Journal-entry Assignments: Connecting Course Content to Real Experiences

Journal-entry assignments are a valuable tool for incorporating semi-structured writing into a course. Less formal than traditional writing assignments which often include a thesis statement, citations, or full-length papers (5 or more pages), journal entries allow the building of connections between course content and real life experiences within one or two pages of writing. Often they are most effective when requiring students to first define the term, theory, or issue and then asking them to describe how either how they or someone they know had a real experience related to a given course topic.

This technique pushes students to be agents of learning as opposed to passive learners. If they can start to link the jargon/terms of a given field with real examples or experiences, the importance of what they are learning is made clear to them beyond the purposes of the classroom. Furthermore, this can lead to lively discussions if the instructor is willing to spend a few minutes of class time engaging students by talking through each others’ examples.

Remember that journal-entry assignments may be new for many students, so it is always beneficial to clarify what you expect as the instructor in terms of formatting, length, and audience, as this is certainly a different manner of writing than their usual lab reports or research papers. Yet if used multiple times throughout the semester, journal-entries can continuously improve students’ abilities to link course content to how it relates in their own lives and can also be used in building to longer, more formal assignments (i.e., scaffolding) later in the semester.

Workshop Recap: Effective Assignment Design, October 22, 2013

Last Tuesday, WAC Fellows Zachary Aidala and Justina Oliveira led an excellent workshop on effective assignment design and assignment scaffolding for City Tech faculty. We were so pleased to have faculty members from all across the college in attendance. Since reading and writing are so intimately linked when creating assignments, our WAC team was joined by Professor Juanita But from the English Department and the college’s reading initiative, Reading Effectively Across the Disciplines (READ). As writing professor Toby Fulwiler reminds us:

[Reading and writing] are interdependent, mutually supportive skills, both of which are “basic” to an individual’s capacity to generate critical, developed, independent thought.” [1]

Justina began by outlining two of the workshop’s major pedagogical theories: writing as active reading, and purposeful writing assignments. The first represents the idea that by assigning low-stakes writing assignments such as note-taking, summaries, or informal response papers, students will internalize and learn from readings more comprehensively. The second theory is something of a WAC mantra, the idea that student writing should not merely convey knowledge but also reinforce larger educational course objectives, be it critical thinking or doing discipline-specific work.

Prof. But covered a variety of techniques that utilize writing to encourage better reading comprehension. She showed us the two-column note-taking method, where students take notes on content in one column, and then annotate their notes in an adjacent column. This echoes another great WAC strategy: having students explain course material to a “new learner,” such as a friend or relative, forcing the student to put complex ideas into their own words.

Concept Map
Click on image for larger version

She also introduced us to the concept map, a visual aid for readers to organize major themes, subjects, hypotheses, and other material in a reading. A short exercise for attendees using an E.B. White paragraph later revealed the usefulness of this organizational tool.

Justina then covered some of the differences between low- and high-stakes writing. One of the many benefits to low-stakes writing is that it can be used as a purely pedagogical tool, or “writing to learn,” but it can also be part of a scaffold, a number of smaller writing exercises that lead to a longer, high-stakes paper. She concluded with a very handy checklist (available on handout at bottom of this article) of items instructors should remember to ask themselves when designing an assignment, things that all of us as instructors have probably forgotten at one point or another (e.g. “Have I expressed who the intended audience is for this paper?”). Finally, she presented a series of useful assignment types for low-stakes writing, including a variety of prompt types, summary assignments, or the “explain to a new learner” strategy.

Next, Zak Aidala covered high-stakes assignments, and how to better prepare students for writing these longer, more serious papers. He covered a variety of ideas for scaffolding larger assignments, or building up to the final paper with a series of shorter targeted papers. The workshop concluded with each group considering a traditional high-stakes assignment that had a number of flaws, and each table of faculty and fellows approached it with a variety of “fixes.” One table focused entirely on creating writing as reading assignments, another on low-stakes scaffolded assignments, and another on high-stakes scaffolded assignments.

