Probing Memory and Connecting New Concepts to Old Neural Networks: Note taking as an Invaluable “Active-Learning” Tool to Stimulate Reading Comprehension.

The act of note taking can be viewed as a freewriting, or exploratory writing, exercise. There are different activities one can undertake to promote free writing as an active learning tool and note taking can be viewed as a subset of that among other strategies. It’s important to note that all these different kinds of writing-to-learn low stakes exercises all tackle a different side of the writing-to-learn process the brain engages in. As a result these writing tasks stimulate different parts of the brain. Kellogg (2008) explains that the frontal lobes of the brain, which seldom reach full maturity until age twenty-three to thirty, are needed for complex writing tasks that require writers first to wrestle with advanced, “domain-specific” knowledge and then to read their emerging texts from the audience’s perspective. The strain on working memory can be reduced, Kellogg argues, by earlier scaffolding exercises that encourage students to take notes, generate ideas during pre-writing or to make an outline. These different kinds of tasks apparently activate different parts of the brain.

Another study by biologist James Zull (2002), shows that all new learning must be linked to preexisting neural networks already in the learner’s brain. Teachers can’t simply transfer a concept from their own brains into students’ brains, because a teacher’s neural networks are the products of his or her own life history and don’t exist within the learner’s brain. Consequently, the learner must build the new concepts on neural networks already present. Informal writing assignments aimed at helping students probe memory, connect new concepts to old networks, dismantle blocking assumptions, and help understand the significance of the new concept are particularly valuable. Note taking is therefore the ideal method of adding information to concepts that are already present in neural networks and to connect new concepts to old networks.

One note taking strategy is to, as an instructor, show students the instructor’s own note-taking and responding process. Just as it helps students to see a skilled writer’s rough drafts, it helps them to see a skilled reader’s marked-up text, marginal notations, and note-taking system. Bring in a book or article full of your own margin notes and underlinings, along with entries you made in your note system. Show the students what sort of things you write in the margins. Explain what you underline and why. If your reading is part of a scholarly project, show them how you take notes and how you distinguish between what the author is saying and your own reflections on the material.

Teach students “what it says” and “what it does”. A helpful way for students to understand structural function in a text is to show them how to write “what it says” and “what it does” statements for each paragraph (Ramage, Bean and Johnson, 2009; Bean, Chappell, and Gillam, 2011; Bruffee, 1993). A “what it says “statement is a summary of the paragraph’s content— The paragraph’s stated or implied or implied topic sentence. A “what it does” statement describes the paragraph’s purpose or function within the essay: for example, “Provides evidence for the author’s first main reason,” “Summarizes an opposing view,” “provides statistical data to support a point,” or “uses an analogy to clarify the idea in the previous paragraph.” These “what it does” statements are helpful ways to condense ideas accurately by getting to the core of an argument during the note taking activity.

Another productive method which John C. Bean advocates, is the “marginal notes” approach, where he claims that every time one has the urge to highlight or underline something, one should instead opt to: “write out in the margins why you wanted to underline it. Why is that passage important? Is it a major new point in the argument? A significant piece of support? A summary of the opposition? A particularly strong or particularly weak point?” (Bean 177). The margins should therefore be used to summarize the text, ask questions, give assent or to protest vehemently. The goal here is to get students to carry on lively dialogue with the author in the margins. Additionally, this approach can spark a class discussion if students are asked to read from their margin notes. This strategy promotes an active learning approach wherein the note taking process itself addresses noteworthy problems with the object of study, i.e.:  unclarities and points of interest gradually will manifest themselves in the margin notes. These noteworthy items eventually could lead to compelling research topics, which form the basis of strong research questions.

Another helpful tool when taking note are the “graphic organizers”. For some students representing a text visually is more powerful than representing it through marginal notations, traditional outlining, or even summary writing. Graphic organizers can take the form of flowcharts, concept maps, tree diagrams, sketches or drawings. Robert and Roberts (2008) give their students choices in how they want to represent their deep reading of a text (on a given day students might submit a summary, a page of notes, or even a song) but they particularly recommend graphic organizers.

Another method that benefits this act of active learning quite well in generating a deep creative engagement with the primary text of study is the “Cornell Method,” which takes the following approach:

  1. Record: During the lecture, use the note-taking column to record the lecture using telegraphic sentences.
  2. Questions: As soon after class as possible, formulate questions based onthe notes in the right-hand column. Writing questions helps to clarify meanings, reveal relationships, establish continuity, and strengthen memory. Also, the writing of questions sets up a perfect stage for exam-studying later.
  3. Recite: Cover the note-taking column with a sheet of paper. Then, looking at the questions or cue-words in the question and cue column only, say aloud, in your own words, the answers to the questions, facts, or ideas indicated by the cue-words.
  4. Reflect: Reflect on the material by asking yourself questions, for example: “What’s the significance of these facts? What principle are they based on? How can I apply them? How do they fit in with what I already know? What’s beyond them?
  5. Review: Spend at least ten minutes every week reviewing all your previous notes. If you do, you’ll retain a great deal for current use, as well as, for the exam.


Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing,      Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2011.

Bean, J.C., Chappell, V., and Gillam, A. Reading Rhetorically. (3rd ed.) New York: Longman, 2011.

Pauk, Walter. “The Cornell Method.” How to Study in College 7/e. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2011.

Ramage, J.D., Bean, J.C., and Johnson. J. The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing. (5th ed.) New York: Longman, 2009.

