Writing to Learn through
By Mark Hall
One important goal of a WR course is to foster an environment in which students engage in writing to learn. While students may be expected to display or reflect knowledge in a WR course, they also use writing to speculate on new ideas, to learn what they think about them, and to produce new knowledge on a subject. In this way, E.M. Forster’s famous question, “How do I know what I mean until I see what I say?” may serve as a useful motto for student writers in the process of composing their thoughts in a WR course.
When teachers view writing this way--as a mode of learning--we’re then faced with the important task of helping students develop not only as writers but, more importantly, as thinkers. Sequencing writing assignments can help. Sequences, like the thinking processes they promote, are generally arranged in order of increasing complexity. The goal is to develop both the students’ cognitive and rhetorical abilities.
For example, Wayne A. Selcher and E. Fletcher McClellan use a sequential approach to develop critical thinking in their introductory American government course. In “Sequential Writing Assignments in International Relations and American Government Survey Courses,” they describe their “issue analysis” project, which invites students to describe and analyze a political issue of national importance and what the U.S. government is doing about it. First, students describe the substance of the issue, including its history. Next, students analyze public opinions concerning the issue. The third step includes describing relevant judicial, legislative, and executive actions. In the final part, students develop an argument about the federal government response and, most important to Selcher and McClellan’s course goals, evaluate the politics of the issue according to competing theories of U.S. government (16).
As this example illustrates, a sequence of writing assignments is more than simply a chronological arrangement. It provides a structure in which closely related writing strategies help students master course content goals and objectives. Richard Larson explains the principle of sequencing in “Teaching Before We Judge: Planning Assignments in Composition”: “The goal of each assignment in a true sequence should be to enlarge the student’s powers of thinking, organizing, and expressing ideas so that he can cope with a more complex, more challenging problem in the next assignment” (212).
But what exactly do we mean when we say
we want students to learn to move from “the simple to the
complex”? As its name implies, a cumulative sequence “is one in which
the later assignments ‘grow out of’ or subsume earlier ones” (Rankin 130).
Cumulative sequences have the added advantage of demonstrating students’
growth and development over time. At the end of this article is an
of a cumulative sequence of writing assignments I use in a first-year writing
course, but one that could be modified for use in any course that requires
As the example demonstrates, not only does a sequence build in complexity, but it is also recursive, encouraging students to return again and again to bolster and build upon earlier skills. Malcolm Kiniry and Ellen Strenski describe this process in “Sequencing Expository Writing: A Recursive Approach”: “Moving through a sequence of writing assignments over the course of the semester we discover that we are moving not only forwards but circularly backwards, reinforcing and recouping our previous gains as we call upon the earlier writing strategies in service of the later ones” (195).
Most importantly for me, after students turn in each part of the sequence, my responses and those of their classmates pose questions and promote development and changes in the drafts. This critique and dialogue is an essential part of each writer’s progress, offering a forum where students’ ideas are tested against the careful and critical thinking of others.
Collecting this and other sequences of assignments in a portfolio of student writing, which remains under revision throughout the semester, encourages students to focus not merely on their final products but also on their growth and development as writers. (See Tony Scott’s article on portfolios, this issue.) Sequenced assignments, then, when combined with portfolio assessment, help to trace students’ cognitive and rhetorical abilities.
Finally, sequencing writing assignments helps--to quote Kiniry and Strenski again–“make the opportunities for thinking, and thus for learning, systematically abundant. In its system of repetitions, gradations, and recursions, a sequence . . . encourages students to develop a few basic . . . strategies for approaching a multiplicity of university materials boldly and attentively” (201-02).
Larson, Richard L. "Teaching Before We Judge:Planning Assignments." The Writing Teacher's Sourcebook. Ed. Gary Tate and Edward P.J. Corbett. New York: Oxford UP, 1981. 208-19.
Kiniry, Malcolm, and Ellen Strenski. "Sequencing Expository Writing: A Recursive Approach. College Composition and Communication 36.2 (1985): 191-202.
Rankin, Elizabeth. "From Simple to Complex: Ideas of Order in Assignment Sequences." Journal of Advanced Composition 10.1 (1990): 126-35.
Selcher, Wayne A., and E. Fletcher McClellan. "Sequential Writing Assignments." Political Science Teacher 3.3 (1990): 15-17.
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