Note Taking, Active Learning, and the Writing Process

Note taking is a crucial aspect of the writing process, and yet it is a skill that is often under-emphasized in pedagogical practice. Aside from exhortations to “take notes,” it is rare that instructors take time to assist their students in understanding the functions note taking serves or in acquiring concrete strategies for developing their own note taking habits. Generally speaking, note taking serves as a means of both recording information and facilitating reflection. The former is often taken for granted, obscuring the many different approaches that can be taken. The latter is often under-appreciated, and as a consequence, note taking is construed as being prior to the writing process rather than constitutive of it.

There is nothing passive about note taking. Rather, it is an active engagement with the material that has concrete benefits in its own right. Whether listening to a lecture, participating in a discussion, or reading a text, taking notes requires an attentiveness to the situation at hand, thereby unconsciously improving engagement with the material (Piolat, Olive, and Kellogg 2004). Writing notes also produces a “generational effect” (Foos, Mora, and Tkacz 1994). The cognitive tasks of sorting, coding, and arranging new information leads to stronger connections between newly received information and that which has previously been encoded in long-term memory. Note taking also facilitates the construction of more complex analyses, as notes themselves can serve as external storage, enabling students to hold more elements in mind at once than would be possible from rote memory (Cary and Carlson 1999).

These cognitive benefits suggest that a better incorporation of note taking within the writing process, might lead to more developed written analysis. Writing Across the Curriculum pedagogy is grounded in a view of knowledge that is dialogic, a view of learning that is focused on developing the capacity for critical thinking, and an understanding that writing is a fundamental tool in that development. Not taking, I would suggest, is central to the dialogic aspects of knowledge production, since it places students in a position of active engagement with the material. Not all notes are equal, but when implemented as an active learning strategy, note taking can encourage students to think critically about the information they are engaging with.

Taking notes can strengthen the analysis and organization of student writing in at least three ways.

First, many of the challenges students face when writing stem from difficulties with reading, and note taking can strengthen students’ facility with understanding the texts they are being asked to engage with. Reading notes serve as the first opportunity for students to grapple with, unpack, and understand the key concepts that they will need to conduct written analysis. There are several ways to encourage students to develop their note taking skills while reading:

    • Annotations: Incorporate reading annotation into course requirements. This can be done by asking students to make a minimum number of annotations per page, asking students to write out in their own words any sentence or concept that they underline/highlight, and asking for different kinds of annotations. For example, an English professor I worked with at a community college asked students to include one personal reaction, one summarizing annotation, and one question on each page of the reading.
    • Dictionaries: Another way to encourage close reading of texts is to ask students to find definitions for words or key concepts that they do not understand. The act of finding and writing out the definitions encourages students to pause and reflect on difficult aspects of the reading rather than skimming over them.
    • What It Says/What It Does: For each paragraph in a reading, ask students to write a sentence summarizing what is said and a sentence explaining what the purpose the paragraph serves in the context of the whole reading (Bean 2011: 170). This type of assignment encourages students to do the metacognitive work not only of understanding the text, but of understanding how analysis is structured.
    • Outlines: By reconstructing the structure of the reading in the form of an outline, students learn to recognize the hierarchical nature of analytical writing. Asking students to identify the research question, the argument, the literature review, the evidence, and the findings can also familiarize students with practices for organizing their own writing.

Second, note taking can serve as the basis for more formal, written assignments. When students have engaged in note taking that promotes active thinking, they will already have done aspects of the analytical work required of the assignment. There are several ways to encourage students to take notes that prefigure the analytical work they will be expected to do in their formal writing assignments.

    • Thesis statements: Ask students to write, in their own words, the thesis for each of the readings you assign. Doing so encourages students to view readings as arguments in their own right rather than merely as sources of information.
    • Author’s Frame: Ask students to reflect on the author’s reasons for writing, and to consider how the author’s own positionality may be informing the analysis itself, making note of places in the text that provide support for the student’s claims. As with the thesis statement, this kind of note taking/mini-analysis fosters an awareness of the dialogic aspects of knowledge production by situating the reading within an intersubjective context.
    • Before/After: Help students understand that texts are attempting to persuade them of a particular view by asking them to respond to the following questions. “Before I read this text, the author assumed that I believed…; After I read this, the author wanted me to believe…; The author was (not) successful in changing my view because…” (Bean 2011:174).
    • Summaries: Asking students to write brief summaries of the readings, in which they simply restate the essential argument and ideas of a text without quotations, both helps students to internalize the information and can serve as the basis for future analysis.
    • Diagrams: Ask students to find ways of visually representing the arguments of different texts or illustrating how different texts can be situated relative to each other.

Third, many of these note taking strategies can be employed as tools for self-reflection during the process of revising one’s own work. Ask students to take notes on drafts of their own papers using some of the above assignments. Engaging with their own text as a reader can help them to identify areas in need of stronger analysis as well as strengthen the structure and organization of their writing. Similar note-taking tasks can be incorporated into peer-review, to guides students towards providing feedback on higher order issues of analysis, structure, and organization.