Roberts, J.C., and Roberts, K.A. “Deep Reading, Cost/Benefit, and the construction of Meaning: Enhancing Reading Comprehension and Deep learning in Sociology Courses.” Teaching Sociology, 2008, 36, 125-140.

Zull, J. E. The art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the biology of Learning. Sterling, Va.: Stylus, 2002.

Aligning Instruction and Assessment in Writing Pedagogy

In the classic work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire articulated a radical critique of what he called the “banking model” of education. In this model, Freire argued, teachers “deposit” information into the minds of students, who are seen as passive recipients rather than active participants in the process of learning. Against the authoritarianism of the banking model, Freire offered an emancipatory vision for education, one that sought to overcome the student-teacher dichotomy and to replace the transmission of information with a “problem-posing” approach. Foregrounding the validity of student experience and emphasizing the posing of problems over the transmission of information empowered students as agents in their own education. “Problem-posing education,” Freire wrote, “affirms men and women as beings in the process of becoming – as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality” (1970, 84). The role of the educator, in this view, is not to mold students into certain expected outcomes, but to help them become attuned to their own process of becoming. Freire recognized that education itself is a political process,  the structure of which plays a central role in the reproduction of broader relations of power and oppression. A more democratic pedagogy, one that challenges the teacher-student and active-passive dichotomies, would empower students as agents of change, not only in the classroom, but in the world at large.

In many ways, WAC pedagogy is informed by the democratic ethos of Freire’s “problem-posing” education. WAC pedagogy views learning as an active process grounded in “critical thinking,” and writing as an integral aspect of that process. As John Bean suggests, awakening students to problems and encouraging them to engage them lies at the core of teaching critical thinking (2011, 3). Moreover, in WAC philosophy, understanding is not derived from the passive process of memorizing and internalizing information, but comes from actively engaging with course material. Writing is seen as a prime vehicle for this engagement, creating a space where students become agents in the process of knowledge production. Therefore, implementing WAC principles can have a democratizing effect in the classroom, as students experience agency and voice in the process of writing. In this sense, WAC emphasis on “critical thinking” and the student-oriented qualities of “writing-to-learn” can be seen as part of a broader project of emancipatory education.

Although the radical language of emancipation has been displaced by a more technocratic jargon of best practices, writing pedagogy has largely embraced the ideas that underpin Freire’s “problem-posing” education. And yet, despite the ways in which writing instruction has democratized the classroom, student assessment has often remained stuck in the more authoritarian mentality of the banking model. I would suggest that there is now a disjuncture between the more processual and recursive understanding of the writing-learning process, and a system of assessment that reduces student effort and engagement to a single quantifiable metric. Even as we endorse a more student-centered understanding of learning, we participate in the reproduction of a system of grading that sees learning and assessment as independent rather than interconnected. It is as though there is a disconnect between our ontology of learning and the epistemology that informs how we evaluate it.

To begin to think about how we might begin to bring our process of assessment in line with our understanding of learning, it is worth considering why we assign grades in the first place. The “A-F” system itself is somewhat arbitrary, but there are at least four reasons that proponents often give for why we grade student work. First, grades have a communicative function, providing students with feedback about their performance in a class, or on an assignment. Second, grades provide an incentive structure intended to motivate students to do the work asked of them. Third, grades provide a simple, quantifiable metric of performance that enables teachers (as well as colleges and employers) to compare students to one another. Finally, grades are thought to perform an evaluative function, providing information about the quality of student work.

Do grades actually perform these functions? A review of the research on grading suggests that the validity of these assumptions is questionable at best. First, receiving a letter grade does provide feedback to students about their performance, but on its own, a grade provides no indication of the rationale, and as a consequence, does not link performance and assessment in a manner conducive to student improvement. Written feedback can be effective in communicating areas for development, but attaching this feedback to a grade often discourages students from even reading the feedback. Second, rather than increasing student motivation, a number of studies suggest that grades as an incentive, especially for creative tasks, may reduce intrinsic motivation to learn, undermine performance, and increase anxiety. Third, grades do enable comparison, but the practice still begs the question what is being compared and why? On the one hand, grade inflation and the subjective nature of assessment undermine the reliability of grades as a metric of student performance. On the other, because they “flatten” students to a single category, grades ignore the diversity of student experiences outside the classroom and reproduce patterns of oppression (Inoue 2019). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, counter to their basic premise, grades do not provide an “objective” evaluation of student work. This is true even of multiple-choice assessment, since teaching method, exam construction, and student backgrounds all influence student performance. These problems are exacerbated by the undeniable subjectivity and bias introduced in evaluating written and creative work.

As instructors, we are often obligated to assign grades by our institutions, but are there strategies for assessing student writing that contribute to the learning process rather than undermine it? Are there ways in which the democratic ethos that informs our writing pedagogy might also inform our assessment practices? Briefly, I would like to suggest that there are. In the remainder of this post I want to briefly offer a few strategies that not only serve to democratize the assessment process, but can also improve the communicative, motivational, comparative, and evaluative functions we often ascribe to letter grades.

Transparency: Given the subjectivity involved in assessing student writing, we should be as transparent as possible about our expectations for students, and our processes for assessing their work. Using rubrics is one way to both communicate our expectations to students and to keep ourselves accountable and consistent in our assessment of student work. For rubrics to be most effective, they should be provided to students at the outset.