If you missed our Effective Assignment Design Workshop, the PowerPoint is available here. Please feel free to download it and if you have questions, use the comments section below. We also have a concise Handout with directions for concept mapping, ideas for low-stakes writing assignments, and an assignment design checklist, all taken from the presentation.

Our next workshop will be on November 12 at 1pm, and covers Peer Review, another great tool that you can use in the classroom with low- or high-stakes assignments. We hope to see you there, and check back here for more information shortly.


[1] Toby Fulwiler, “Why We Teach Writing in the First Place,” fforum 4, no. 2 (1983): 123.

Peer Review in the College Classroom

Peer review assignments can provide a scaffold to a formal writing assignment (such as a term paper) in which students comment on each others’ drafts, thereby relieving instructors of that burden. Peer review activities (whether in class or as a homework assignment) require students to take an active role in their own as well as their fellow students’ learning experiences, allowing them to obtain feedback from more than one person’s point of view. In a traditional classroom setting, students are almost always exclusively given feedback from one authoritative body – the instructor. While it is necessary to have a singular entity that provides feedback and instructions for improvement, it is equally important for students to become comfortable receiving feedback from multiple people. Regardless of the career they choose, students will find there is rarely a back-and-forth between only two people. Collaborations are the norm and so feedback will come from many different individuals, and certain aspects of their work will be more important to some people than others.

When conducting peer review assignments in class, students should be directed to provide well-informed critiques of the work (asking them to model after your own comments as an instructor is a good place to start). This process is similar to the way publishing original research in the academic world works as well (and indeed reflects how work is produced in many non-academic professions as well, making this process beneficial to students, irrespective of their future career choice). It also allows the teacher to assess student learning from an alternative point of view. The peer reviewer assumes the role of “expert” and must therefore provide his/her expert opinion of the work produced by the reviewee. A quality peer review explains to instructors that the reviewer understands the material well enough to provide thoughtful and insightful feedback.

In my experience, students are often more interested in impressing their peers than their teachers, so when they are required to critique each others’ work they will put in more effort to impress. However, it may be useful to provide students with a rubric of some sort they can follow when conducting their review. For example, a student might state that “the main concept was explained well.” As an instructor, that gives little indication that either the reviewer or reviewee knew anything about anything. Instead, students should be required to give specific examples from the text and provide specific feedback. For example, “The author states that animals learn by association, but doesn’t talk about animals that can learn to navigate a maze in the absence of any relevant associative cues.”

Lastly, peer review assignments need not be limited to term papers/essays. They can be easily adapted to mock poster or oral presentations in which students present their posters to a group and be prepared to field questions and defend critiques of their work. Peer review assignments not only provide an alternate way of assessing student work, they lend themselves well to assignments that require multiple drafts.

Bilingual Education Strategies

Bilingual education differs from ESL (English as a Second Language) in that it emphasizes growth in the students’ home language (L1) as well as English, whereas ESL is mostly geared towards learning English. Bilingual education is premised on a social justice framework for thinking about learning that seeks to incorporate student language, culture, and identity as powerful assets in the classroom as a means of working towards greater social equality both inside and outside of schools. Bilingual education is advocated for learners of all ages and varying linguistic proficiencies (Garcia, 2009).

In 2011, the CUNY-NYS Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals published a “Translanguaging Guide” which includes many concrete strategies for drawing on students’ full linguistic capacities in a variety of classroom settings. It can be found in its entirety for free here:

In the guide’s introduction, the authors state that “Translanguaging affords the opportunity to use home language practices, different as they may be from those of school, to practice the language of school, and thus to eventually also use the appropriate form of language.” As helping students learn academic discourse is a goal of Writing Across the Curriculum, here are a few  translanguaging strategies to help improve student writing:

Have students develop a language portfolio where they can record and celebrate their language learning in your course. They can set goals for language learning, document and explore encounters with new language introduced by your class, develop rubrics to evaluate their own capacities, needs, and progress, and collect examples of their own accomplishments in both languages. Students can use this portfolio across courses and disciplines as they progress in the program.

The guide also provides the following questions to help instructors reflect on the linguistic demands of the course and develop multilingual objectives and strategies to help students meet those demands:

1) Will students need to learn certain vocabulary words?

