Many teachers who are reluctant to integrate a significant amount of writing into their courses worry that they will have to spend more time teaching writing than teaching course content. These teachers have, perhaps, misperceived the difference between teaching writing and teaching course content through writing.
Writing can be used not only to help students learn course content and develop critical thinking skills, but also to help you track students’ disciplinary development (and the latter is especially true of assignments that include some element of revision). Writing allows you and your students to see, in a very concrete way, what and how they are thinking about and using course content. You don’t have to “teach writing” in order to maximize the benefits of using writing to teach course content. Simply commit yourself to clearly and succinctly expressing as an informed reader your responses to student texts.
Responding to student writing needn’t be an onerous task. It can be made easier and less time-consuming if you plan for it when designing your assignments (see Creating Effective Writing Assignments). Responses depend in large part on the pedagogical purposes of the assignment, purposes you need to make explicit, both for yourself and your students. Always ask, “Why am I making this assignment? What do I want students to learn by doing it? How will I assess that learning?”
Writing assignments are of two kinds: informal and formal. Informal, “workaday” writing assignments can be used to help students reflect on and learn new information (e.g., terminology, theories, methods, etc.) or to give students opportunities to explore new ideas that they might expand on later. Journal entries, microthemes, class notes, and the like usually require minimal response and little, if any, attention to organization or the “correctness” of grammar and style. You should probably respond more fully, however, if the purpose of the writing is for students to brainstorm ideas for a more formal assignment.
Formal assignments often have several more specific purposes than informal assignments. For instance, comparison/contrast essays, literature reviews, and argumentative research papers can allow students to practice exercising such critical thinking skills as summary, analysis, synthesis, critique, etc. Research proposals and reports can be used to help students learn stylistic conventions and organizational formats that are discipline-specific. How you respond to formal writing assignments further depends on whether the writing is a preliminary draft or a “final” paper.
Virtually any kind of formal writing assignment can help students shift from producing writer-centered texts to producing reader-centered texts—texts that from the reader’s perspective are clear, concise, coherent, and cohesive. By reading students’ writing as an informed reader, you can respond to formal assignments in ways that help students write their way into the discipline. Moreover, your responses will help students understand that knowledge which is ineffectively communicated isn’t really knowledge at all.
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