Feedback Timing: Instructors often provide students with comments on written work in addition to the letter grade. Written feedback is an excellent way to communicate to students what they have done well, what they could develop further, and how they might go about revising. However, providing such feedback once a grade has already been assigned does not give students an incentive or opportunity to actually respond to the comments. By limiting substantive comments to earlier drafts, we can give students an opportunity to respond to our feedback and to develop their ideas more fully before they are evaluated. Feedback given on earlier drafts that identifies a few primary areas for improvement gives the student a concrete direction forward for developing subsequent drafts. As members of the academic community we know how crucial feedback is to developing our ideas, but in the classroom we often do not give students the same courtesy we offer to our colleagues.

Peer-Review: Peer-review workshops where students speak about their own work and receive suggestions and feedback from their colleagues can be a valuable way to elevate student perspectives and strengthen final drafts. The effectiveness of such workshops depends, in part, on how they are structured; providing explicit instructions that guide student feedback on a few aspects of the rubric can help focus discussion. For example, asking students to do a reverse outline of their peers’ work can help students identify ways to improve the structure and organization of their writing. Peer-review also gives students a sense of accountability to one another that may help incentivize on-time submission of work.

Self-Reflection: Asking students to provide evaluations of their own work can be helpful for a number of reasons. In giving insight into the challenges students face, self-reflections can facilitate more targeted comments that are tailored to the needs of individual experiences. Additionally, self-reflections can help instructors to understand how much time students spend on assignments and whether some of the difficulties may have stemmed from the assignment design itself. Finally, students often write more clearly when they do not feel pressured by the task of a formal writing assignment. By asking for an informal reflection, students often have a chance to talk about their ideas freely in a manner that can be helpful for instructors in deciphering student intent in formal papers. Because grading is subjective, and because student experience is so diverse, having insight into the writing process can be a helpful tool in assessing what kind of feedback would be most helpful for developing an improved draft. Moreover, it gives students the sense that their experience matters.

The mismatch between commonly understood reasons for grading and the mixed empirical evidence about whether grades fulfill these objectives, suggests that we need to rethink student assessment. The institutional inertia of our current grade system is immense (although it appears to be changing), but transparency, feedback before grades, peer review, and self-reflection are all practices that align with a the democratic ethos of WAC writing pedagogy. More importantly, we need to ensure that the reasons we assess correspond to the reasons we teach. I teach because I want to help students foster their curiosity about the world, identify and think critically about substantive problems, and develop a sense of empowerment in their own process of becoming. WAC pedagogy, in emphasizing the processual and recursive aspects of the writing-learning relationship, and in privileging ideas and engagement over presentation and product, seems well-suited to these aims. A grading system that reduces the complexity of student experience and engagement to a single letter arguably does not. As we revise our syllabi to incorporate practices of informal writing, scaffolded assignments, and revision, we often cling to a mode of assessment that reflects the rigidity and depersonalization of the banking model of education. Moreover, when the expectations, standards, and process are not fully transparent, we run the risk of reproducing authoritarian tendencies in the classroom that seem at odds with the democratic ethos of WAC pedagogy. To the extent that we deem critical thinking a foundation of substantive pedagogy, we should imagine practices of assessment that can reflect and strengthen this foundation.


Freire, Paolo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Inoue, Asao. 2019. Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. Fort Collins: The WAC Clearinghouse and University  Press of Colorado.

Kohn, Alfie. 1994. “Grading: The Issue Is Not How but Why.” Education Leadership 52(2): 38-41.

Shinske, Jeffrey and Kimberly Tanner. 2014. “Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently.” CBE Life Sciences Education 13(2): 159-166.



Using Process to Achieve Writing Goals

Recently I came across an interview with anthropologist and historian Alan Macfarlane ( This hour-long interview is a gem: it is entirely about the writing process and is conducted by a student in the process of learning the ropes of academic writing. As the author of three graduate school theses, 20 books, and numerous academic articles, Macfarlane has had years to hone his writing process. While he primarily discusses graduate school writing, his insights into the writing process hold valuable information for teaching undergraduates. How can instructors use knowledge of the larger-scale writing process to help students achieve results in written assignments? How can we help students become active participants in their own writing goals? Below, I outline some key takeaways from Macfarlane’s interview and suggest ways to implement them through Writing across the Curriculum theory and practice.

Think about your starting point: Macfarlane discusses starting points for writing from a couple of perspectives. In one sense, this is about the timing of different stages in the writing process: from thinking to research to actual written production. Students often see writing as “broken off” from these other stages. However, doing the work of actual writing as early as the thinking, research, and planning stages leads to a much more manageable writing process overall. For one thing, writing during data and source gathering allows the writer to manage information as it is gathered. This means a much more manageable “pile” of information, theory, or data. As new information is added, writing down one’s new insights, ideas, and importantly points of excitement (more on this below) incorporates the new information into what has already been gathered. This type of writing process is also valuable because it allows for more breaks between periods of work, which facilitates cognitive information processing. We can think of this piece of advice as what Writing across the Curriculum notes as the crucial relationship between critical thinking and writing. The writing a student does during the early stages of an assignment allows them to think their way to research questions and thesis statements. WAC pedagogy offers a number of strategies for instructors to help this process. These include assignments that link course content to personal experience, explaining concepts to others, and providing analytical entry points through controversial statements or “what if” scenarios. (See Bean 2011 pp 151-159 for more information and examples.)

