Why Using Samples?

Have you ever tried to solve a jigsaw puzzle without looking at the picture on the cover? I have. It’s frustrating, and I gave up after a very short time. And yet, I handed many of those ‘blind jigsaw puzzles’ to my students when I assigned a writing assignment without explaining what the final result should look like. To my defense, I didn’t do it on purpose. It’s how I was taught to write, and it’s probably how must of us are, and were taught up until today. But when I started to progress from being an undergraduate student to I discovered how useful samples can be. Before writing my first grant application I gathered grant applications that have been successful. Before and while writing my first journal article I read many, many articles in the journal I wanted to submit the article to. I am not copying what has been written, but I am trying to get a sense of what the final result (the jigsaw puzzle) should look like to be successful.

For some reason, I have denied the same right to my students. I often expected them to come up with formal assignment that meets my expectations without ever explicitly showing them what those expectations are. Luckily, my students are vocal enough to let me know about their frustrations when trying to solve the puzzle. Their objections reminded me of my own frustrations when writing without knowing what’s expected, and I started to incorporate WAC principles, and my own experiences into my teaching.

Here is what I do:

  • I scaffold assignments, and assign many explorative writing assignments that lead up to a larger, more formal assignment. That helps students not to feel overwhelmed, and prevents the attempt to plagiarize.
  • All my assignments are handed out in writing, and as explicit as possible. I use Blackboard to post assignments, and I provide hard copies for students.
  • I always check in with students and ask if the assignment is clear (we do that during class time). If something is unclear, I make changes and ask my students to help me clarifying the assignment.
  • I do my best to provide samples for formal assignments. My formal assignments are often a combination of smaller, informal assignments. As a final step, I ask students to combine the smaller assignments they’ve done to a larger assignment.


Providing my students with samples of what that formal assignment should look like has produced very good results in my students’ writing, and they have found the experience to be much less frustrating.

Using WAC Practices to Help Students Locate Appropriate Research Sources

Writing a research paper is a complex task, and we often forget all the basic skills that are needed to write a successful paper. This is why breaking down, or scaffolding an assignment into its smaller components is essential for student success. A scaffolded assignment permits us put emphasis on its components, and to teach our students those basic skills.

One of those basic skills is the location of appropriate research sources. In my experience, students find it rather difficult to determine what an appropriate source is, how to find it, and how to cite it.  How often have you asked students to conduct a literature review, and your students cited a Wikipedia page, a New York Times article, or some random blog article? The use of WAC practices can help students to tackle this challenge. In my own teaching, I break down my research essay in smaller single tasks one of which is an annotated bibliography. I ask students to locate three academic articles, to create a bibliography in ASA style (I am a sociologist), and to write a short summary of each article. I give students time (about 3 – 4 weeks) to produce their annotated bibliography, and I then allow them to submit it as a draft for feedback. They have to submit their bibliography one or two weeks after they received my feedback.

What seems like a long time for a relatively short and easy assignment has proven to be a rather challenging assignment for my students. Many of them have never done a “real” literature research, and almost none of them has ever been asked to produce a bibliography that is error free. But focusing on only one component of the research essay allows me to give extensive feedback on those basic skills, and to really teach the fundamentals of my research discipline. Finally, having appropriate research sources is almost a guarantee for an interesting, and strong research essay.