A Quick Look Back: Students Share Positive Experiences with Writing over the Semester

Matthew Luskey

After Thanksgiving Break, the semester takes on added urgency. Students complete—and instructors assess—final projects and exams, and everyone scrambles to wind down the term, gear up for the next, and make arrangements for the holiday break. With time scarce, it can be challenging to take stock and reflect on teaching and learning. But looking back now can provide valuable insights for looking ahead. Through quick, in-person chats and email exchanges, four undergraduates have shared some of their positive experiences with writing this semester. Two years ago, prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, students also shared their positive perspectives of writing. Though so much has changed in the classroom and beyond during this time, students remain consistently grateful for writing experiences that are well designed, practically sequenced, and accompanied by multiple modes of support and resources.

Here are some of the ways that UMN students have been supported in their courses this semester.

A Little Extra Time

"I am grateful for my American literature professor who hosted a special session of extra office hours to clarify a midterm essay’s writing prompt for me. After meeting one-on-one with the professor to talk about the prompt, the assignment made much more sense."

—An international student from Japan who studies Computer Science

Office hours are valuable opportunities for students to get customized help. But there may be times in the semester, especially around midterms and final exams, when a little extra time or flexibility with office hours is needed. For international students, an extra office hour can be especially helpful for clarifying assignment expectations that might not be feasible to explain in class. Thinking ahead to next semester, instructors might consider adding extra office hours in their course calendar before major assignments and exams to provide additional support for students. Instructors might also consider setting up a scheduling option through their work calendar.

Models Matter

"My professor in Applied Economics provided us with detailed student examples and an outline for how to write a policy brief. He also encouraged us to work on the briefs in short stages, checking our work along the way. I feel like I will be able to write policy briefs in the future."

A first-year student who studies Anthropology and Applied Economics

For instructors planning to use current assignments in future courses, now is a good time to identify strong examples from this semester that can be used as future models. Samples of student writing that include the instructor’s annotations are especially helpful to students who are learning to write in new fields and new genres. Instructors might also consider the use of social annotation assignments that ask students to read specific genres, such as a policy brief, and to comment on their features and conventions.

The Value of Mini Workshops

"My Engineering Ethics professor hosts in-class workshops on how to develop a constructive thesis and defend one’s argument in a coherent, scientific manner, as well as coaching students on how to write in a formal but opinionated manner."

 An international student from Malaysia who studies Chemical Engineering

View of road and trees in rearview mirror view

As noted in last month’s blog post, allocating class time for students to work directly on their writing assignments can yield great results, and it need not require instructors to abandon other modes of teaching, such as lecturing or discussion. As they plan for the next semester, instructors can identify places within their course calendar where mini-workshops and brief writing activities—often requiring no more than 20 minutes—can be integrated effectively in class, or synchronous online sessions, to address generating viable research questions, developing a thesis statement, focusing on effective source use or other core elements of a writing task. Such workshops are also helpful for surfacing and discussing with students some of the particularities and challenges that accompany writing in specific fields and contexts.

Frequent Formative Feedback

"My professor in my BFA capstone course has had us work in small groups of three to discuss our projects. After our group sessions, we have time to make edits to our projects before submitting to the professor, who then meets with us individually to talk about our projects."

A senior completing a capstone project in Fine Arts

Educational research has shown the many benefits of providing feedback on in-process writing. Feedback that is actionable and timely is almost always more effective than summative feedback that accompanies the final grade. However, in order to provide timely and actionable feedback, instructors should identify key places within the semester where they can feasibly comment or conference with students on a draft, along with places where students can give and receive feedback on their work with other students. Instructors should also consider how formative feedback opportunities are sequenced and staggered to avoid duplication of effort and to support the ongoing development of a student’s writing project.

Time to Talk?

Are you interested in discussing ways to develop or refine some of these practices into your course next semester? Members of the Writing Across the Curriculum Team are available to meet with you in person or through Zoom to discuss specific strategies and how to integrate them into your Spring Semester courses.

Further Support

Our newly redesigned Teaching with Writing Program website offers teaching resources to faculty members and instructors across the University of Minnesota system. We also host the popular Teaching with Writing event series each semester, offering workshops, panels, and discussions on writing-related topics. Visit the Writing Across the Curriculum Program and follow us on Twitter @UMNWriting. You can schedule a phone, email, in-person or zoom teaching consultation through our online consultation form.