Let’s Talk: Using Discussion to Support Student Writing

Matthew Luskey

At the start of the semester, students are brimming with questions. While many of these questions may initially concern course logistics and policies, they nonetheless send a powerful signal: engagement. As a good deal of educational research has shown, student engagement is high at the start of the term, and a key indicator of this engagement is talk. With Week 2 just underway, this is an optimal time to consider how to channel student talk into engaging learning opportunities throughout the semester. In particular, talk in its many forms—questioning, discussing, conferencing, and presenting—can provide a strong impetus for student writing.

Productive & Engaging Talk

Of course, not all talk is productive or engaging. The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which has been administered to over 5 million college students, focuses specifically on talk that promotes collaborative learning and enhances interactions among students, faculty and other members of the campus community. As the survey has documented, when students talk with other students, family members, and their instructors about course content, in class and beyond, engagement increases and deepens learning. Building on the NSSE research, The Consortium for the Study of Writing in College has identified several key opportunities for students to talk with others about their writing. These include:

  • Talking with their instructor to develop ideas before drafting their assignment 
  • Talking with a classmate, friend, or family member to develop ideas before starting to draft their assignment 
  • Receiving feedback from a classmate, friend, or family member about a draft before turning in their final assignment  
  • Visiting a campus‐based writing or tutoring center to get help with a writing assignment before turning it in 

Undergirding these studies is the principle that learning is a social act—that students benefit greatly from talking with each other and with faculty about core work at timely junctures. On the surface, this may seem simple and obvious. However, creating a culture of productive talk often requires intentional planning and repeated practice.

Talking to Write

Here are five suggestions for how to integrate talking and writing activities in your classes.

1. Design Discussion-Based Writing Assignments

Writing prompts that intentionally build on in-class discussions and debates underscore the productive relationship between talking and writing, and they can lead to more genuine, inquiry-based work. Such prompts can be tailored to a specific moment in a course discussion (e.g., a debate in a biology lecture about GMOs) or they can invite students to extend a line of class discussion of their choosing. Here’s an example of a flexible prompt from a film studies course: “Identify and answer a question at issue that has emerged out of our in-class discussions about one of the noir films we have studied (Double Indemnity, The Hitch-Hiker, or Kiss Me Deadly). Be sure to identify what the critical question is, why it remains at issue for our class, your specific answer to it, and the reasons that support your answer.”

If you would like to consult about ways to design discussion-based writing assignments, please schedule an appointment.

2. Ask Students to Discuss Writing Prompts in Class

When you assign a significant writing assignment, schedule time in class for students to discuss the prompt with others. Have them work in pairs or small groups to paraphrase the prompt, to identify areas of the prompt that need to be clarified, to estimate time they will need to complete the assignment, and to identify strategies that will help them succeed. An effective use of in-class time can spare you from repeatedly clarifying the assignment in emails and during your office hours, which will enable you to spend more time on the next suggestion.

3. Schedule Mini-Conferences During Office Hours

Last month’s post suggested ways that you can use your syllabus to convey a powerful message about the importance of writing in your class. One of those suggestions is to signal a strong willingness to meet with students during office hours to discuss writing assignments and student drafts. (If students need an additional nudge, consider sharing this playful video from Arizona State University about the power of office hours.) At strategic times within the semester, office hours can be broken into mini–writing conferences. To make such conferences feasible and productive, ask students to bring a short piece of their writing that concerns them, along with a specific question they have about their writing. Targeted and focused conferencing that responds to a student-identified need is often more effective than general statements or rules about good writing. Furthermore, it can surface common areas of struggle for students that you might then address in class.

Read more about the use of 5-Minute Writing Conferences.

4. Use Talk-Based Protocols to Brainstorm, Develop, and Refine Ideas.

A protocol is usually a short activity with a few rules that “constrain participation in order to heighten it” (The Power of Protocols: An Educator’s Guide to Better Practice, 3). Protocols can be as simple and brief as a think-pair share, as frenetic as speed-dating rounds, or as rehearsed as elevator pitches. The key is to choose a protocol that aligns well with a specific stage of writing, whether it is invention and brainstorming or revision and reflection.

You can read more about discussion-based protocols at Harvard University’s Teaching and Learning Lab. If you would like to consult about developing or adapting effective protocols for your course, please make an appointment.

5. Scaffold Peer Review

One of the most effective ways to promote peer review is to limit its scope and to increase its frequency. Developing a peer review schedule that allows students to give and get feedback on their writing in stages and to concentrate their feedback on particular sections such as an introduction, methods, or results section, rather than a large draft, will lead to more focused and timely feedback. It will also provide students with opportunities to engage in repeated practice— one of the crucial aspects of effective peer review.

Learn more about feedback-rich classrooms.

Let’s Keep Talking

Do you have a discussion-based activity that supports writing in your course? If so, please consider sharing in the comments section below.

Further support

For further support, see the Teaching with Writing resource pages, including sample assignments and syllabi. As many of you know, our WAC program also hosts the popular Teaching with Writing event series. Each semester, this series offers free workshops and discussions. Visit us online. To schedule a phone, virtual, or face-to-face teaching consultation, click here.