Write from the “hub”: Writing during the early research stages is related to my favorite piece of advice from Macfarlane: write from the hub. The hub is the area of inquiry that excites the writer. Macfarlane compares this method to starting a fire. You set down the ideas that interest you first. This triggers motivation and lights the fire. Importantly, the initial excitement creates cognitive connections and insights that lead to more ideas. In other words, these points of interest and curiosity set the mind alight. Once these ideas are explored, the student can begin to outline from their hub to other sections of the assignment. Perhaps the point of interest becomes the main paper thesis. Or, or it may be that the writer now understands they need a different starting point to build to their favorite idea. WAC-inspired exploratory writing tasks are ideal for helping students find their writing “hubs”. These can include journalling, creative writing activities such as dialogues between important figures, and mid-class writing sessions to process course content.

Make writing a communal process: Another point Macfarlane brings up is the helpfulness of creating a writing group involving both social aspects and opportunities to share written work. Instructors can help create the conditions for this. Setting aside short chunks of time three to four times throughout the semester for students to share ideas and progress on their papers is one way to do this. Another idea is to use online platforms such as Blackboard for students to post and receive peer engagement with their writing. This could include weekly assignments to: (1) post a general topic they have chosen with rationale and some background, (2) give a brief explanation of a defined number of sources they have found for final papers, or (3) upload a draft of an assignment. This will aid students in formulating their ideas through explaining to another. They also receive valuable feedback to improve their assignments. Importantly, this also taps into Macfarlane’s point that everything we expose ourselves to adds to our body of ideas. We never know what might give a writer a new perspective.

Expanding the social context in which student writers produce assignments makes pathways for all sorts of new knowledge. This can also increase motivation for students who do not initially have an interest in a particular topic or class subject. In analyzing participation in an undergraduate interdisciplinary conference, Barron, Gruber, and Pfannenstiel (2016) noted a high degree of student engagement in working across fields to make their research comprehensible to lay people. The key was in creation of an affinity group, a social community with shared ideas about knowledge and communication. Getting students to work together to make the conference successful created an affinity group that got them engaged in fields they had little knowledge of previously. By emphasizing the social aspect of writing, instructors can help motivate students unsure of how to connect to new course content. Finally, incorporating regular communication with professors into the syllabus around the developing paper will add a community aspect to student writing. This will also make writing less stressful for students as they have approval for their ideas and research questions from the person who will be assessing their work.


Barron, Nancy Guerra, Sibylle Gruber, and Amber Nicole Pfannenstiel. 2016. “Reconstructing the Concept of Academic Motivation: A Gaming Symposium as an Academic Site for Critical Inquiry.” Across the Disciplines: A Journal of Language, Learning and Academic Writing 13(4). from

Bean, John C. 2011. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Low-Stakes Writing as a Pathway to Critical-Thinking

One of the central beliefs of WAC pedagogy is “writing-to-learn” and that there are many different ways to introduce writing into the classroom whether your field is writing-based or not: even the most complicated mathematical equation still needs to be put into words to help explain its logic and function to someone new. Our first faculty workshop which was held last Thursday on Effective Assignment Design discusses several methods for incorporating writing into our students’ learning process, and you can review this presentation and others on our WI certification page. Perhaps the most useful writing-to-learn method, and one which may sometimes get overlooked because it doesn’t hold the same prestige of a paper or term-project, is low-stakes or informal writing.

In simple terms, low-stakes writing is any writing related to your course that does not have an official grade attached to its production. In fact, WAC practices often encourage the instructor to not have a pen in-hand at all when reading low-stakes assignments to avoid the temptations one might have to line-edit or overwhelm the student with feedback. This is because the primary function of low-stakes assignments is not for the instructor to assess, but for the student to explore. Exploratory writing allows students to tap into their own ideas and reactions to course content in a safe and private space on the page first.

Low-stakes writing is usually shorter in length, and consists of an informal response that encourages students to use and develop their critical thinking skills by focusing on big-picture ideas and themes rather than getting stuck in the logistics of structure and presentation. Concerns such as grammar, spelling, and formatting (spacing, citations) are not the focus here. Instead, students are stimulated to focus on higher-order concerns that form the basis for any great paper: do they have a clear argument? Have they provided any evidence to back up their view? Is it obvious that the student understands the course material, and that they can adapt it to suit the question at hand? When students are given the opportunity to practice these skills in an informal way, they often respond with the kind of flair and confidence that can be difficult to tap into under stressful conditions such as approaching a paper draft for the first time, or responding to an exam question.

So, what do low-stakes assignments look like? Brief periods of 2-5 minutes of silent, uninterrupted writing can happen at several points throughout class-time or at home, and they can be given with or without a prompt. At the start of class it can double-up as a means to take attendance; I know several instructors who have their students come in and write a 5-minute response straight away to that day’s reading assignment. This is a great way of making sure students are actually doing the reading, as well as providing them with the space to work through questions or difficulties they might be having without fear of judgment. It can also serve as a way of reviewing material from the previous session (especially helpful in STEM subjects e.g. describe the logic of this particular theorem and give an example…) or as a way of encouraging speculation on a new topic that is introduced.

In the middle of a class period, a break for low-stakes writing can be a great way of cementing a new piece of knowledge for the student – getting them to rephrase a theory or method in their own words – or it can serve to redirect attention elsewhere if discussion has become heated or is lagging. Alternatively, at the end of class a brief writing session can allow students to sum up in their own words what they have learned that day, or what questions they may want to follow up on at home or before the next class. Essentially, any kind of low-stakes assignment should ultimately be urging the student to engage in a conversation with themselves on the page in order to get as comfortable as possible with course content as well as their personal approach to that content. These exercises can often help students to form meaningful ideas for more significant projects like a final paper.

