Giving your class short writing assignments can be a great way to give them practice writing and thinking in the language of your scientific (or other) discipline. They also give your most shy students a way to express themselves, first in writing and then, hopefully, in class. These short writing assignments also give them practice using the language of science. They help to organize thoughts in preparation for class, or to summarize what’s occurred in class. Here are five ways I’ve used short writings.
1. Response papers: These are usually 2-3 pages in length and are due at the beginning of class, based on reading they’ve done in preparation for class. They are not simple summaries of the reading assigned for that class session. Rather, they are written in response to a question or issue posed that requires using the content of the readings to support it. Sometimes I will prepare a specific question or issue for the students to use to focus their papers. Sometimes I ask them to pose a specific question or issue and then respond to it.
2. Moodle (blog) Posts: These are becoming pretty common at Vassar since we use this system across the campus. Similar writings can be done using Blackboard, course web pages, course blogs. For my courses, I will pose a question or issue related to the readings and ask each student to post a 2-3 sentence response, using evidence from the readings. These posts then serve as a basis for a full class discussion in the next class. The short writing serves as an incentive to read the assignment in time for class and it’s a way for me to see where the confusions might be or where the student interests are. Sometimes, the actual use of the posts to direct a class discussion is a bit awkward. Things work best when students willingly volunteer to discuss or to refer to their posts. Going around the class one by one to have them describe their Moodle post is stiff and stifles the very discussion we’re trying to achieve. I’m still working on making this format work well- any ideas from you, dear readers?
3. Reflection Papers: In courses where class discussion is the major format, particularly where students are in charge of the discussion, like in my Neuroscience and Behavior senior seminar, I want students to reflect back on the discussion we had and think about how the assigned readings support that discussion. This kind of assignment keeps the students thinking a bit longer about what we did in class and I’ve found it helps them relate what we did in class to the next class. This kind of short paper, usually no more than two pages in length, really helps the quiet students find their voice. They have a chance to bring up issues that they were thinking about during class that they were reluctant to say out loud. I used this writing assignment with great success during my seminar this past fall semester. Even the most shy students began participating in class as their confidence grew through writing these reflection papers!
4. Short end-of-class writing: This kind of short, off-the-cuff assignment works well to see what your class got out of the session. For example, sometimes in an introductory biology course, after a particularly complicated concept like recombination or regulation of eucaryotic gene expression, I’ll ask the class to write a short paragraph summarizing what they saw as the main concept covered in class. Other times, for my intermediate-level Neuroscience and Behavior course, if the class session was predominantly small group work (like a jigsaw type format), I’ll have the class reflect for a few moments about what their group discussed and will have them write a short paragraph summarizing the important discussion points. Sometimes, I’ll ask them to reflect by writing a short paragraph of something they found particularly interesting from the class session that they might want to learn more about. These are all great ways for the students to think about the work done in class and to practice using the language of the science. In addition, these short assignments give me a peek into how the students are learning the material with different class formats.
5. Short beginning-of-class meditation writings can help your class prepare for the upcoming session. You can pose a question or issue based on the readings and have the class write for five minutes or so. These kinds of writings can also be used to ask your class to articulate areas of confusion- your students will then be more likely to bring up these confusions once class gets started. I used a short writing assignment like this once when my students were assigned a very complex experimental paper for discussion. It was a paper with about ten figures and several tables. Lots of data. I asked the class to write a one sentence summary of each figure. What was the main finding in that figure. We then proceeded to work through the paper and how it connected with the rest of the overall course topic. A number of students told me later that the short writing at the beginning really helped them to be prepared for a good discussion and group work.
I think these kinds of short assignments can really help you accomplish your goals for each class session. They will also give you a glimpse at how your students are learning and grappling with the course material. Tailor the kinds of assignments to the kinds of goals, the kind of work you have planned and the format of your class session.