Friday, November 11, 2011

Writing in the Classroom

On Monday John Stenzel from the University Writing Program visited the GTC and shared many different resources for incorporating writing into classes of all sorts. John’s presentation provided new ways to think about and framing learning in the classroom.

We discussed the idea that “If you[, the instructor,] are not talking, that does not mean that students are not learning.” and the pressures we face to keep talking to and at our students. To help instructors address their learning goals, which around 90% of faculty claim include critical thinking, John argued that writing is critical thinking, and that incorporating more writing is fostering those vital skills in students.

However there are many perceived impediments to using more writing in classrooms. A primary impediment is the difficulty of writing. Writing is primarily a generative task, and one that involves making frequent and repeated judgment calls, e.g. tense and voice, sentence structure, flow, who is the audience, etc. All these decisions can quickly lead to cognitive overload at which point the whole process shuts down and no writing occurs.

John suggested several ways to address cognitive overload. These methods differ primarily on the scope of the writing with shorter assignments having different strategies than longer ones. For longer assignments the idea that writing is an iterative process is important not just stress but practice, model and incorporate into the class structure. In addition to the traditional method of requiring multiple drafts to be turned in over the course, an instruct0r could also model the process by showing the students a first draft and the further progress that comes with each successive draft of their, the instructor’s, own writing.

As for smaller assignments one of the easiest approaches to implement is a “Mad Lib” style prompt. Giving the students a more constrained problem domain relives some of the cognitive load and allows students to focus on the parts that you want them to. Another approach is more intermediate length writing samples, called micro-themes. Micro-themes are short, 2-5 minute writing exercises that are designed to engage students with the material and not be polished. By making clear that the micro-themes are not finished projects but times for students to get their ideas down on paper, again some of the cognitive load is dissipated. Additionally the repeated and regular use of writing in the classroom setting supports higher quality writing during assessment periods.

John also pointed towards and heavily recommended John Bean’s “Engaging Ideas” and Derek Bok’s
Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More” as resources for how to incorporate writing into the classroom and a critique of higher education in terms of its lack of critical thinking respectivly.

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