In short, treating note taking as a serious analytical task offers a window into some of the ways writing and learning are mutually entangled. Focusing on the activity of taking notes helps to illustrate the linkages between reading, drafting, and revising, and throws into relief the iterative nature of writing. In doing so, we undertake the difficult work of reorienting our expectations away from products and towards process. From a student perspective, note taking offers an opportunity to learn to treat texts as vibrant interlocutors rather than dead documents to be harvested for facts. In this sense, spending time teaching note taking not only helps students develop their reading, writing capacities; it helps empower them as producers of knowledge in their own right.



Bean, John C. 2011. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons Inc.

Cary, Melanie, and Richard A. Carlson. 1999. “External support and the development of problem-solving routines.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 25(4): 1053-1070.

Foos, Paul W., Joseph J. Mora, and Sharon Tkacz. 1994. “Student Study Techniques and the Generation Effect.” Journal of Educational Psychology 86(4): 567-576.

Piolat, Annie, Thierry Olive, and Ronald T. Kellogg. 2005. “Cognitive Effort During Note Taking.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 19(3): 291-312.

There Is a Big Misconception About Writing, Across Disciplines. We Can Fix It.

Perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions across disciplines is that good writing is equivalent to good grammar and mechanics, and a polished final product.

This harmful misconception turns writing into drudgery, as it rests on the assumption that to write well, one must master drab rules about punctuation and sentence structure and have clearly formulated arguments in mind. This type of thinking also limits opportunities for most disciplines to take advantage of writing as a tool for learning, as writing just seems to be most relevant to the English department, where grammarians thrive.

In reality, good grammar is just one very, very small aspect of writing – an aspect that mostly becomes relevant in the final stage of writing, as it helps lessen confusion for the reader when trying to convey ideas. More importantly, in order to convey ideas, one must first have ideas to convey, and writing is actually a tool with which to do that. Writing allows you to grapple with concepts and think through arguments presented by others so that you can arrive at your own. This is the crux of the writing across the curriculum (WAC) perspective: that writing is actually a process of critical thinking.

The Real Purpose of Writing

Somewhere along the way in their educational journey, most students miss the message that writing is a process of critical thinking. If we are to help them understand that writing is a process by which we learn critical thinking skills, we first need to help them understand why critical thinking is so important.

Why is it important anyway?

Because it is the way by which we arrive at knowledge.

John Bean, a professor at Seattle University and the author of Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, suggests that most students arrive at college with a dualistic view of knowledge. They believe that the correct answers are somewhere out there, and they need to find them, then use writing to demonstrate that they have acquired them. In reality, Bean suggests, knowledge is dialogic: It grows out of a dialogue that involves engaging with opposing ideas and alternative perspectives that students can actively participate in and contribute to – through writing.

As defined by Bean, academic writing is writing that begins with a problem or question, is characterized by a problem-focused thesis statement, which is then supported by a hierarchical structure of supporting evidence. The thesis statement can be thought of as a writer’s proposed one-sentence solution to the problem or question that is driving the essay. In this way, writing is equivalent to joining a conversation of people who are “jointly seeking answers to shared questions that puzzle them” (Bean 22). This is how knowledge is dialogic: A thesis leads to a counter-thesis and the evolution of ideas through this presence of opposing or alternative voices is what generates knowledge (Bean 22).

Critical thinking is thus the backbone of knowledge. It is also the backbone of academic writing, as for the most part, this kind of writing requires analytical or argumentative thinking skills. We develop critical thinking by practicing it through writing.

Critical thinking has been defined as “an investigation whose purpose is to explore a situation, phenomenon, question, or problem to arrive at a hypothesis or conclusion about it that integrates all available information and can therefore be convincingly justified” (Kurfiss 2). When writing is perceived as a way to conduct a messy investigation of ideas rather than as a polished report of correct information, it frees students to write messy drafts with an exploratory purpose meant to clarify their own thinking. In essence, students can begin to use writing as a tool for honing critical thinking. Grammar in these early investigations of ideas is just not of primary concern.

How to Dispell the Biggest Writing Misconception

To undo these harmful misconceptions about writing, we need to first explain how knowledge is acquired – that knowledge grows out of an active, dialogic thinking process. We then need to invite students to join in this dialogue, to use multiple, early drafts of writing as a way to attempt to make a tentative argument that presents one of many possible perspectives. We need to explain that writing is not primarily a method by which to transmit a message, but first and foremost, it is a way “to grow and cook” the message (Bean 24). We need to explain that a very normal part of writing is the process of crafting multiple messy drafts with scrambled ideas. In doing this, students will be successfully engaging with a problem their writing focuses on, entering the intellectual struggle of developing and clarifying their own ideas. We need to explain that writing at once challenges one as a thinker and clarifies their thinking, and this is how it really becomes a learning tool for critical thinking.

Seeing writing in this sense turns the concept of writer’s block on its head. Because, really, there is no writer’s block. There is only a hesitation to engage with ideas through writing — a hesitation that arises from harmful misconceptions, including the one about grammar and also the one about writing needing to be polished at every stage.

The mere existence of the concept of writer’s block when it come to classroom assignments, to me, simply suggests that in order to help students become more effective writers, learners, and critical thinkers, we need to examine our own assumptions about writing. Then, we need to change the way we think about, talk about, and teach writing.

