In Praise of GLO’s Teacher Development Series: Writing-to-Learn

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I can’t recommend the Graduate Life Office’s Teacher Development series, run by Greg Reihman, highly enough. Perhaps you’ve never attended because you’ve thought “I have years of teaching experience! I don’t need that!” or “Those things always cater to non-humanities teaching!”


While I respect healthy skepticism, hear me out; whether you’re a brand-new teacher or it’s been years since your time in Practicum, you might want to consider it. If you attend the whole series, you will receive the material benefit of a certificate indicating your commitment to your teaching as well as a letter of commendation to your adviser and the department chair, but even attending a single session can be enormously useful to you.

 Recently, I attended the Write-to-Learn Workshop led by Greg Skutches, the Director of the Writing Across Curriculum program/fellow First Year Writing instructor. Greg’s ethos is that writing should not be treated as an assessment to evaluate knowledge or comprehension but as a tool to enable and enhance learning. To this end, he advocates frequently assigning short and informal writing exercises encouraging students to think through course content. Not all of the assignments need to be graded– the important thing is that they write frequently. Of course, in our composition classes many of us frequently use versions of this type of assignment: free-writes, journals, blogs, discussion question quizzes, etc. Greg, though, offers an incredibly helpful framework for re-conceptualizing these short assignments. Even if you are an experienced teacher and have written thousands of writing assignments, I encourage you to consider his suggestions– I found it amazingly helpful to go back to basics.

 Check out Greg’s suggestions (posted with his approval):

Characteristics of Write-to-Learn Assignments

  • relatively short (100-500 words)
  • focus on students’ thinking, and graded accordingly
  • address core course learning objectives
  • informal, not concerned with grammatical correctness, and graded accordingly
  • provide students with a clear sense of audience

Strategies for Designing Tasks that Stimulate Thinking and Learning

  1. Think of tasks that would let students link concepts in your course to their personal experience and prior knowledge.
  2. Ask students to explain difficult concepts in your course to a new learner.
  3. Think of controversial concepts in your field (for thesis support assignments or believer-versus doubter exercises).
  4. Think of problems, puzzles, or questions you could ask your students to solve or answer.
  5. Give students raw data (lists, graphs, tables, excerpts of original documents, raw evidence) and ask them to interpret or make an argument or analysis based on that data.
  6. Think of opening “frame sentences” for the start of a paragraph or short essay; students have to complete the paragraph by fleshing out the frame with reasoning, relying on course concepts and principles, bringing specific details and evidence to bear, etc. (Many variations for this one)
  7. Have students assume the role of unfamiliar points of view (“imagine X from a Y perspective”) or completing “what-if” scenarios.
  8. Select important articles in your field and have students write summaries or abstracts.
  9. Think of a controversy in your field and ask students to write a dialogue between characters with different or opposing points of view.
  10. Develop cases by writing scenarios that place students in realistic situations relevant to your discipline and ask them to reach a decision or resolve a conflict.

Some Common Writing Tasks that Promote Thinking

Analyze. Divide an event, idea, or theory into its components and examine each one in turn.

Compare and/or contrast.  Demonstrate similarities or dissimilarities between/among two or more entities (events, ideas, theories, etc.).

Define. Identify and state essential traits or characteristics of something, differentiating clearly.

Describe. Tell about an event person, process, in detail, creating a clear and vivid image or demonstrating a clear understanding.

Evaluate. Assess the value or significance of something.

Explain. Make a topic as clear as possible to a specific audience by offering examples and metaphors.

Summarize. State the major points of something concisely and comprehensively.

I found myself getting ideas for creative and interesting assignments that had never occurred to me before, particularly because Greg also provided a worksheet that broke down these steps. First, he asked us to write down the learning objectives of the course. I came up with:

  1. Writing (with argumentation, clarity, and sophistication)
  2. Critical thinking (creatively and analytically)

With these outcomes in mind, he then sent us to individually write a sample assignment explicitly addressing one or more of these objectives while considering the following questions:

  • Does the assignments address a core course learning objective?
  • Does it invite students to think critically, creatively, or freely?
  • Have I describe the writing task itself clearly?
  • Can it be done in 100-500 words?
  • Does the assignment give students a clear sense of audience?

Lastly, we wrote a prioritized list of grading criteria specific to the particular goals we selected.

Clarity in grading criteria FTW

Clarity in grading criteria FTW

Perhaps many of you already do all of these things when writing your assignments, even if not explicitly. However, try out breaking the process down into these discrete steps—I found myself writing more clear, directed, and creative prompts. I highly recommend trying out Greg’s method AND attending the teacher development workshops if for no other reason than that it makes you feel (and even look??) like a pedagogy rockstar.

Accounting rockstar/teaching rockstar, whatever. We're all nerds here.

Accounting rockstar/teaching rockstar, whatever. We’re all nerds here.

Registration has closed for this semester’s sessions, but check the Graduate Life Office website next semester to sign up!

(plus, they serve cookies at the workshops. delicious.)

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: What’s Happening: January/February 2016 | Drown Unbound

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