Free writing is a great way to engage students with course material in a low-stakes, informal fashion. It is also an excellent way to check in with your students; see where they are with their understanding of the material, and address any issues early on.
There are two main types of free write: Focused and non-focused.
Focused Free Write: Students write freely in response to a targeted question or set of questions. These questions could be about any number of things, e.g., a reading they’ve just done, a lab they’ve just completed, an upcoming assignment, an upcoming field trip, a main course concept, and so on.
Non-Focused Free Write: Students write freely about a course topic. This is a less structured version of the focus free write, in which students are encouraged to reflect on a topic and see where their thoughts take them. This could be used effectively at the beginning of class, to get discussion going, or at the end, to help students consolidate that session’s material.
Free writes need not take up a lot of time; five minutes at the beginning or the end of class will do. They can also be assigned for homework. And the more students get into the habit of writing as a way of expressing their thoughts, the more comfortable they will be with writing as a skill, and you can expect to see improvements in their written work.
Free writes also need not add overly burdensome grading time. You can collect them only occasionally, at random, and just comment lightly. Or you can have students read and comment on each other’s free writes outside of class. OpenLab is a great venue for this!
Free writes can also be used to help prepare students for a larger assignment. As an example, consider the focused free write that Prof. Natalia Sucre assigned to her students as part of their ENG1101: Writing Matters course. Students were asked to do the following:
Select a passage from “Letter to Birmingham Jail” that interests you. Type it out. Note: The passage should nor be longer than one paragraph and preferably shorter. Free write on what is striking to you about the passage. What is the meaning of the passage? What role does it play in King’s overall argument? What effects does the passage create in the reader and how? What is significant about King’s word choice, rhetorical strategies, tone, references in this passage?
This gets students warmed up in thinking about their larger essay, which pertains to this reading.
To sum up, free writes can be effectively used for the following purposes, among others:
- Generating class discussion
- Consolidating class material at the end of a session
- Checking in with students
- Getting students started in thinking about a larger assignment
- Helping students gain greater comfort and facility with writing