At home, these low-stakes responses might take a slightly longer form with students writing for a set period of time (10 – 15 minutes) to answer a course-related question. These questions can ask students to pose an opinion for or against a topic; to analyze or interpret materials; or to relate their topic to current affairs. Low-stakes assignments can also form the basis for class discussions in which students are invited to share their responses. They have already had the opportunity to think about their position and present this on the page before responding to their peers verbally, which stimulates deeper conversations around course content. This kind of “padding” for their ideas can be especially helpful for students who need a little more time and space to think through difficult concepts, or for ESL students who may struggle to find the right wording the first time around.

Remember that the purpose of low-stakes writing is primarily to get students thinking and responding originally to course content – not to grade them in these efforts. Think of low-stakes assignments as their rehearsal space. Naturally, the more we provide opportunities for practicing writing in a relaxed, informal way, the more all of our students will feel prepared to tackle the demands of good writing on their own when the stakes are higher.

(For other ways to assign writing in your classroom, take a look at this handout:

A Snowball’s Chance In…

By the time that students reach our college classrooms, they are already veterans of the same education system that has shaped us as instructors. Although we may not always think of the students in our classroom in this way, it can be helpful to remind ourselves as instructors that each student is already an old hand at learning—their roughly two decades of experience as learners means that they have likely seen some iteration of every pedagogical trick in our repertoire. One of the central principles of the pedagogical movement known as Writing Across the Curriculum is to always strive to maintain the classroom as a space of dynamic hybridity where teaching cannot “go stale.”  In WAC parlance, this is known as fostering “an interactive multimodal learning environment,” but the meaning of pedagogical buzzwords such as “hybridity,” “interactive,” and “multimodal learning” can remain frustratingly vague in practice. How can an instructor create a classroom that is dynamic, interactive, and what does “multimodal learning” actually entail? The purpose of this article will be to seek answers to these questions by sketching out one approach in detail called “Snowball.”

The start of each class is always a somewhat fraught moment: instructors have about 5-10 minutes to project themselves and the organization and purpose of that day’s learning activity. This can take the form of outlining the overarching themes of in-class close reading or getting important content from homework problems to students. Research shows that lectures or lessons often “go stale,” as it were, during these vital opening moments of each class when students are liable to tune out and remain that way for the remainder of the class. “Snowball” is a novel kinaesthetic learning technique that takes inspiration from WAC’s imperative to creatively innovate and rethink how instructors teach and how students learn. It can be a highly effective tool for maintaining an engaged, dynamic classroom environment. A brief scenario will follow, but in a nutshell, “Snowball” contributes towards students becoming active learners through sharing and responding to each other’s concerns and ideas. Oh, and they are able to get out of their seats and throw things (at the instructor!).

At the start of class, instead of launching into the preordained script of a lecture or lesson plan, an instructor encourages all students to tear out a piece of loose-leaf and write down a question or problem that they had about the reading or homework without putting their name on the paper.

Each student then crumples up their paper into a ball and throws it to the front of the classroom in the direction of the instructor (extra points optionally awarded for targeting the instructor).

The instructor then shuffles around the mass of “snowballs” thrown by students, and all students come to the front of the class to retrieve one “snowball” to bring back to their desks.

The class then begins in earnest as each student opens up the snowball that they have retrieved and anonymously responds to the concern(s), question(s), or problem(s) raised by their fellow (anonymous) classmate. Students can then lead the classroom discussion by sharing their snowball and response with the rest of the class.

Snowball can be a great way to break the ice at the start of class. This technique is similar to a flipped classroom in that it is a participant and cooperative teaching and learning activity that empowers students as the agents of their own learning. It also has the advantage of removing the sense of shame from class participation (what the education reformer John Holt refers to as “the cat on a hot stove” phenomenon) since each snowball is anonymous and students are actually sharing and exchanging each other’s ideas. Snowball facilitates students’ dynamic engagement with course material by giving them opportunities to participate without worrying or second-guessing themselves. At the same time, each snowball becomes a meaningful vehicle for instructors to deliver course content that is truly tailored to the unique needs of their students. And, of course, it allows students to throw things at their professors—what’s not to like? I’m thankful to our co-coordinator, Rebecca Mazumdar, for initially demonstrating this novel learning technique to us.

Strategies for Designing Assignments: Scaffolding

“Scaffolding” is an essential concept of WAC pedagogy and a good way to ensure higher quality, plagiarism-free writing from our students. Simply put, scaffolding refers to the concept of breaking up large formal assignments into multiple smaller, more manageable assignments. For example, rather than presenting students with one massive, daunting final paper, we might consider scaffolding the assignment as follows:

Week 2: Introduce the “big” assignment to students/Brainstorm topics in class
Week 3: Select a topic
Week 4: Draft a working thesis statement
Week 5: Draft a body paragraph
Week 6: Rough draft due; in-class peer review
Week 7: Revising and editing rough draft
Week 8: Final paper due

Of course, scaffolding will look different depending on the class, assignment, and instructor, but the key takeaway here is that students are building up to the final assignment via multiple smaller assignments, which allows them to work through course content and practice the skills they need to successfully complete the final project.

By scaffolding big assignments in this way, students are less intimated or discouraged by the writing process. This has the benefit not only of putting our students at ease, but of also providing them with low-stakes opportunities to practice their writing (or researching, or critical thinking, or annotating, or whatever the specific assignment may call for—scaffolding is remarkably non-discipline-specific).