Want to discover ways to incorporate meaningful writing in your classroom? Learn more about WAC here.

Works Cited

Bean, John C. Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

Kurfiss, Joanne Gainen. Critical Thinking: Theory, Research, Practice, and Possibilities. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 2, 1988. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports, The George Washington University, One Dupont Circle, Suite 630, Dept. RC, Washington, DC 20036-1183, 1988.

New Fall 2020! WAC Office Hours for Writing Support

Starting Fall 2020, Writing Across the Curriculum has a new offering for Writing Intensive certified instructors and their students. WI certified faculty can direct students enrolled in their classes this semester to WAC Office Hours. These office hours are one on one sessions in which a City Tech WAC Fellow provides a student with guidance and feedback on written work for a class assignment. This is an ideal way for City Tech students to refine their writing through research-backed WAC pedagogical principles. Now that all of CUNY is getting accustomed to 100% remote instruction, many of us are finding ourselves and our students facing isolation along with a heightened struggle to get a feel for progress in classes. One solution to this is to build connection around coursework into our syllabi. Some instructors are incorporating peer review, mandatory meetings with the professor, and even attendance at tutoring sessions.

For many students, getting feedback on their writing during the revision process, as opposed to after submission, is a new experience. This post addresses four best practices for developing a community of practice around writing. The ideas offered below can be used as a way to guide students in their use of support from WAC Fellows and other methods of engaging with others around their writing process.  

Use the limited time with others to focus on higher order writing concerns. Higher order concerns (HOCs) are where the rubber meets the road when it comes to the connection between writing and critical thinking. While lower order concerns (LOCs) deal with the mechanics of writing such as grammar, spelling, and punctuation, HOCs are crucial to crafting written work that successfully articulates ideas and defends theses (Weber 2017). HOCs are elements like the hypothesis or proposal, overarching structure, and methods used to support a conclusion. We can all remember the experience of grading a paper in which HOCs are not well developed. These are the papers that we pick up and reshuffle to the bottom of the pile of grading because they can be very challenging to decipher, much less provide feedback for. A clearly defined and well-supported thesis will shine through a paper in which the mechanics need improvement. The opposite is rarely true. A paper that needs HOC work might confuse a reader by not delivering a clear thesis, building to a point that seems different than the original thesis, or neglecting to actually support the important points. The challenge is that students and graders often focus first on LOCs because they immediately stand out and offer up their own feedback. Addressing HOCs requires more time and strategic thinking. This makes these areas ideal for tutoring and peer review contexts. The conversation between participants can be used to help develop ideas, test out essay design, and redirect faulty logic. 

Implement rhetorical stances into the writing process. Elements like audience and genre are HOCs that Bean (2011) brings together in the mnemonic RAFT. Bean distinguishes between the problem posed by a well-constructed assignment and the “RAFT”, or the  role (purpose), audience, format (genre), and task (98). Many students write papers in a generic “this is a college paper” format. It’s not their fault. They have likely encountered multiple assignments that do not specify elements like audience and genre, and to boot, many students have been taught through years of schooling to write this way. If we ask students to think about the difference between explaining a concept to a friend or a family member versus a group of academics, we can see how rhetorical aspects refine and supplement a topical problem to solve in an assignment. Students and tutors or peers can use the RAFT to think through the necessary elements to answer a question. Some possible questions to address: What will your audience need to access and understand your ideas? What sorts of information will build on the audience’s knowledge and scaffold them to an understanding of the author’s point? What are the writing conventions of the genre, and how closely should the author stick to these or can playing with them do some beneficial work? What sorts of examples and proof move your readers to your point? Addressing these questions also allows the author to decide if they have the required understanding of the topic or problem to speak to their audience. 

Decide how to use feedback. As challenging as it can be to provide valuable feedback, it can be equally challenging for students to implement. (See here for a WAC workshop on Effective Grading and here for a blog from a WAC Fellow for more ideas.)  Does the student have a specific set of issues they want to address in the session, or are they at the stage of writing where they need more general guidance? A tutoring and feedback session can set goals and realistic methods for implementing feedback. It can also model for students ways to look at writing with a critical eye.

Embrace brainstorming! In my experience, students often discount the importance of this stage of the writing process. It can feel like an extra step with no resulting deliverable. On the contrary, my writing process transformed when I took the beginning step of idea generation seriously. Brainstorming through writing can provide a wealth of ideas that never occur to us if we try to come up with a complete thesis and essay structure too early in the process. Even devoting an hour to letting the mind wander around a topic and putting these ideas on the paper or in a doc will point writers in directions towards an eventual finished piece. Students can work with peer reviewers and tutors to talk through possible ideas for an assignment. Taking advantage of the social nature of thinking and learning will have real benefits for the final written product.

Indeed, the writing process is deeply tied to the thinking process, and both of these are thoroughly social processes. Writing is always to another, even if that other is the writer themselves. Thinking is a way of grappling with the world around us and taking eventual action. Using these ideas can help students make the best use of WAC Office Hours, peer reviews, and one on one meetings with professors. 


Bean, John C. 2011. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Weber, Breanne. 2017. “Higher Order vs. Lower Order Concerns.” Last modified June 16, 2017.

