Writing and Distance Learning for Large Classes

This semester I’m not teaching. One thing that has come up among my friends who are teaching is how discussion-based seminars that used to be capped at thirty-two or so are slowly creeping into the seventies. Assigning, reading, and evaluating student papers is, in my view, the hardest part of teaching undergraduates (and where I found myself procrastinating most often). It doesn’t take too long to learn that there is a pervasive reticence to assign much writing because it translates into more reading of student work. As I taught, I found myself assigning less and less writing because I felt I wasn’t able to give the feedback students needed within the time constraints of a busy semester. As class sizes increase in the “new normal”, I imagine the tendency is for many instructors to assign less writing. I do believe that writing is the best way to learn, so I want to make sure that when I do go back the classroom, assigning and evaluating student writing is less daunting.

Assuming that some form of remote learning is here to stay (inflated class sizes included), I wanted to use this space to research, think through, and suggest ways of making a remote, writing-intensive seminar for large classes meaningful for students and manageable for instructors. The following is geared to humanities and social science courses that meet twice a week, although it can easily be adapted for other disciplines and schedules.


One change I’d immediately make from the way I taught in-person classes is to significantly cut down on readings and lectures. I will assign one set of reading per week that will be the focus on the first meeting of the week. The second meeting will serve as a space for writing and small group discussions (using break-out rooms or discussion boards), so that students can spend more class time producing their own content.

I.) Reading Response. Divide the class into three groups and have tasks rotate each week. Using the Blackboard (or similar online software), have students post one of the following before the first meeting of the week:

i.) Micro-summary– a short summary of the text/s (no more than 25 words).

ii.) Quote and Question– a question related to the readings as well as a short quotation from one text that conveys what they think is the general thrust of the reading.

iii.) Expanded Summary– a one paragraph summary (no more than 150 words) of the week’s reading. For weeks with more than one reading, students should identify shared themes.

II.) In-class Writing and Discussion Reports. The second meeting of the week will, following Bloom’s taxonomy, focus on using getting students beyond understanding and work towards analysis and evaluation.

i.) Semi-structured, Free Writing. For the first thirty minutes of class, the instructor will provide a prompt based on the issues raised in the previous class. The semester will begin with open-ended prompts that will become progressively more argument driven (e.g. providing students with a thesis statement to defend or refute, having students develop a thesis and outline potential body paragraphs, etc.).

ii.) Discussion Reports. For the reminder of class, using break-out rooms (in the case of synchronous online instruction) have students discuss their free-writes and/or an additional discussion question in groups of no more than four. One student in the group will write a short summary of the discussion (no more than 150 words). For asynchronous instruction, this assignment would need to be modified for discussion boards.

iii.) Sequencing Longer Essays. For the second half the semester, free-writes or discussion reports (alternating weeks) will be replaced by break-out room discussions (again in groups of no more than four) of small writing assignments and revision sessions that are designed to assist students in completing a final essay based on course readings. These smaller assignments need to be completed and submitted before class. Again, for asynchronous instruction, this assignment would need to be modified for discussion boards.


Reading over the above, I’m aware that it may be overly ambitious. For one, it depends on a quick and free (or at least affordable) way to easily divide students into groups. I have yet to find a software that allows me to quickly modify parameters when making groups (for example, mostly I want groups to be random, but occasionally, for example sequencing the longer essay, group continuity might be better). In the above, however, the instructor is able to spend at least one hour of “class time” a week reading and evaluating student writing.

For most assignments, a check/plus/minus system would be the most manageable. Giving discussion reports a letter grade would incentivize students to take this activity seriously. It is important that students get written (short) feedback at least twice for each kind of assignment so that they do not feel like short writing assignments are busywork and they can track their improvement. And while grading and providing feedback for all parts of the sequenced assignments would be difficult, giving substantial comments (one short paragraph) for each student at some point in the drafting process would stagger the time spent on evaluating final essays.

Weighing short writing assignments into the final grade is always difficult. Bean, citing the potential for grade inflation, discourages giving too much weight to these more exploratory forms of writing (143). But I think distance learning shifts our evaluative concerns. If the idea of “taking a course” is to retain any integrity, it is important that remote instruction promote active, processual learning, so I’m inclined to make these kinds of assignments count for a significant portion of the course grade. Balancing student participation, grading load, and grade inflation while teaching large classes remotely is always going to be difficult. We should use this “problem” as an opportunity to push ourselves, our students, and our institutions to rethink what grades are for and what student performance means in the virtual classroom.



Bean, John. 2011. Engaging Ideas. Jossey-Bass.

“Integrating Low-Stakes Writing into Large Classes.” Gayle Morris Sweetland Center for Writing, University of Michigan. https://lsa.umich.edu/sweetland/instructors/teaching-resources/integrating-low-stakes-writing-into-large-classes.html. Accessed: September 9, 2020.

“Sequencing and Scaffolding Assignments.” Gayle Morris Sweetland Center for Writing, University of Michigan. https://lsa.umich.edu/sweetland/instructors/teaching-resources/sequencing-and-scaffolding-assignments.html. Accessed: September 9, 2020.

“Using Writing in Large Classes”. WAC Clearinghouse, Colorado State University. https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/tipsheets/largeclassesSB.pdf. Accessed: September 9, 2020.

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