discovery when he/she is scrambling to complete an essay near the deadline.  Once the student sees the wandering that is happening in his/her notes from a week ago, then he/she can work on tightening up the argument.  Lastly, it is most likely better to accumulate a mess of notes that can be restructured than to stare at a blank page when the essay deadline is looming.  Of course the above notions of what an essay can be need not be mentioned in class if the subject that you are teaching requires students to write papers using a particularly structured format.  Nonetheless, you can still tweak this notebook assignment in whichever way that you may see fit for your course.



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Feedback: What is it good for?

Everyone has experienced the visceral sensations of heart racing and stomach churning that accompany receiving a returned paper covered in red markings. It is perhaps no surprise that red, the color that instructors have historically selected to critique writing, has been shown to raise blood pressure. For many of us, receiving feedback can be difficult under most circumstances. Yet there is something uniquely personal about having our writing critiqued. As writing reflects our best effort to communicate our inner thoughts, criticism of writing can quickly escalate from consideration of skills to a judgment about the soundness of our thoughts and ideas. This can feel threatening. Considering the power differential that inherently exists between professors and students, heavy critiques can leave students feeling insulted and dehumanized. In this post, I will argue that certain kinds of feedback to written assignments can interfere with course aims and offer suggestions for providing positive and constructive written feedback to student work.


Grading papers is time-consuming and can test the nerves. Because of the need to grade many papers quickly, feedback is often cryptic or incomplete. Within the context of a time-crunch, encountering similar or repeated mistakes can be doubly frustrating and cloud the instructor’s judgment, resulting in sarcastic or harsh comments. It should be no surprise that students are often quite perceptive of these shortcomings. In an effort to characterize this, Spandel and Stiggins (1990) interviewed students about their reactions to common instructor comments, such as “needs to be more concise,” “be more specific,” “you haven’t really thought this through,” and “try harder”. Students reacted with a range of responses, such as “I thought you wanted details and support,” “I tried and it didn’t pay off,” ”I guess I blew it,” and “maybe I am trying as hard as I can”. The authors concluded that negative comments often left students “bewildered, hurt, or angry.”


It is important to recognize the ways in which students’ negative feelings may interfere with course goals. The cognitive science literature shows that the experience of negative emotions is associated with activation of the physiological fear/stress system. Once activated, the amygdala, or primitive “emotional brain”, has the effect of momentarily dampening activity in the hippocampus, another primitive structure highly implicated in learning and memory. Accordingly, meaningful learning is blocked when students feel emotionally aroused.


There are multiple tools instructors can use to avoid this outcome. As a starting point, it is helpful to recall the purpose of commenting on written assignments: to facilitate improvement. This is most applicable when an assignment is scaffolded through multiple drafts. Comments on a draft have the ability to provide targeted instruction, helpful advice, and honest encouragement that motivate the student to continue. Having students refine and reconceptualize thoughts through the process of writing multiple drafts can be highly didactic. To that end, instructor comments can be instrumental in guiding the student towards higher learning.


When commenting on a student draft, a series of hierarchical questions can help maintain focus. The highest order questions surround whether the overarching goals of the assignment are being met. If the paper is so far off target, other comments are irrelevant. After establishing that the paper is on track, the instructor should focus on whether there is a clear thesis, how effectively the evidence supports an argument, and whether the overall organization is coherent. From there, it is helpful to focus on how clearly the writing is conveying and relating arguments. Specifically, Bean (2011) explains that writing ought be organized so that new thoughts/ideas build on previously state information with which the reader has already been familiarized. Finally, questions of grammar, punctuation, and spelling should be addressed. In order to maximizing the likelihood that students receive this feedback well, it is helpful to balance positive and negative elements. Returning to Spandel and Stiggins (1990) study, they found that positive and highly specific comments contributed to increased confidence and motivation to continue working on the paper.


If written feedback during the drafting stage is designed to help shape and motivate, comments on a final paper serve the goal of judging. Presumably, the guidance provided on earlier drafts facilitated student learning while improving the final outcome. To that end, comments on a final paper should be focused on larger themes and higher-order skills. A final paper often includes an end comment that both justifies the grade and helps the writer understand exactly how the paper could have been stronger. Drawing on the research discussed above, a helpful format is to couch the feedback between a discussion of strengths and recommendations for revisions. The feedback itself should be comprised of a brief summary of a few issues. A laundry list of problems at this stage suggests that there was a lapse somewhere along the writing process.


In summary, instructors should provide careful and thoughtful feedback designed to encourage learning and maximize student motivation. Negative comments on written work can have unintended consequences and interfere with pedagogical goals. During initial drafts, feedback should be presented hierarchically to encourage further development of ideas. Comments on a final paper should be more concise and targeted toward encouraging better work going forward.

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