Writing is an important way to engage students in course content and to track and assess their learning, and assigning writing can be an appealing option when teaching online. There are a range of ways to design, use, and assess writing in classes across the curriculum, ranging from low-stakes writing (that take less instructor time to evaluate but can have a big impact on student learning) to high-stakes writing (that takes more instructor time to evaluate). Students need guidance and instruction in order to successfully complete writing assignments, especially assignments that are graded. Supporting students’ learning through writing can be time-consuming, so we offer some suggestions for designing and assessing assignments, managing the workload, and helping students succeed.
Luckily, the strategies shared below for “teaching (writing) anywhere” are also strategies that correspond with best practices in writing instruction, making them appropriate for all sorts of teaching and learning situations.
- Assign fewer high-stakes, longer writing assignments
Slow down, scaffold/break the assignment up into sections due at different times, require multiple drafts, and provide opportunities for peer response.
- Assign more low-stakes, informal writing-to-learn assignments
A primary way students learn content is by writing frequently and informally about course material. Writing-to-learn assignments therefore increase student engagement with content and foster deeper learning. Integrating low-stakes writing-to-learn assignments throughout an entire semester can increase student interaction and conversations; in face-to-face or in distance environments, students can exchange paper or digital drafts and give feedback to each other.
- Use informal written responses in a Moodle forum in place of real-time small group discussions. This gives students practice in formulating their thoughts in writing and sharing those thoughts with others.
- Informal low-stakes writing can be graded on a credit for completion basis.
- Informal writing-to-learn assignments can take many forms; for example, you can ask students to respond to the following prompts:
- What are some possible thesis statements you might use for our next paper? List evidence/sources you might use to prove each of these thesis statements.
- What is something that is unclear to you after completing this course unit?
- What is your most important takeaway from this course unit?
- Use “Reading Worksheets”
“Reading Worksheets” ask students to respond to content questions, identify an article’s main thesis, evidence-use, or key quotes. Students can carry on distance conversations by sharing and responding to these writing-to-learn worksheets.
- Break longer writing assignments into sections
Larger written assignments can be broken up (scaffolded) into smaller steps, such as a proposal, outline, and draft or based upon sections of the text, such as introduction, supporting paragraphs, conclusion.
- Scaffolding longer assignments has several advantages: students engage in the writing process, they practice a useful strategy that can be used for writing in other situations, it makes what could be an overwhelming project into a manageable one, and it allows instructors to check students’ comprehension in a timely manner and help steer students in the right direction.
- Faculty could consider evaluating or giving credit for student participation/ completion of each of these sections (as opposed to evaluating only the final product). Giving credit for completing successive sections prioritizes student effort and learning, and can be especially helpful when working with challenging content or under distance situations.
- Streamline longer writing assignments and focus on the rhetorical situation
- The design principle of K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, silly!) applies to designing writing assignment handouts too.
- Define the rhetorical situation for your writing assignment (What do you want students to learn? Who is the audience? What is the purpose of the text/what is it trying to achieve? What is the context in which the text is being written will be used by readers?). If students are writing just to you, the instructor, state that.
- Provide clear assessment criteria that is aligned with the learning goals.
- Provide an explicit timeline of due dates and how materials should be submitted.
- Focus on giving formative feedback
- Formative feedback is supportive, noting strengths and areas for improvement.
- Formative feedback focuses on larger overarching issues like content or argument over more secondary (but still important) issues like grammar.
- Just as you might give credit for completing different parts of the writing process, you can give credit for submitting brainstorming notes, a first draft, a revision plan/revisions, etc. Since all writing is in some way writing-to-learn (writing for the purpose of engaging content), it’s appropriate to give students credit for completing different parts of the writing process.
- Use peer response to increase student engagement and learning
- Asking students to provide feedback to each other on their writing can help students build class community and can also help improve their writing.
- When the class is online, it’s even more important to provide specific guidelines for peer response and to prepare students to read and respond to their peers’ writing effectively.
- One suggestion is to provide instruction to the class (via a video overview or synchronous conversation) on how to read and respond to peers’ writing; after the instruction, arrange peer response groups and provide detailed guidance (in writing) for what to focus on. Give students sufficient time to complete the peer response.
- Use technology to facilitate peer-response. For example, peer-response groups (of 3-4 students) could be listed on Moodle, along with peer-response guidelines. Students then use Google Docs to arrange the exchange of drafts and feedback; one student can take the lead and create a folder for peer-response, then a folder for each peer in the group within the peer-response folder. Make sure to remind students to make these folders editable by their peers.
- Use technology to stream-line evaluating/giving feedback
- Ask students to submit writing in a Google Drive folder that you are invited to edit; that way you can type feedback using the “suggestion” feature (this is like “track changes” in Word, and is found in the upper right-hand corner). If a student submits a paper on Moodle, use Moodle’s Streamlined Grader to leave in-content comments and notes. Or, you can download the students submission, enable track changes in Word, and upload it back to Moodle as a feedback file. Moodle will then automatically distribute it to the student.
- Meet with students via Webex, Zoom, Microsoft Teams or by phone to share feedback verbally.
- Use audio or video recording to give feedback/evaluation.
- Record audio feedback using your phone, then email the audio file to the student or share it in Moodle through a Feedback file. Audio memo feature on your phone.
- Use screen-capture software like Kaltura Personal Capture allows you to record a video, which is automatically uploaded to Moodle for you to easily share with your student within the feedback textbox of the assignment by selecting the Kaltura Media icon and selecting the appropriate file to share.
- Encourage visits to The Writing Center
- Students working on campus or remotely need opportunities to engage and learn with their peers, as well as their instructors. The Writing Center is available, remotely or in-person, to meet with students at any stage of their writing process and for any assignment. The WC’s remote platform allows for document-sharing and video and text-chat.
Resources for Faculty
- Writing Across the Curriculum Clearing House, Teaching Guides
- WAC Clearinghouse Peer Response Guide
- Writing as an Engineer or Scientist
- Enable Feedback Files in Moodle
- Entering Feedback for Students in Moodle