Brief Description: This page briefly summarizes a number of quick (3-15 minutes' writing time) techniques for using informal expository writing to help students develop critical mastery of the material in any discipline. It includes descriptions and examples of prompts for freewriting, one-minute papers, scenarios, logbooks, and microthemes, as well as general advice on writing-to-learn strategies. Several of the techniques are adapted from John Bean's excellent Engaging Ideas.
Contributed by Pamela Flash, The Center for Writing, University of Minnesota
Informal, In-Class Writing Activities
Informal, exploratory writing, when assigned regularly, can lead students to develop insightful, critical, and creative thinking. Experience tells us that without this prompted activity, students might not otherwise give themselves enough time and space to reflect on class content, or to forge connections that will allow them to remember and use ideas from assigned readings, lectures, and other projects. These brief writing activities also allow instructors to get a general sense of students’ grasp of course concepts and materials, and can, in turn, inform future lecture notes, class plans and pacing
What follows is an annotated listing of some of the more common write-to-learn activities assigned in classrooms across the disciplines at the University of Minnesota.
Freewriting, a form of automatic writing or brainstorming trumpeted by writing theorist Peter Elbow, requires students to outrun their editorial anxieties by writing without stopping to edit, daydream, or even ponder. In this technique, all associated ideas are allowed space on the page as soon as they occur in the mind. Five-minute bouts of freewriting can be useful before class to spark discussion; in the middle of class to reinvigorate, recapitulate, or question; and at the end of class to summarize. It is also useful at many points in the drafting process: during the invention stage as students sift for topics, and during the drafting process as they work to develop, position, or deepen their own ideas.
There are at least two types of freewriting assignment: focused and unfocused. Focused freewrites allow students opportunities to initiate or develop their thinking on a topical, instructor-supplied prompt, for example, “What is a virus?” Unfocused freewrites, on the other hand, allow students to simply clear their minds and prepare for content activity. In either form, students are instructed to write generic phrases like “I can’t think of anything so say, I can’t think of…” or “Nothing nothing nothing” if their minds go blank. Once their self-consciousness or resistance lowers, ideas will begin to flow again.
It’s important, particularly in the case of focused freewrites, that students take a few moments after the timer has gone off to read over what they’ve written, highlighting useful and interesting ideas that may be glittering from amidst the verbal rubble (see example below). These insights might then be developed into formal writing assignments, or at least be contributed to discussions.
Note also that freewriting is often personal and messy. It should be a low-stakes writing activity for students, and should therefore remain ungraded.
One Minute Papers
One-minute papers are usually written in class on an index card or scrap of paper, or out-of-class via email. The limited space of the card forces students to focus and also presents such a small amount of writing space that it usually lowers levels of writing anxiety. On their cards, students may be asked to summarize, question, reiterate, support or counter a thesis or argument, or to apply new information to new circumstances. The results help students to digest, apply, and challenge their thinking, and achieve enough confidence to contribute fruitfully to class discussions. These short writing assignments also deliver quick, valuable feedback to instructors.
The following are examples of prompts:
Scenarios are short, imaginative writing activities that allow students to broach a topic or apply content to new contexts. Examples of scenario activities include writing letters, editorials, memos, and persona pieces such as dialogues or role play.
Sample prompts include the follwowing:
Logbooks (called journals* in some contexts) provide students with opportunities to think through material in their own voices. They may be structured or unstructured, requiring students to complete frequent short entries in which they, for example, summarize material, connect course topics with their observations and experiences, answer questions you design, or reflect on their own notes using double-entry notebooks. Unlike individual short writing assignments, logbooks compile student writing throughout an assignment, a unit, or semester and, like portfolios, allows students to see the development of their observations, ideas, and skills. These notes may be kept in notebooks, binders, or electronic folders.
* You are cautioned against calling the logbook a journal or diary. Students may associate those terms with strictly personal records of intimate thoughts and wishes and day-to-day activity. They need to be clear that the purpose of a logbook is the open (public) record of ideas and findings.
Microthemes, conventionally similar to the one-minute paper, have, in practice, taken the form of one-page papers written outside class. Informal and exploratory, these assignments should, again, present students with low risk situations where they can feel free to speculate and work through their thoughts, paving the way for more sophisticated analysis and evaluation. Examples include the following:
Teaching with Informal Writing Assignments: Some Notes on Procedure
Effective write-to-learn assignments...
Now What?: Responding to Informal Writing
If the primary purpose of informal writing is learning (rather than communicating what has been learned) and if the intended audience is usually limited to the writer, how are instructors advised to grade or respond to the writing generated by these activities? Unlike finished student work elicited by more formal assignments, informal writing is not assessed for style or grammar; you’ve asked students to formulate and pursue ideas in a creative and potentially messy process. With this in mind, consider the following strategies for working with completed informal assignments:
For in-class short-writes:
Three important caveats:
For longer informal assignments:
Longer pieces of writing done outside class (microthemes, logbooks, response papers) are read for content. Instructor or peer comments should focus primarily on relevance to the assignment and quality of ideas. Criteria for success in these assignments is usually based on the thoughtfulness of students’ responses and their ability to think coherently on paper. If you find that a student’s ideas are obscured by error-ridden writing, you won’t be able to respond to them.
Writing supportive and engaging comments is, of course, the ideal as these comments will reinforce the idea that these informal assignments are indeed about exploration and the pursuit of insight. If writing substantial comments is not an option time-wise, you (or a classmate) can still note brief questions and reactions in the margins.
Grading informal writing assignments
Respond with a simple check plus (excellent), check (satisfactory), or check minus (sub-adequate) and, if time is limited, minimal comments:
|“Your insights on issues relating to privacy in health care reporting are strong and could be developed into a compelling argument!”|
|“You’ve named some of the most important issues involved with privacy and health care, but don’t develop any of them persuasively.”|
|“You’ve summarized the articles and have respond thoughtfully, but don’t answer the assigned question.”|