Additionally, scaffolding is an especially useful strategy for deterring plagiarism: by breaking the assignment into smaller tasks, students find the work more manageable and therefore are less tempted to plagiarize. Furthermore, by the time the final formal assignment is due, students will discover that more than half of it is already written, and consequently have no need to plagiarize. As an additional safety measure, scaffolding gives the instructor the ability to more regularly monitor student progress and to familiarize themselves with students’ writing “voices,” thus making plagiarism detection easier.

Scaffolding may not be a panacea for all classroom-related troubles, but it certainly addresses issues of students’ anxiety over the writing process, confusion over course content, and tendency to plagiarize. To learn more about scaffolding and other ways to design successful assignments, attend our upcoming workshop on Effective Assignment Design on Thursday, September 19 at 1:00pm

“It’s in the Syllabus”: Best Practices for the First Day of Class

As instructors begin to look forward to the next semester and plan their course calendars, I’d like to share some thoughts on how to spend the first day of class. In my time at City Tech, I had the pleasure of attending City Tech’s new faculty orientation, led by Professor Julia Jordan,  as well as learning from Dr. Rebecca Mazumdar, one of the co-coordinators of WAC and an Associate Professor in the English department. Both mentors, albeit at different times, implored me: “Please, please do not spend the first class session reading your syllabus to your students.” As Dr. Mazumdar added, “If my courses are not, in fact, lecture courses—why would I spend the first class lecturing my students?”

Before learning from these women, that’s how I spent all my first class sessions. As professors, we know we have to convey how important this document is to students, that it’s a contract where students can find most, if not all, of the important course expectations, objectives, policies, and assignment due dates. We want to ensure that students have heard this information and leave with an understanding of what will be expected of them over the course of the semester.

We also know, as professors, that standing in front of a classroom reading from a document is poor pedagogy. Over the seven years I’ve been teaching at the college level, I have consistently heard colleagues complaining that students don’t read or refer to or know the syllabus. Most CUNY faculty I know also pride themselves on student-centered learning and how they work to engage and involve students in the classroom, but the first day of class sets the tone for the entire semester. If we stand up in front of our students and read the syllabus to them, are we really teaching them how to refer to important documents for information? That we expect them to do so? We know students don’t magically retain 100% of lecture material after any given class, so why do we expect them to know our syllabus after we review it once?

Instead, professors might begin to think through ways in which they can ensure students practice the skills required to read, refer to, and engage with professional documents over the course of the semester, instead of having students spend the first day of class checking their watches, hoping to get out early.

Here are a few of my own ideas on more generative ways to spend the first class session, that set the tone for a semester of engaged, collaborative learning:

  • Assign your syllabus as a reading assignment, and quiz students on it at the beginning of the next class session, as Dr. Mazumdar does in her classes. After quizzing students on the syllabus individually, put them into groups and let them help each other answer the quiz questions, collaborating and learning how to seek information about the course from each other as well as their instructor. Make sure, too, that the quiz gets students writing, asking at least one short answer question as opposed to multiple choice or T/F questions.
  • Assigning your syllabus as required reading leaves room on the first day to focus, instead, on another activity that better reflects what class time will look like in the weeks ahead: an interactive lecture, a freewrite, or filling out a questionnaire that asks students to respond to questions in detailed, reflective ways (here’s my first day student questionnaire from the writing course I teach themed around dream interpretation).
  • A group activity. As a writing instructor, I’ve designed a group activity around learning the differences between an em dash, en dash, and hyphen. Students must use these quirky punctuation marks, correctly, in three sentences describing things they have in common as group members. This exercise allows them to get to know one another, but also to practice focused discussion; they must figure out which commonalities lend themselves to the drama of the em dash; the numbers that usually surround an en dash; and what compound modifiers they might share as a group in order to use a hyphen. They are also learning how to incorporate sophisticated punctuation marks into their writing.

Full disclosure: I hated group activities when I was an undergraduate. I wanted to sit in my seat, usually at the front of the classroom, and be a good student all on my own. The reality is, however, that learning is a collaborative process, and I wish that more professors had called me out on my superiority complex. I often tell my students—you have something to learn from each one of your peers, listen to one another.

  • At the very least, allow for five minutes at the end of class to have students write, on a cue card or piece of paper you collect, one question or concern they have about the course after reviewing the syllabus on the first day. I like to also ask students to articulate in writing what they are most excited about after the first day of class. This is a good practice, in general, after any class session, in order to find out what needs review and what students are taking away from your teaching. You’ll get a sense of your students as writers, as well—the more small, informal, in-class writing samples you can collect and read quickly, the more of a sense you’ll have of each writer’s voice. I always tell my students, because I read so much of their informal in-class writing, I’m able to spot plagiarism immediately. I recognize their voices on paper and miss them when they disappear in formal assignments. Let your students know from day one you listen, you hear them, and model the kind of reflective practice that allows for lifelong learning.

For more on designing a course schedule that incorporates WAC principles, visit our Digital Initiative website and take our “Developing Your WI Syllabus” workshop online! (And enjoy your summer!)

WAC to Basics: A Preposterously Belated Introduction

As the spring semester ends, the WAC Fellows are preparing a new faculty cohort for Writing Intensive Certification. In the process of reviewing these teaching portfolios, the fellows and I have revisited some of the questions that we asked ourselves at the beginning of the year: what are the fundamentals of Writing Across the Curriculum pedagogy? What makes a writing assignment effective? How can instructors across the disciplines employ writing in their courses? Though writing pedagogy is always evolving and adapting, consider these WAC basics as a starting point. If you are currently preparing for certification, use these notes as a handy guide. If you are new to WAC, read through these tenets and consider reaching out to us for certification next year.