Thoughts on Teaching English as a Second Language

By Labanya Unni

In more than half a decade of my teaching English, one of the most profound challenges I have faced is the question of English as a second language. I encountered this problem in a more limited sense in India, when I first began teaching, where degrees of fluency varied on the basis of class-position and cultural capital. While this issue was definitely something that I navigated, the student body had enough cultural and contextual homogeneity to convey modes of critical thinking in the minds of students. In the US, this problem takes on more complex proportions, since much of the student body is composed of international exchange students, migrants, first- or second-generation English speakers, and even students whose English are infused with specific dialects.

As a teacher, I find it difficult to see students struggling not just with ideas but also with the medium in which these ideas are expressed. From classroom interactions, it is clear that non-native English students sometimes feel inhibited and isolated, often without the space to express unique cultural and linguistic perspectives that they could bring to the table. It is difficult not to dwell on the profoundly hegemonic structure of English as a global language and the onerousness of teaching it to a non-native speaker, this thought process could potentially lead to defeatist modes of thinking or a tendency to shift or deny responsibility (the “abolitionist move” as David R. Russell puts it in his essay “Writing Across the Curriculum”).

These are strategies I have learned in my last few years as a teacher:

Modifying the rubric: The single-point rubric is not just a grading tool, but also a useful checklist for students to have while writing their essays. With English as second language students, teachers need to have awareness of the lexical and grammatical specifics that they bring to the table. This requires a careful perusal of student essays, as their textual analyses, evidence and thesis presentation might not be in a customary academic style. It might also be helpful to go over the rubric in class and carefully break down its contents, with detailed examples and illustrations.

Mindset: As someone teaching in the medium of the English language, it is perhaps useful to understand how English came to be historically constituted as a global language (David Crystal’s English as a Global Language is a good resource for that). A lot of what we understand as critical discourse/thinking reflects a majoritarian Western conception of knowledge, and it might be pertinent to communicate some of these ideas in class. Understanding some of this might help lessen the anxiety of a second language speaker who comes to class with the notion that English fluency represents the height of cultural and linguistic achievement.

WAC principles: The great thing about WAC is that it emphasizes thinking as well as writing. Ideas such as minimal marking, multiple drafting, scaffolding, low stakes writing, editing oriented towards revision rather than grammar correction, are very useful to keep in mind while dealing with second language speakers. John Bean in Engaging Ideas thoughtfully advises teachers to be forgiving of ‘accent errors’ – errors that come from not having naturally inhabited English speaking milieus.

Affective measures: It is clear that the question of English as a second language cannot just be tackled with a handful of linguistic and academic guidelines. There is, without a doubt, an affective component to this process, in which it is important for the teacher to make the student feel comfortable. This can be done by pairing them with peer study-partners (ideally with kind and thoughtful native speakers); encouraging creative and inclusive learning activities that are idea-based; taking the time to interact with them during office hours to try and gauge their cultural and rhetorical contexts and encouraging personal writing that lead up to academic writing/thinking

Utilizing writing centers: Writing centers have activities that professors might not be able to conduct in class due to limited time. Exercises likes conversation classes, dictionary-use, listening or audio-based learning can be useful supplements to WAC. According to Stephen Krashen in his Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning, the most effective way to teach a language is to mimic as much as possible the natural methods of acquiring said language, which is through conversation, low-anxiety settings, and “comprehensible inputs” – the writing center, which is just an aid without the worry of grades might be a good place to implement these principles. Teachers across disciplines would do well to work closely with writing centers to provide extra support to second language speakers.

Works cited

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

Krashen, Stephen D. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Prentice-Hall International, 1988.

Russel, David R. “Writing Across the Curriculum in Historical Perspective: Toward a Social Interpretation”, College English, vol. 52. 1990, pp. 52-73, JSTOR

Could we flip the fellowship, or Why are we doing this in year 5?

I just started my Writing Across the Curriculum year at City Tech and I love it. I’m getting taught how to teach. Specifically, how I can use writing to promote critical thinking, without the extra grading load. How I can move from a lecture-centered course to an assignment-centered course (Bean, 2011). Thanks to WAC, I’m working towards becoming a “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage” I’ve apparently been (Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1991).

Although I’m grateful (very grateful), I wonder, why now? I’ve been teaching at CUNY for four years. Until now, I received zero formal pedagogical training. Instead, I was sent two example syllabi and that was it. To infinity and the wolves. No one wants to disappoint, so four years later my “pedagogy” consists of a grassroots hodgepodge involving many conversations with colleagues, self-organized workshops, Teaching and Learning Center support etc. My inner socialist points out now that much of this training went unpaid because it came out of my own initiative and, therefore, my own time but in any case: Can’t we do it differently?

Of course, we can. No one thinks that training teachers how to teach is a bad idea. But, the struggle is in the implementation. Initially, I thought that WAC was a great contender to provide this much needed pedagogical background. All we have to do is move WAC from year 5 to year 1 and – poof – future teachers don’t have to self-scramble pedagogical skills. A central issue with this idea is the variation within WAC program execution. Each campus has defined their own set of goals when filling out the WAC Fellowship. Therefore, although my fellowship has a pedagogical focus, this may not be the case for other positions. This variation is detrimental to the goal: Training teachers to teach and the solution being moving WAC.