2) Will students need to use a particular aspect of grammar?

3) Will students need to use certain signal words in their writing to transition from one paragraph to the next?

4) What type of language will students need to learn to read or write in a particular genre/discipline?

Students can make comparisons between how two languages use grammar, certain words, paragraph  structure, and sentence structure.

Other practices include the strategic, purposeful use of both languages:

– Having students create one written assignment in English, and another (related) assignment in their home language.

– Translate a written assignment from their home language to English, or vice versa.

– Create a written assignment that uses both English and the home language for a specific purpose.

Finally, consider how students can work collaboratively in your class. Students can meet in small groups where they discuss the content in any language, but then share out or report back to the whole class in English. Students can work in groups to brainstorm in any language, and then write in English. Another possibility is to have students listen to your lecture or discussion in English, and then discuss it in small groups in any language. Students could also free-write and use concept maps to explore ideas in their home language, and develop these informal assignments into a formal paper or presentation in English.





WAC Reflections: Writing in Mathematics

It is easy sometimes to feel like there are limits to the utility of writing across the curriculum or writing in the disciplines.  Even if instructors agree that learning to write can’t be restricted to English departments, and even that each discipline has its own writing standards that students need to learn and practice, some may feel that there is no room for writing assignments in their course.  Perhaps they feel there is simply too much material to get through, or that the things the students are learning don’t lend themselves to writing assignments.

There are no easy answers for these concerns, but if you find yourself wondering whether including writing assignments in your course is really worthwhile, you might want to take a look at the website of Annalisa Crannell, Professor of Mathematics at Franklin and Marshall College.  She makes the case clearly and persuasively that writing is important, even in math, perhaps the least intuitive place to assign writing.  And if writing is important in math, surely it is important across the curriculum.

The reasons she gives for the importance of writing are very much WAC principles.  In her excellent Guide to Writing in Mathematics Classes, written for students, she justifies the choice to include writing assignments in three ways.  In her words,

  • With each additional mathematics course you take, you further distance yourself from the average person on the street. You may feel like the mathematics you can do is simple and obvious (doesn’t everybody know what a function is?), but you can be sure that other people find it bewilderingly complex. It becomes increasingly important, therefore, that you can explain what you’re doing to others that might be interested: your parents, your boss, the media. 
  • Professional mathematicians spend most of their time writing: communicating with colleagues, applying for grants, publishing papers, writing memos and syllabi. Writing well is extremely important to mathematicians, since poor writers have a hard time getting published, getting attention from the Deans, and obtaining funding. It is ironic but true that most mathematicians spend more time writing than they spend doing math. 
  • But most of all, one of the simplest reasons for writing in a math class is that writing helps you to learn mathematics better. By explaining a difficult concept to other people, you end up explaining it to yourself.

Writing in math, as she says, is very much writing to learn.  Being able to explain complicated concepts in clear language is often the best measure that a student has really mastered a concept, and practicing doing so is crucial to that mastery.  However, she also rightly points out that this ability is crucial in the real world, connecting the students’ ability to explain the math he or she is capable of with the home, the workplace, and the media.  In this way, writing in mathematics is also professional development.  These are things that the WAC movement says about writing in all courses.

Crannell’s website has a number of excellent resources, including sample writing assignments, but the aforementioned guide is the real star.  In it, she describes very well how writing in mathematics is different from other kinds of writing, provides a helpful checklist for students engaged in the writing process, and points out helpful terms for math writing and how to use them.  This is great information for any student learning to write according to specific disciplinary or professional standards, the importance of which is central to the WAC philosophy.

She even points out that mathematical equations are much like sentences in a way, with their own kind of punctuation and grammar, reinforcing how much information is communicated in both equations and writing by the placement of specific symbols and punctuation marks.  Of course, either a sentence or an equation can serve to mislead rather than communicate clearly if things are presented in the wrong order.

Crannell both demonstrates the importance of WAC principles, even in mathematics, and models them quite effectively.  The sample assignments may be of primary interest to faculty in math and the sciences, but her guide for students is a good read for anyone thinking about how help students write according to disciplinary or professional standards that may be unfamiliar to them.

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