  1. Writing is a shared responsibility across disciplines. The English department is not the sole arbiter of effective writing. Every discipline (including mathematics and the hard sciences) employs writing to some extent—think of lab reports and scholarly articles. Teach your students the conventions of writing in your field.


  1. Writing education is an ongoing process. No single course can transform a student’s writing. Be patient with your students and understand that it takes time and practice to master the conventions of academic prose. Your responsibility is to give your students the tools for effective writing and the occasion to practice.


  1. Writing is an effective tool for mastering course material. Use writing assignments to gauge your students’ knowledge of your course content. This can take the form of a formal assignment, such as a term paper or lab report, or an informal assignment, such as a blog post or an in-class freewrite. If you teach in a STEM field, ask your students to describe a particular concept in prose. A popular example of this assignment is the following: “Write a letter to your grandmother (or some other non-expert) describing the first law of thermodynamics.” WAC refers to this process as writing-to-learn.


  1. Don’t worry about grammar! In WAC, we call grammar a lower-order concern. While we want our students to write in effective, comprehensible prose, we encourage instructors to focus on higher order concerns: whether the student responds to the prompt, develops an argument, engages with course materials, employs critical thinking, accurately evaluates and cites sources, and produces a structurally sound paper. Except in the most egregious cases, grammatical errors are a cosmetic concern.


  1. Mark your students’ papers sparingly. This relates to the above point. When marking papers, focus on “higher-order” issues and not missing commas or misspelled words. In your written comments, describe what the paper does effectively and where it can be approved. If a paper has a glaring and widely repeated grammatical error, you may point this out; however, your goal should be teaching your student how to identify and correct these errors herself.


  1. Encourage your students to revise, revise, revise. Excellent papers are not written overnight. Encourage your students to view writing as an ongoing, multi-step process by scaffolding assignments, or breaking large projects into smaller, discrete tasks. For example, if you assign a term paper at the end of the semester, anticipate this with a topic proposal, a draft of a thesis statement, an annotated bibliography, and a rough draft or two. Similarly, you may assign informal writing that allows your students to engage with a topic that they will be writing about in more detail later in the course.

7. Foster an active learning environment. Yes, writing is an active learning strategy—ask your students to freewrite at the beginning or end of class, or during a quiet moment. These bits of informal writing (which you may collect, but need not grade for anything but completion) may be about their homework, the concept you are introducing, or an answer to the question, “What is confusing you at the moment?” These questions allow you to take your class’s temperature while encouraging your students to engage with your course material through writing. (For more information on using writing and games to make your classroom more active, see our helpful workshop, “The Creative Classroom.”)

Some Thoughts on Revision and Feedback

Inspired by Nancy Sommers[1]

Spring break has now passed, which means a lot of us are preparing for the final push towards the end of the semester. Many students will be planning, drafting and revising final papers, while their instructors prepare for the assessment work ahead. Whatever approach we take to revision and feedback, the time commitment required is in some ways unavoidable. After all, it is important to give adequate and equal attention to our students’ work when they have made it through a semester under our care and instruction, and have produced something to show for their efforts. Equally, we want to make sure that their work is properly celebrated and recognized, and maybe even offer some direction for what the student could focus on in their work to improve as they continue moving through their education.

On the topic of responding to student writing, Nancy Sommers has written a wonderful guide[2] that includes some tips for how to grade both low stakes and high stakes assignments that have both the instructor and student in mind. Central to her discussion is an attempt to solve the issue of how instructors can meet the needs of their students through certain grading and feedback practices, but avoid sacrificing huge amounts of time and mental space.

Sommers begins her discussion by pointing out a simple and true fact, that as writers “we need and want thoughtful commentary to show us when we have communicated our ideas and when not, raising questions from a reader’s point of view that may not have occurred to us as writers.”[3] Essentially, the process of providing feedback as an instructor (in any discipline) serves to “dramatize the presence of a reader”[4] for our students and is a crucial part of the writing process. A symbiotic relationship of instructor-student feedback-response encourages students to engage in their work on a deeper level once they recognize that they are writing for someone and not just into the void.

Then Sommers gives some great suggestions for how instructors can best support students’ writing through written feedback. These include: creating a motive for revising; making an effort as much as possible to remove the intimidation and judgment that can sometimes be involved in the editing process; forcing students to focus on whatever the ‘Big Picture’ idea is before getting into the nitty-gritty of syntax and grammar; and not taking attention away from what the student is trying to do/ say. This last point is especially important to keep in mind when it comes to providing feedback on early drafts, as there is often a danger of us falling into appropriation of the text, i.e. forcing the student to make the changes we want to see, instead of the ones that are most suited to their overarching point or theme.

This misdirecting of attention is also a common trap to fall into when we correct grammar or spelling mistakes on a first draft without considering the larger context of what the argument is doing or what the student is trying to say. When we do this, we give the impression that diction and grammar is as important as meaning and ideas, which should never be the case. As WAC research and practices clearly show, meaning should always be discussed and  verified before moving on to surface level issues such as syntax.

Sommers agrees with this foregrounding of higher order concerns, noting that if you tell a student to try and tackle meaning and grammar at the same time, chances are they won’t do either, or they will struggle to do both simultaneously and well. It can also be difficult for students to know what to prioritize if our comments are scattered and broad, so having a structure to our responses can be helpful. But how should this look? Sommers proposes a very simple plan towards the end of her guide, and one I have used myself as an instructor with much success.