So if not WAC what then? There is the Teaching and Learning Center. Apart from individual consultations they offer all kinds of workshops. Although I have personally benefited from the support the TLC offers, relying on them to provide the necessary teaching background is naive. Graduate students would have to add this search for pedagogical self-improvement on top of their other responsibilities. Plus, I expect the occasional workshop won’t do the trick. But, the TLC also offers an entire course on pedagogy to graduate students. This course is also worth zero credits. Nonetheless, had I known about this I might’ve actually considered taking it – thinking back about all the hours I spent just figuring it out – and that’s how this problem persists.

The problem being: Although everyone agrees that providing pedagogy 101 to future teachers is a good idea, it’s not a priority such that implementation of this idea has been successful. The thought of shifting WAC has been expressed before. Most recently, one of my fellow CityTech Fellows mentioned it in our WAC WhatsApp group (specifically: “also, this bean book is great! i wish i had it when i was actually teaching”). More formally, this thought is expressed in a ten-year review of the WAC program at CUNY: “… there is a greater need for professional development of Enhanced CUNY Fellows prior to their fifth year of the fellowship” (Aries, 2010:26). The review was published ten years ago, yet here I am, doing WAC in my fifth year.

Similarly, although the Teaching and Learning Center has been lobbying for a required, credited course on pedagogy (keywords underlined), they didn’t get that far. Some of the push-back is coming from PhD programs themselves, not wanting to give up a program course in exchange for the one on pedagogy. So, although I don’t criticize or invalidate the TLC’s work, they are currently yet another helpful resource graduate students have to go out and locate.

There’s a compelling tragedy in a problem that everyone agrees is important, but nevertheless persists. I don’t have a solution either other than raising it every so often, like in this blog-post. Hopefully, we make some moves by continuing the discussion. I know that there were plans to reevaluate WAC again before COVID hit. Also, the TLC itself is a relative new resource and their Summer Institute and the zero-credit course are all steps in the right direction. No one thinks training teachers is a bad idea, but until we hash this out, we clearly think it’s an acceptable idea to send unprepared teachers into the classroom.

Aries, N. (2010). Writing Across the Curriculum at CUNY: A Ten-Year Review. City University of New York.

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. John Wiley & Sons.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith, K.A. (1991). Cooperative Learning: Increasing College Faculty Instructional Productivity. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4. Washington, D.C.: George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.


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. Accessed: September 9, 2020.

“Sequencing and Scaffolding Assignments.” Gayle Morris Sweetland Center for Writing, University of Michigan. Accessed: September 9, 2020.

“Using Writing in Large Classes”. WAC Clearinghouse, Colorado State University. Accessed: September 9, 2020.

Distance Learning and the Art of Note-taking

The move to distance learning during this fraught time has been difficult for most of us, especially those who have built years of experience and teaching methods on the basic assumption that you get to meet with your students in person at least once a week, usually more. In today’s blog post, in light of the adaptations we are having to make in terms of how we communicate with our students during this time and how they process that information, I would like to revisit the important theme of note-taking practices.

The WAC program likes to offer a student workshop on this topic each semester as we believe that best note-taking practices are the underpinning for student success at the college level. There is a huge step-up for many students between high school and college, where it is expected that for every piece of new knowledge you gain, you also respond and add to this knowledge with your own perspective and input. This higher expectation of their level of engagement is frequently only possible if the student has first digested properly the original information, and secondly has cultivated a conversation with themselves within their notes and materials that they can refer back to as an ongoing narrative that evolves in line with their thinking and learning.

In the context of distance learning, this internal dialogue within the student becomes even more crucial as a way to check in, problem solve, and develop new answers and theories in response to the task at hand. These actions become much harder in the absence of a spontaneous, collaborative learning environment that happens naturally in a physical classroom with twenty other students. When we adapt our courses knowing that the student will be receiving our material in isolation, probably at different hours of the day from a regular school schedule, and often in more challenging and distracting environments, we should help to counter these difficulties by making sure students are armed with the best tools within themselves to assess, quantify, respond to, and deliver new information.

So how to teach best note-taking practices? The first thing to do is assess the current note-taking habits of your students by testing their ability to record and then reproduce information. This is more difficult to do remotely, but a basic method could be giving a spontaneous, short lecture via a live online platform (live so they can’t press rewind later and thus must rely on the notes they make at the time!) on a new topic from the course, perhaps with one or two visual aids – remember that there are different styles of learning and some will be better at taking notes from a display such as PowerPoint than they will be just listening to your voice – then immediately asking students to free-write for 5-10 minutes in response to the topic discussed. This can and should be low stakes so they don’t feel the added pressure of assessment, but the idea is to firstly figure out who needs more support in their note-taking abilities based on the fluency and content of these responses. Holding an online blog discussion about current note-taking habits could be another way to get an idea of how students approach this topic, for example asking whether they typically take notes during lectures; how they mark important sections for themselves; whether they plan more lengthily assignments using their notes; and if they have unique methods for recording information (e.g. symbols, colors, splitting the page into sections). Starting a frank discussion around this topic will get some students to share methods, and others less well-versed in note-taking to start considering it as a viable way of learning. Some students may never have been taught how to take notes before, and thus never consider it as an option for themselves. We have all had a student who arrives to class without a notebook or pen, sits staring blankly for the duration of class, and then struggles later on with assignments.

