One of the first questions that faculty new to teaching writing across the disciplines ask is: how do I add writing to what I’m already doing in my class? Balancing content and writing instruction is a difficult task, and often we feel like we just can’t fit everything in. And while teaching a writing course might carry extra expectations, faculty are often surprised to learn that small writing-to-learn activities can add a lot of value while not requiring a lot of work.
In a blog post for Edutopia, Benjamin Barbour offers a few writing activities that can be easily integrated into courses across the disciplines. I summarize a few of his activities below and add some of my own adaptations:
- Summarizing for comprehension: ask students to write a 50-word summary of a chapter or article.
- Adaptation: I often have students write summaries of sections of a chapter and we share them in a collaborative space, like Google Docs. I then have students use the section summaries to write an abstract of the full chapter.
- Prompt with questions: have students craft a one-sentence question about a chapter or article and then exchange them with a partner. The partner then writes a short answer in response.
- Adaptation: I often have students work in groups to draft two or three questions and then exchange questions with another group. We then discuss questions and answers as a class. I typically use index cards for this activity, but I have also used Google Docs. A second adaptation I use asks students or groups to focus on particular sections of a reading and to think about connections between sections when they exchange questions with another group.
- Encourage creative responses: prompt students to write about topics using an historical person’s voice.
- Adaptation: this can be a fun activity especially if you ask students to use the perspectives of multiple (relevant) people: how might they approach the same question differently? It can be fun to ask students to write a dialogue using these different voices. Students or groups can also act out what they have written.
- Keep it short: have students respond to a question or summarize a chapter or article in one sentence.
- Adaptation: I often ask my students to write one-sentence definitions of core concepts. I also frequently ask students to write a brief statement or construct an image about how those concepts relate. Sometimes, I do this on the very first day of class and at regular intervals throughout semester in order to reflect on our growth.
These activities don’t take a lot of work or planning, and they can be a great way to help students begin projects, develop their understandings, and refine writing techniques. To read more about Barbour’s activities, visit Edutopia’s website and consider following them on social media.
If you want to talk more about writing-to-learn activities, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a time. You can also visit our website which contains a number of handouts for teaching writing and links to resources from other programs.