Essentially she suggests structuring end comments as a letter to the student, using familiar language from the classroom and a conversational tone. We should begin by acknowledging something good that the student has accomplished in their draft, and then suggest one or two higher order concerns and no more than one lower order concern to work on in the revisions[5]. End comments on final papers or projects follow a similar format: first offering praise and then perhaps one lesson to take away from the experience.

While this may seem like a lengthily response if we know we have to complete one for every student we have in a course, the idea is that as much early investment as we put into a project will pay off in the long term, both for the student and instructor. The more precise we can be with feedback at the early stage of a draft ensures less work on later drafts and a better final product. Also, as you will see below, it is possible to give the student vital feedback in a concise way. Here is one recommended outline for how to order feedback to the student:

  • Opens with a salutation: “Dear Sonia”
  • Highlights the paper’s strengths: “You bring in excellent evidence to support your argument”
  • Highlights the paper’s weakness: “You expect the evidence to be self-evident”
  • Links marginal comments with the end comment: “Marginal comments #1–3 highlight the ratio between quotation and analysis in a single paragraph”
  • Provides guidance across the drafts: “For your next paper, focus on a deeper analysis of the evidence”
  • Reinforces the writer-reader relationship: “I look forward to reading your next paper”
  • Closes with a signature: “Sincerely, Professor Henry”[6]

As Sommers points out, we are constantly challenged in our role as instructors to “develop comments which will provide an inherent reason for students to revise…”[7] and not only this, but encourage them to embrace and take pleasure in the revision process. Thus the more we can inspire excitement and a sense of possibility through our feedback, the harder our students will work to improve their writing, and the more this will be reflected in their final grade.


[1] The information in this blog post is adapted from an article by Nancy Sommers, “Responding to Student Writing,” in College Composition and Communication, vol. 33, no. 2, May 1982.

[2] Sommers, Nancy, Responding to Student Writers, Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2013.

[3] Sommers, College Composition, 148.

[4] ibid.

[5] For a more detailed discussion of what exactly to include in end comments, as well as more discussion on the how, see the WAC fellow’s PowerPoint, “Minimal Marking and Effective Grading”: Web, accessed April 29, 2019.

[6] Sommers, Responding to Student Writers, 24.

[7] Sommers, College Composition, 156.

Broadening Formal Writing Assignments

As the semester draws to a close, most of us are busy wrapping up our courses and guiding our students through their final papers and exams. Reflecting on my own experience as an instructor and how my teaching style has evolved over the years, I realized that no greater change has occurred than in the final formal paper I assign my students.

As a new instructor, I originally believed it best to give my students highly regimented assignments with defined topics (e.g., perform a close reading on text A; compose a comparative analysis on text B and text C; etc.). My reasoning was that my students, as freshmen and novice writers, would flounder and ultimately fail at more open-ended assignments. There was also some sense in my mind that these assignments would level the playing field in the classroom and allow me to more quickly assess and grade essays.

It didn’t take me long to realize that my plan had the opposite effect I intended: grading was actually far more laborious and monotonous than I could have imagined, as I had to read through 20+ papers on identical topics. Furthermore, my belief that my students would produce better quality writing on predetermined topics proved to be untrue, as I realized that not all of my students necessarily enjoyed or connected with the assigned texts. If grading these papers was a chore, I could only imagine what it was like for my students to write them.

I knew I had to alter my assignment design in some way so as to allow my students to write on topics they truly enjoyed, but I was still concerned about overwhelming them with unlimited choices. How then could I offer students a solid framework for their writing assignments while still permitting them room to express their individuality?

Through trial and error, I discovered that the most effective method was to gradually give students more and more freedom in their writing assignments as the semester progresses. Just as one begins riding a bike with training wheels and eventually learns to successfully ride without them, I see the trajectory of my formal writing assignments as gradually taking the “training wheels” off so that my students may confidently ride on their own.

For their first formal assignment, I still provide my students with the kind of tightly constrained assignments I used to—usually a close reading or rhetorical analysis of one of our assigned texts. I do this so as to ease my students into the writing process and the conventions of academic discourse. Additionally, since this first assignment is on a text that we have read and discussed as a class, students are somewhat more comfortable and confident writing about the topic.

For their second formal assignment, I remove one of the training wheels by opening up the topic options: I instruct my students to compose a comparative analysis on one of our course readings and on another “text” of their choosing—an essay, story, poem, or book we have not read together in class; a movie, TV show, or music video; song lyrics, album covers, or really whatever they like (so long as they run it by me first).

For the final formal assignment, the training wheels come off completely: I allow my students to compose an argumentative research paper on any topic they’re interested in. I’ve found that assigning a more open-ended final writing assignment with an undefined topic produces much more exciting and higher quality essays. Whereas the earlier, more defined formal assignments are used to gauge my students’ understanding of the course content, this final undefined-topic assignment is a way for students to demonstrate the skills they’ve learned over the semester: the ability to formulate a strong, coherent argument, synthesize ideas, and perform academic research. Additionally, allowing students to choose their own topic makes the assignment more interesting and relevant to their lives. Students have actually told me that they find the research and writing process exciting because they are writing about something they truly care about. Lastly, from the perspective of the instructor, these open-topic essays eliminate the monotony of grading 20+ identical papers. I’ve read well-researched and well-argued student papers on a multitude of interesting topics ranging from the rehabilitation of convicted felons to the evolution of Kanye West’s musical style. A prospect that I originally feared—broadening the topic options and guidelines for my formal assignments—has actually proved to be an exciting and effective way to get students writing.