Once you have an idea of what level your students are at with their note-taking, you can begin to introduce suggestions for how they can proceed to better this practice. The first thing to emphasize is that proper, effective note-taking is a cognitive skill and not the same as dictation. We should encourage students to think of their class-notes much like a journal; written for themselves, personalized with whatever flair they feel inclined to add that will help them engage fully with the material being taught, and requiring practice and commitment to improve the results. Secondly, it should be explained to students that the cognitive process behind effective note-taking involves encoding; that is, the interactive response to new material that allows someone to reword what they are being told in their own way in order to absorb, and later apply, that new knowledge. This act of encoding improves conceptual understanding in the long run because students are forced to summarize and re-think on the spot, making them adaptable to the material and more comfortable with shaping it in their own unique way when it comes to formal means of assessment.

There are many, varying methods for note-taking and it is also important to emphasize that there is not only one “correct” way to do this; everybody thinks and learns in their own unique way. Paraphrasing, symbols, abbreviations, made-up codes for words or theories, text language, writing in a mother tongue that might be different from the language being used by the instructor, and using the page however makes sense to that individual (split in half, turned upside down, etc) are all allowed. There are no official rules for how notes should look, and students should understand this as soon as possible so they feel empowered to make the process their own.

Research has suggested that handwriting is more beneficial over typing because the act of putting pen to paper is more involved than using a keyboard – something many of our students do without thinking thanks to the rise of technology use today especially in younger generations. That said, as long as the student is fully focused on the task at hand (i.e. not switching windows between the internet, social media, and their class-notes) it is possible for some of them to perhaps benefit more from the process of typing, which can be quicker and more efficient if they struggle to hand-write (also common these days). The three most important stages that should be included whatever the chosen medium and method are: Writing down the information, Questioning that information or contextualizing its logic and source, and Reflecting or Summarizing in one’s own words. If these three components are consistently being achieved during note-taking over the course of a lesson or private study session, then the student is likely to retain that information long-term and be able to use it in varying settings going forward.

Reminding students to go back to their notes to re-read and reflect is the final component to making sure they are getting the most out of this process. It isn’t enough to write something down once and then never revisit it. They must get into the habit of returning to and reviewing notes in order to grow in their awareness of what still needs to be worked on to make their understanding and application of the knowledge as full as possible. Writing down questions they have, especially when learning and internal processing is happening remotely, is a crucial component of this practice, as questions feed more investigations, more discussion, and ultimately more exciting and fresher ideas. If we can get our students to a place where they feel confident and imaginative in their own, initial responses to course materials, then the results of wider discussion and assessment become much more fruitful and we send them onward with a sense of independence when it comes to tackling new materials.

***Sending positive energy and thoughts to all of you during this tough time – may everyone you know, including yourself, be happy and well and safe.

WAC Pedagogy in the Time of COVID-19

As we all try to adjust to and make sense of these unprecedented circumstances, I thought I’d take a moment to discuss how we can best serve our students in spite of the unusual challenges we’re all facing. Rather than add on to the wealth of resources already available on using technology for long distance instruction, I’d like to focus instead on how WAC pedagogy can be implemented conceptually in our (makeshift) digital classrooms:



Scaffolding larger assignments is an excellent strategy to both monitor students’ progress as well as help students manage their workload during this stressful time. Break a larger assignment such as a research paper, presentation, or group project into several discrete tasks, ranging from simple to complex, that build upon each other. Each week, ask students to work on and submit a different assignment or task. By sequencing the assignment into smaller, more manageable building blocks, students will find the assignment less time-consuming and easier to accomplish.



Lecturing and delivering course material long-distance is an especially challenging task. There are merits to both asynchronous and synchronous lectures, but regardless of which approach you take, an excellent way to compensate for the lack of in-person lecture/discussion, as well as to evaluate students’ comprehension of material, is to incorporate writing-to-learn principles—that is, to use writing as a tool to help student think through key concepts or ideas central to the class. If delivering course material asynchronously, ask students to write a brief reflection after reviewing the material that summarizes the lesson and identifies the areas they found most confusing or challenging. If students were supposed to read an assigned text for class, ask them to write a short summary and/or identify its key themes or features.


Peer Review

Students can continue to participate in peer review remotely, either as a class or in small groups or pairs. For pairs or small groups, students can exchange assignments and drafts via email and fill out a guided worksheet or cover survey about their peers’ work. For larger groups or class peer review, students can upload drafts on Google Docs and edit or comment directly on the document. Peer review helps students improve their writing and critical analysis skills by providing them with real readers who must make sense of their assignment. Encouraging students to communicate and collaborate with each other—and to maintain a sense of community and support—is especially critical now as we practice social distancing and self-quarantine.



