Writing gets easier the more it becomes a regular part of the classroom. Targeted low-stakes tasks and exercises can encourage students to articulate their vague thoughts and feelings about a topic, helping them to perform writing as thinking that leads to stronger writing assignments.
The exercises here are divided into categories that aim to help students through each stage of an assignment. They are simple enough for in-class use, but can be adapted to be more complex. Choose your need below.
Many students regard writing as an articulation of thought rather than as an integral part of the thinking process. The six simple exercises below can help students begin to synthesize and analyze knowledge and learning, and to make connections between ideas and concepts. These exercises can be used as quick in-class activities or as longer, more involved assignments.
- Focused free-writing. Choose a prompt to give to your class. This prompt could be a specific idea or question; it could be very focused or relatively broad. Ask your class to write on this prompt for up to 10 minutes (a two- to three-minute FFW works well as a way to begin class; a longer five-minute free-write is an effective way to generate or begin to reflect on ideas). Tell students that they should write continuously on the prompt, without concern for spelling, grammar or punctuation (or sense!). The idea is simply to generate as many ideas as possible. These ideas can form the basis of class discussion or be the beginnings of a longer assignment.
- Free association. Choose an idea you would like to discuss. Ask students to write down, as fast as they can, any words or phrases associated with the idea; reiterate that there are no bad words, no bad connections and that they shouldn't care about sense or perfection. Run the exercise for anywhere between two and five minutes. When they are finished, put the paper away for a few minutes; then, come back and try to make connections between the words/ideas listed and/or repeat the exercise with a word/idea they find most interesting.
- Six degrees of separation. This exercise can help students see topics from different points of view. As students to 1) describe the topic; 2) compare it; 3) associate it with something else they know; 4) break it down into component parts; 5) argue for it; 6) argue against it. Students can write a paragraph, a page, or simply give bullet points in response. This exercise also works as a group-activity.
- The Ws. Think of your topic in terms of who, what, where, when and why. Write down your answers.
- Defining key terms. Ask students to define key terms and concepts in their own words and then compare their answers with others. What differences do they find? What similarities?
- Self-application. Ask students to take a concept from their course reading or assignments and apply it to a situation int their own life or to an issue in current affairs. Thinking about concepts in application will help with understanding and analysis.
The blank page is a daunting prospect. In order to help your students get started on that first draft, try one of these tips and tricks as quick in-class exercises or as longer assignments.
- Clarify and question. Students often only THINK they know what the assignment is asking. By the time their confusion is apparent, it may be too late. To ensure that everyone is on the same page, ask students to take a few minutes to read over their assignment sheet and ask them to write down the questions they have about their task. Then, ask them to form pairs and to take turns explaining the assignment to each other. Ask students to pose their questions to their partner and to make a note of any remaining questions that neither can answer. Take time to answer these remaining questions in class.
- Thoughts and questions. Pick a key concept from the assignment and write it on the board. Divide students into groups of three or four and ask them to write down any and all questions that they can come up with related to the concept. They must write down all suggestions verbatim and they should not worry about repeated questions. After 5 mins, ask them to look over what they have written. Encourage them to changed any closed questions to open questions, and rephrase statements to become questions. Ask each student to pick the question they find most interesting to free-write on for 5 minutes.
- Transcribe. Often, initial thoughts are easier to talk through than write down. Divide your students into groups of three. Each students in the group will take turns to be the speaker, the scribe, and the question-master. The speaker will talk through their ideas for the assignment for 3 minutes while the scribe does their best to transcribe the ideas. The question-master will listen intently and write down any questions about the ideas as they come up (ask the question-master to come up with at least three questions). Rotate the roles until everyone has a transcription of their ideas and a set of questions for follow-up work.
- Start with ease. Tell your students to write the easiest part of the paper first. This does not have to be (and often isn't) the beginning. Get the parts that come quickly on paper first and see what connections come out of it, and what ideas might lead to it.
Coming up with a good idea is only the first stage of good writing. The more complex the idea, the more daunting it can seem to corral disparate thoughts into a cohesive piece of writing. These six exercises can help students form connects and identify the shape of their writing.
- Diagram it. Ask your students to write down their main ideas on the page and see if they can connect them in some way. Do the connections form a circle? A square? Do the ideas sit one atop another? Are your ideas a flow-chart or another kind of diagram? What does the shape of your ideas say about your argument?
- Construct a debate. Ask your students to work in groups to come up with counter-points to an argument. What kinds of defence can they mount against these counter-points? How can they answer points that are raised?
- Problem/solution. Ask your students to briefly outline the problem as they see it or define it, then ask them to share these points with a partner. Both author and partner must then make a list of potential solutions: the similarities between these lists will show both how well-articulated the problem is, and provide potential answers for the author.
- Defining critical questions. Your students may have lots of evidence or information and still feel uncertain about what they should do with it or how they should write about it. Ask your students to look at their evidence and see if you can find repeated information or a repeated missing piece. See if they can write a question or a series of questions that summarize the most important ideas in their paper. Once they have the critical questions, they can begin to organize their ideas around potential answers to the question.
- Teach someone else. Ask your students to verbally go through their argument with a partner. The partner should interrupt whenever they do not understand or if something is unclear. The other person need not be knowledgeable about the subject but should be willing to listen and interrupt when they don't follow. As they teach their ideas to someone else, they may begin to have more confidence in the shape of their ideas or they may be able to identify the holes in their argument and be more able to fix them.
- Iterative rewriting. Sometimes what helps most is rewriting an idea over the course of several days. Ask your students to take the central idea and briefly explain it in a paragraph or two. The next day, without looking at the previous day’s writing, ask them to write a new paragraph explaining their ideas. Try it again the next day. Over the course of three days, they may find their ideas clarifying, complicating, or developing holes. In all cases, they will have a better idea of what they need to do next in writing their draft.
Once students have the first draft, work begins to smooth and to refine ideas. These tips and tricks can help your students with this exhausting process:
- Outline. Ask your students to write a word or phrase that summarizes the content of the paragraph next to each paragraph of their draft. A paragraph that needs multiple words might need to be broken up. Do the words match the topic sentences? Students can perform this task on their own or each other's papers.
- First and last sentences. Ask students to isolate the first and last sentence of each of their paragraphs. Do the first lines give a sense of the argument to come? Does the last line effectively sum up the argument that was just made? Does the argument of the paper make sense when boiled down to these first and last sentences?
- Reassemble. Ask your students to come in with a printed copy of their draft and get them to cut it up so that each paragraph is on its own piece of paper. Students should swap their cut-up paragraphs with their partner, whose task is to reassemble the essay. If the essay is difficult to reassemble, the author might need to take a closer look at its logical progression and topic sentences.
- Keywords. Read your introductory paragraph(s) carefully and highlight your key words or concepts (take a different colour for each concept). As you read through your paper, highlight the points where these key words/concept reoccur. If no highlights appear for whole paragraphs, ask if your paper has lost focus.