WAC Reflections: On Free Writing

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

WAC Assignment Highlight: Foundations of Mathematics Education (MEDU1010)

Professor: Andrew Parker

Course: Foundations of Mathematics Education (MEDU1010)

Assignment: Is Algebra Necessary?

As part of a weekly assignment series, students were asked to read an NY Times op-ed piece by Andrew Hacker, an emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, in which he argues that mandatory mathematics education in high school and college does more harm than good to students.  Students were asked to respond to his criticisms, using sources where necessary to back up their claims.

What WAC principle(s) does this assignment exemplify?

This is a great example of how current events/popular culture can be incorporated into a course curriculum. One virtue this has is encouraging students to relate course material to their everyday lives, which may, in turn, help with retention and understanding.

In addition, the assignment invites students to take a critical stance towards what they are reading, encouraging them to view reading as an active process. This is crucial as they grapple with not only course material, but information they come across on a daily basis whether inside or outside of the college curriculum.

How might this type of assignment be used in other courses across the curriculum?

 Another plus for this type of assignment is that it can be flexibly used in almost any course, not only with op-eds and news articles, but relevant documentaries, YouTube clips, podcasts, and so on.  The more connections students can forge between what they are learning in class, and the world outside the classroom, the better.

WAC Assignment Highlight

Professor: Jonas Reitz

Course: MAT 1275

Assignment: Advice for the future

Students were asked to imagine that they were speaking on the first day of MAT 1275, and to give advice to the incoming students based on one of three questions.

The assignment was posted as a blog post, and students were asked to respond in the comments section of the post. For example, one student responded:

“First I’ll address number 3: I would say that a prior knowledge (ability) to have is PATIENCE and willingness to learn something that isnt particularly easy like trig. Math isnt for everyone, not all of us are going to grasp it the first or second time around; however, if you have patience you will gradually begin to understand at least some of the material…”

For extra credit, students had the option of  responding to someone else’s comment, indicating whether they agreed or disagreed, and if they had anything to add. Many students took this option, generating a nice discussion.

What WAC principle(s) does this assignment exemplify?

This is a terrific example of using an unconventional audience, in this case other students just entering the course, to encourage students to use their own voice.

Students are often accustomed to the professor being their sole audience, which sometimes hinders them from fully explaining or elaborating on course material. They may also feel stifled by academic jargon, and use overly formal language, that does not allow them to get comfortable with the material in a way required to explain it to others, or to better understand it themselves in more everyday terms.

It is also a great example of asking students to use exploratory and personal writing, reflecting on their experiences and feelings about the course. This, again, encourages students to use their own voice, and allows them to get more comfortable with their learning environment.

How might this type of assignment be used in other courses across the curriculum?

This type of informal writing exercise could be used in any type of course.  There will always be advice that students will have to give to other students about the course they  just took, no matter the discipline.

The exercise could be especially useful in disciplines where writing has not traditionally played a big role, and in more advanced, i.e., upper level courses, where incoming students would particularly benefit from more guidance on how to meet the challenges involved in mastering the material.