WAC pedagogy has always promoted assessment that prioritizes higher-order concerns over lower-order concerns, and now is an especially worthwhile time to adopt this grading method. When grading students’ assignments, look first to the “higher-order concerns” such as thesis/focus, audience, purpose, organization, development, or mastery of course concepts. “Lower-order concerns,” such as grammar, mechanics, style, and formatting should only be considered afterwards, and should factor minimally in assessing and grading student work. We should, I feel, be generous in our grading at this time: just like us, students are trying to navigate these unfamiliar circumstances, in addition to juggling several other classes as well as their own personal issues.


For additional resources, the CUNY Graduate Center’s Teaching and Learning Center has provided a comprehensive website:


And the following GoogleDoc is a shared aggregate list of all university responses to the crisis, with many helpful tips and strategies:

Writing as Problem or Solution? Using Writing Interventions to Promote Student Engagement

Sometimes I fear I am being coy: when faculty members ask me to share, as a Writing Across the Curriculum fellow, techniques for improving the quality of their students’ writing, my answer is frustratingly circular. “Make your students write as much as possible,” I say, then read the disappointment in my interlocutor’s eyes. Does this guy really believe (those eyes seem to ask), that the solution to my students’ writing problems is more writing?

While my honest answer is yes, I do view writing as a tool more than  a pedagogical hurdle, I understand that I am biased by my background. I teach English, not physics, or dentistry, or mathematics. And though I can recite with confidence each of my WAC commandments — I. Thou Shalt Use Writing to Achieve Course Goals, II. Thou Shalt Use Low-Stakes Assignments to Prepare Students for Longer, High-Stakes Assignments, etc. — these were delivered to me, Moses-like, by other English and Composition instructors. Wielding my English degree and my pedagogical methods devised by English professors, I must look like a chauvinist.

What a great relief, then, when I encountered two articles by psychologist Judith M. Harackiewicz about the use of carefully crafted “writing interventions” to foster success in introductory science classes. Harackiewicz’s work focuses on student engagement in college STEM courses, paying special attention to the performance of “underrepresented minority” (URM) and “first generation” (FG) students (Harackiewicz, 2016). Compared with “continuing-generation” (CG) students — college students with at least one college-educated parent — FG students arrive at college with more anxiety, greater doubts, and fewer expectations of success; ultimately, FG students drop out of college at higher rates than their CG peers, a phenomenon called the “social-class achievement gap” (Harackiewicz, 2016). Harackiewicz’s efforts to shorten this gap through the use of targeted writing tasks is directly relevant to WAC’s efforts to meet the needs of City Tech’s diverse student body.

Harackiewicz’s research found that URM and FG students performed better in introductory science classes if they were given targeted writing tasks — “writing interventions” is her expression — that require students to consider the value of what they are learning. “The perception of value,” writes Harackiewicz, “is critical to the development of interest over time” (2014). A student who identifies “personal utility connections” with her coursework is more likely to develop interest in that subject and the confidence and motivation to succeed (2014).

Harackiewicz describes two different forms of writing interventions: “utility value interventions” and “values affirmation interventions” (2014). Utility value (UV) interventions take the form of “short essays about the personal relevance of course material” (2016). A sample UV assignment looks like this: 

“Select a concept or issue that was discussed in lecture and formulate a question…Write an essay addressing this question and discuss the relevance of the concept or issue to your own life. Be sure to include some concrete information that was covered in this unit, explaining why this specific information is relevant to your life or useful to you” (Harackewitz, 2016, original emphasis). 

Harackewicz’s research suggests that these kinds of utility value-generating questions force students to take a personal stake in a course’s material and their learning process. Interestingly, a linguistic analysis of student responses to UV interventions suggested that these prompts produced “greater evidence of cognitive engagement” among students than a control question (Harackiewicz, 2016). Harackiewicz concludes that UV interventions are especially useful for students “who doubt their competence,” but she also emphasizes that students must establish their own utility value connections (2016) In other words, don’t do the work for your students by telling them how valuable your course is to life outside the classroom.

While UV interventions require students to consider the personal value of their coursework, “values affirmation” (VA) interventions ask them to consider and articulate their own personal values. A VA intervention asks that students to select two or three values that are most important to them from a list of twelve — values such as “independence,” “belonging to a social group,” “creativity,” “relationships with family and friends”— and “write an essay describing why their values [are] important” (Harackiewicz, 2014). While this form of intervention does not address specific coursework, Harackiewicz argues that it fosters confidence, a sense of belonging, and “continued motivation” among the URM and FG students who are most likely to drop out of STEM classes (Harackiewicz, 2014).

I am eager to try both UV and VA interventions in my classroom, though I don’t doubt that I will have to experiment a bit. I wonder, for example, whether I might make these assignments a little livelier, and more specific to my course — especially in the case of the more generalist-minded VA interventions. Also, is there a way to discourage cynical responses to the prompts (ie. “This course has no value in my life,” or “This is just a requirement for graduation”)? Nevertheless, I am encouraged that Harackiewicz sought writing as a medium for addressing student retention in the STEM field. In Harackewicz’s schema, writing is not a problem to be overcome, but an avenue for greater student participation, motivation, and learning.

