Research documenting the relationship between writing, student engagement and deep learning identifies three areas of effective instructional practice:
- interactive writing practices, in which student writers communicate orally and/or in writing with others about their assignment prior to submitting a final draft;
- meaning-making writing tasks, requiring students to “engage in some form of integrative, critical, or original thinking,” such as positing and supporting a contestable claim;
- clear writing expectations, in which instructors provide students with specific criteria that accurately link the purpose of an assignment with its method of evaluation (Anderson, Anson, Gonyea, & Payne, pp. 206-207).
For this post, let’s consider a flexible instructional activity that engages all three of these areas—the thesis workshop.
What is a thesis workshop and why have one?
In a thesis workshop, students give and receive feedback on drafts of their thesis statements. Rather than reviewing a rough draft or a proposal for a longer paper, a thesis workshop concentrates on just the key claim or assertion that serves as the central line of reasoning for the larger paper. By confining itself to a short amount of writing, a thesis workshop can investigate a number of issues related to a larger writing assignment, including the potential quality of the argument, the potential strategies for developing an argument, and the organizational elements that will best support the argument. In effect, the thesis workshop takes as its premise that writing is provisional and recursive. Students are more apt to revise their thesis statements and the reasoning that undergirds them if they have not already developed pages in support of them. When conducted early enough in a writing assignment, the thesis workshop can save hours of frustration for students and instructors.
Because the quality of a thesis is determined by disciplinary factors, such as the specific research question it seeks to answer, the reasoning in support of it, and the audience to whom it is directed, thesis workshops are useful in all courses that involve writing.
A thesis workshop is most effective when students have prepared for it in advance. On your course syllabus, you may find it useful to define thesis workshops as opportunities to discuss the central assertions for upcoming essays, and you may want to schedule several throughout the term. If you have one primary writing assignment in your course, then consider a thesis workshop at least a week prior to a first draft. It is also quite useful to provide students with the rationale for the thesis workshop along with advice and direction for preparation.
Here is an example that has been adapted to fit different course levels:
For the next class, we will hold a thesis workshop, where we discuss the central assertions in your upcoming essays. While it is very natural for your assertions to change (often quite radically) over the course of your essay drafts, a thesis workshop is useful for several reasons:
- It helps you develop a good focus for the first draft of your essay. A good thesis clearly, precisely, and forcefully expresses an arguable position. Simply put, an essay is no better than its thesis. If your thesis is poorly conceived, unclear, or not at issue, then no degree of sophisticated writing will be able to fix it.
- It helps you think about the relationship between your assertion and the reasons that support it. It helps you develop a good line of reasoning for your essay.
Advice & Directions: In preparation for the thesis workshop, you will probably want to do quite a bit of writing. Though we are often told that you can’t write until you have something to say, the opposite is usually true: writing begets thought. Therefore, use the next few days to write informally at your computer or in a notebook. Use this informal writing to help you determine what the main line of reasoning might be in your first essay draft. Regardless of how much or how little informal writing you do, I would like you to complete the following questions before the thesis workshop:
- What is the key interpretive or research question your essay seeks to answer?
- In one concise sentence, what is your answer to the key question? Your answer should be stated as an assertion—a claim that can be challenged.
- What is a central reason in support of your assertion? That is, if someone were to ask you “why” in response to your assertion, what would you write? Please write your central reason in the form of at least one complete statement.
Some instructors may find it useful to provide credit or points for thesis workshop preparation and participation.
Conducting a thesis workshop
Depending on the size of your class and the assignment, you may ask students to work in pairs or small groups. Prior to pairing or grouping students, model a sample workshop session with the entire class for at least one thesis statement. Here’s an example of a poorly wrought thesis statement and its proposed revision, provided by Vanderbilt University’s Writing Studio:
- Before: Romeo and Juliet is a play about young lovers struggling against their families.
- Problem: No surprise or controversy—the writer’s claim is not debatable for the audience.
- After: While it is true that Romeo and Juliet is a play about young lovers, the most complex relationships are those between the young characters and their older mentors.
For the sample workshop, instructors can create problematic thesis statements based on their experience reading ineffective arguments or adapt and redact samples from previous classes. Similar to the five-minute workshop model, a sample demonstration will help students to practice detecting problematic issues with thesis statements and suggesting improvements. (Note: unlike the five-minute model, thesis workshops usually require at least 30-45 minutes of class time.)
Along with the lack of surprise and controversy noted above, some common pitfalls for thesis statements include a lack of territory (the writer has not established a clear link between their research question and the claim); no significance (the writer’s central claim is not related adequately to the assignment); no claim (the writer has offered a statement about the topic but not an assertion); and no clear or shared logic (the writer’s claim is based primarily on a personal conviction that makes it hard or impossible to dispute). Instructors may find it useful to use their own terminology to identify common pitfalls and challenges for thesis statements in their fields. Doing so can help to reinforce the specific criteria for argument in their assignment and the expectations for strong reasoning in their disciplines.
From acorns to oak trees: Post-workshop work
After they have workshopped their thesis statements, students are often more motivated and in a stronger position to develop their thinking in the form of mindmapping, outlines, and drafts. Providing opportunities for students to discuss or quick-write in response to their workshopped thesis statements can extend and reinforce the interactive writing practices shown to be so effective across disciplines. To encourage your students to think about their thesis statements as provisional arguments (acorns) in need of development, you can provide some prompting language geared toward promoting the development of the larger writing assignment:
- Why is the key question you’re answering in your essay important?
- What is a key reason in support of your assertion?
- What evidence does this key reason require?
- What resistance might there be to your assertion?
Thesis workshops have been effective for faculty and students from Art History to Computer Science and Engineering. If you have used thesis workshops in your courses, please share your insights in the comment section below. What suggestions do you have for guiding students through a workshop? What challenges have you experienced? What innovations have you developed?
If you would like to consult on the use of thesis workshops or other interactive writing activities in your course, feel free to schedule an appointment.
Anderson, P., Anson, C.M., Gonyea, R.M., & Paine, C. (2015). The contributions of writing to learning and development: Results from a large-scale multi-institutional study. Research in the Teaching of English, 50, (2),199–235.
In-class workshops. (N.D.). Retrieved from https://www.vanderbilt.edu/writing/faculty/connect-your-students-with-the-writing-studio/in-class-workshop/.
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.
It may be a little presumptuous, but I am a huge fan of the new format and the opportunity to comment. We receive so many comments, suggestions, and variations after creating these tips, and now we will be awesome to have folks share directly.