Informal Writing Assignments

Author: 
Brad Hughes, Martin Nystrand, Paige Byam, and Tom Curtis
Description: 
The assignments below are generally short, informal, perhaps ungraded writing assignments that instructors might consider adapting to their classes. Students often appreciate the opportunity to explore their thoughts on paper in such a way that relieves the pressure of a longer, more formal writing assignment.

The Question Box

Having students write anonymous questions about the content of lectures encourages them to think more critically about what they are hearing. Students can be asked to write these questions before, during, and after lectures. They can deposit their questions in a cardboard box near the exit of the lecture hall. During subsequent classes, the lecturer actually incorporates these student questions and insights into the presentation material, usually by reproducing the remarks on transparencies and projecting them directly to the class for comment and response.

Anticipatory Writing or Freewriting

Instructors can ask students to write informally (or to engage in a “freewrite”) about a particular course topic before they read, hear a lecture, or participate in a discussion about it. Such anticipatory writing helps students connect their previous knowledge with new information and prepares them for fuller participation in reading, lecture, or discussion.

  • EXAMPLE (from a sociology course on criminal justice, before lectures about police corruption): “List the factors you can think of that lead to police corruption. How do you think those reasons might vary from urban to non-urban police forces?”

Microthemes or Minute Papers

Brief essays, written in class or as homework, ranging from a 3 x 5 card to a page in length. This kind of assignment is designed to encourage students to reflect on what they’re learning, to give feedback to instructors, and to promote specific cognitive skills, such as summarizing, argument, analysis, problem solving, or hypothesizing from data. Some benefits: students must learn to see right to the heart of an issue, to select only major points; instructors can emphasize a particular issue or type of thinking, can learn what students understand and what they don’t, and can read the microthemes quickly.

  • EXAMPLE (from any course): To be written quickly and submitted at the end of the class—”What was the most important thing that you learned today?” “What were the main points of today’s lecture?” “What questions remain uppermost in your mind?” Begin the next class meeting by reading aloud selected microthemes.
  • EXAMPLE (from a course in gender and the professions): “You are a writer for a major advertising firm. You have been asked to design two written advertisements for a vacation in England, one of which will attract men (Esquire) and the other to appeal to women (Ms.). You think, however, that two ads are unnecessary. Write a memo to your boss and explain why.”
  • EXAMPLE (to promote specific kinds of thinking in any course): Provide students with a thesis that they then have to support in the microtheme with specifics. From a finance course: “Choose one of the following propositions and defend it in two pages: The price earnings ratio of a stock does/does not reflect the rate or return that investors in that stock will achieve.” Or provide students with specifics that they must draw a conclusion from. Or ask students to apply a theory to a new set of facts. Or ask students to explain (perhaps in outline form) a process for solving a problem.
  • EXAMPLE (from a course in physiology): “Some organs of the body are functionally unique single structures (e.g., one heart, one spleen). Others are found as functionally redundant pairs (two kidneys, two lungs). Explain how the human brain might be cited as an illustration of both kinds of anatomical structure.”

Response Papers

These are one-, two-, or three-page exploratory “think pieces” requiring students to react to some aspect of an article or book or lecture. Typically the instructor asks students to take an idea that has come up in class lecture or discussion or in readings and develop it more fully. These pieces of writing should be treated as exploratory drafts; students might pick 2 or 3 such texts to revise and submit for grading at the end of the term. They will be most effective if instructors assign or allow students to choose a persona to adopt, a particular situation to respond to, an audience to address, a particular purpose to fulfill. To set this up, instructors should assign students a professional identity, a situation, and even a rhetorical form (letter, memo, etc.).

•    EXAMPLE (from Professor Lee Hansen’s Econ. 450 class): “Imagine that you are serving as the principal economic adviser to Secretary of Labor Brock who asks you for a two-page analysis of Reissman’s proposal (attached) for a legislated four-day, 32-hour week; this would entail amending the Fair Labor Standards Act. Explain the likely effects of such legislation on measured employment and unemployment, total hours worked, the labor cost index, and earnings.”

Letters to Authors

A personal response to an assigned reading in the form of a letter. The informal style and imagined possibility of letters often makes them easier to write than essays.