Works Cited

Harackiewicz, Judith M., Canning, E. A., Tibbetts, Y., Priniski, S. J., & Hyde, J. S. (2016). “Closing Achievement Gaps With a Utility-Value Intervention: Disentangling Race and Social Class”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 111 (5): 745-765

Harackiewicz, J.M., Yoi Tibbetts, Elizabeth Canning, and Janet S. Hyde (2014). “Harnessing values to Promote Motivation in Education”. Advances in Motivation and  Achievement; 18: 71–105

Closing the “Affective” Gap: Employing Motivation and “Utility-Value” as Active Writing Tools to Promote Discipline Specific Retention Rates

In recent times studies have been conducted that looked at the factors that make up the demographic dropout rates amongst students, and particularly in STEM education (Kelly, 2016; Wang & Degol, 2013). What these studies particularly focused on was as to why these dropout rates were so high among women and students from a lower social economic background, and underrepresented groups in the STEM field. Moreover, these studies have revealed that the causes for these dropout rates and the demographic representation in STEM education were explained by environmental factors, and the academic aptitude of the students in question which explained the outcome of student retention rates in STEM (e.g. Wang & Degol, 2013).


What kind of a role can WAC play to increase the retention rates amongst certain groups of students? Which of the several causes of the outcome of these studies can WAC strive to improve through writing pedagogy, and by applying active learning tools in the classroom? In other words: what kind of WAC pedagogical tools are successful in raising interest and persistence in STEM education among certain student groups?


For instance, the low numbers of female students enrolled in STEM education has been heavily studied in the past decade. As a result, the data that has been generated by these studies can partly account for these low participation rates among this certain demographic of students. Some of these causes have to do with environmental factors andstereotypes about gender and STEM. As a consequence, girls might experience less encouragement and support to excel or to choose STEM-related educational programs and careers. Moreover, parental beliefs and behavior can both promote and discourage students into STEM education (Kelly, 2016; Wang & Degol, 2013). The lack of female role models can also decrease the sense of belonging in STEM for STEM students and students considering STEM education (Blickenstaff, 2005).

Moreover, cultural and societal beliefs, policy and economical and work-related developments should also be considered as an influence on students’ behavior. These last causes for the lower participation rates in the female demographic group are of particular interest as these reflect a certain disconnect of the students’ perceptions of the value of academic tasks and the students’ personal values that shape their experiences in academic contexts (Harackiewicz, 2014). Additionally, this disconnect of the students’ sense of belonging and sense of identity in an academic field one can group under the heading “affective factors”. These factors, as Wang and Degol (2013) assert, reflect a set of added motivational beliefs, such as occupational and life values as an important part of the decision-making process to pursue STEM education or STEM-related careers. Furthermore, it is found that the affective disconnect is higher in girls and students of a lower socio-economic background.


How can WAC pedagogy therefore mend this affective gap? One of several ways is to have students adopt several writing strategies in order to have them perform low stakes writing exercises, in which they rationalize their reason for taking certain courses in a STEM-related degree. More specifically, how these courses could aid in realizing certain educational goals, and/or to realize certain life goal projects reflective of one’s political, ethical and societial belief structure. As a result, studies have shown that productivity and retention increases by having students apply this active learning tool. Furthermore, in order to further understand the mechanisms behind the affective factors of belonging in STEM, one can invoke expectancy-value theory (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002), interest theory (Hidi & Renninger, 2006), and self-affirmation theory (Steele, 1988), in order to then construct a pedagogical framework in which WAC could be of assistance in ameliorating this affective gap in more detail.

A part from the aforementioned low stakes writing exercises, these theories can be used to craft specific high stakes writing assignments, such as an end of term paper related to a semester long project in a STEM related course, which would bring out a deeper level of reflection of the students’ individual affective sense of belonging and utility value of the STEM course. The goal of WAC pedagogy here is to construct certain essay prompts, by way of effective assignment design, where students can relate their projects to the ethical, socio-political and personal values of the project they have undertaken on a more engaging level; and as result are therefore more motivated to pursue a degree in a field that they’ve initially dismissed as not having the potential of being a viable career path.



Blickenstaff, J. C. (2005). “Women and science careers: Leaky pipeline or gender filter?” Gender and Education17(4), 369–386

Eddy, S. L., & Brownell, S. E. (2016). “Beneath the numbers: A review of gender disparities in undergraduate education across science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines.” Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12(2)

Harackiewicz, J. M., Canning, E. A., Tibbetts, Y., Priniski, S. J., & Hyde, J. S. (2015, November 2). “Closing Achievement Gaps With a Utility-Value Intervention: Disentangling Race and Social Class”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Judith M. Harackiewicz, Yoi Tibbetts, Elizabeth Canning, and Janet S. Hyde (2014). “Harnessing values to Promote Motivation in Education”. Adv Motiv Achiev; 18: 71–105

Kelly, A. M. (2016). “Social cognitive perspective of gender disparities in undergraduate physics.” Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12(2)

National Science Foundation. (2017). “Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering: 2017”. Arlington, VA.

Wang, M. T., & Degol, J. (2013). “Motivational pathways to STEM career choices: Using expectancy-value perspective to understand individual and gender differences in STEM fields.” Developmental Review, 33(4), 304–340.