•    EXAMPLE: “Pick an author with whom you disagree or whom you admire. Write a letter to this person expressing your views.”

Persona Pieces

A short text in which a student role plays a particular figure, perhaps in the form of a journal entry or a letter.

•    EXAMPLE: “Imagine that you are William Buckley and you are getting ready to debate Noam Chomsky on American foreign policy in Central America. Write down the points you intend to make in your debate. In order to anticipate Chomsky’s own arguments and be prepared, also write down what you expect to be his main points and how you will respond.”

Editorials

Argumentative and persuasive texts geared to the classroom community or to a broader group.

•    EXAMPLE (from a philosophy course): “Write an editorial for The Progressive or The National Review in which you support or argue against parents’ and doctors’ use of sophisticated biomedical techniques to detect potential birth defects in fetuses.”

Journals

Journals (special notebooks in which students write regularly) provide students with time and a requirement to think about course material and to engage in an ongoing written dialogue with their instructors. As Toby Fulwiler explains, journals can help individualize learning and encourage “writers to become conscious, through language, of what is happening to them, both personally and academically.” Students can use journals to
•    record thoughts, insights, and impressions about course material
•    ask questions and speculate; clarify, modify, and extend ideas
•    respond to reading, lectures, or instructor’s questions
•    begin thinking about ideas that can later be developed into more formal papers
•    discover connections between course materials; prepare for exams, class discussion, or course papers
•    gain fluency in writing.

Journals are different from other kinds of assignments in the freedom they provide for thinking that isn’t directly evaluated by the professor; they can provide a place for personal responses and for experimentation. Because journals are personal and because instructors need to make students feel comfortable being tentative and taking the kinds of risks that journals offer, it’s important to allow students leeway in the kinds of entries that they choose to write. Some students respond well to using a journal to sponsor their own topics in an unstructured way, while others seem to need more specific guidelines for journal writing.

Even though instructors do not usually grade journals for content or expression, they should, however, expect students to write regularly and thoughtfully in their journals. Part of a discussion or participation grade or a percentage of a student’s overall grade is often based on the effort exhibited in regularly writing in the journal. (Many instructors give their students A’s for a journal-keeping requirement if students regularly write in it and “No Credit” if they don’t.) One way to stress the importance of journals is to integrate them with other class activities. For example, journals can be used as a place for students to write at the beginning or end of class; instructors can periodically ask students to read entries aloud in class as a way to open up discussion. Students can also be asked to develop formal papers out of promising journal entries. And because journal writing takes place over an extended period of time and emphasizes developing thinking, some instructors have students review and write an introduction to their journals as a culminating assignment.

To make students take a journal assignment seriously and to encourage good thinking, instructors must read and respond to the journals, especially early in the semester. To keep the reading load manageable, instructors often
•    skim journals to check on progress
•    collect journals on a rotating basis
•    respond briefly to selected entries that appear interesting or that students have selected for response; responses can take the form of a personal comment or a question to prompt further thought.

Double-Entry Learning Logs

These are special journals in which students respond to the material they read for class, on the one hand, and “talk with the teacher about the readings,” on the other. In these logs, students summarize key information (rather than just highlight key passages in the books or articles themselves) and respond to the reading—raising questions, drawing parallels, voicing objections, confessing confusion. If instructors respond to these logs, they can focus and direct students, point our ideas for fuller treatment in formal papers, suggest other reading, answer questions, challenge ideas. (Students can use a variation of this technique as they take class notes: in the right-hand column they can summarize, respond to, or question the detailed notes in the left column.) A word of caution, however: journals and learning logs are time-consuming for both instructors and students, and if instructors assign them, they may have to adjust the amount of reading as they assign or else use the logs for only certain readings.

Class Minutes

Summary of the class lecture or discussion, prepared by a student selected as secretary-for-the-day; duplicated for all class members, presented, and discussed briefly at the beginning of the next class.

Course Dictionaries

Glossary of key terms in a course, with students producing definitions, examples, illustrations, maps, diagrams, etc. During the first part of a course, students identify main terms and major concepts; during the second part, students collaboratively compile the course dictionary. The audience for the dictionary is students who will take the course in future semesters.

Text Completion

Students read half a story, chapter, book, or experiment, or a partial data set, and then predict the rest and justify their conclusions.