Work in Progress: Supporting Students through the Writing Process

Matthew Luskey

Don’t let this mild fall weather fool you. Winter is coming, and so is the end of the semester. Students are likely beginning or are already in the midst of their final projects—research essays, presentations, multimodal productions, group projects, etc.—and perhaps voicing concerns about timelines, criteria, and logistical matters. It’s a fine time to take stock with students on their works in progress and to support their writing efforts. Here are five suggestions for how you can support students in the midst of their work toward the end of the semester without having to make significant changes to your course calendar.

Suggestion 1: Set aside (at least a little) time in class to work on projects.

In studio-based courses, students often spend much of their time working on final projects. In lecture- and seminar-based courses, students often complete their assignments outside of class meetings. In such courses, allotting a brief amount of time during class to work specifically on work in progress can provide several benefits: it can model a process of invention, drafting, researching, editing, etc. that students can then continue outside of class; and it can often address issues that more than one student is having with a specific stage of the writing assignment.

Example: A student in a Behavioral Psychology course is researching how girls are diagnosed differently than boys for Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They share with the professor that they are having difficulty with searching databases, filtering the results, and getting to full texts. The professor reviews and models several search strategies and then allots 15 additional minutes for students to do their own searches, to ask additional questions, and to share their search strategies with classmates.

Suggestion 2: Schedule small group check-ins with students at one or two key junctures.

Students might not know their needs for a specific assignment until they are engaged in their writing; therefore, their questions for help or clarification might come later than anticipated. Likewise, students might benefit from hearing how other students are managing or struggling with specific stages of an assignment. One way to address both these realities is to consult with a small group of 4–6 students at a time. By meeting in small groups, instructors can more efficiently support a class, and students can also offer advice and encouragement to one another by addressing common or shared issues that are raised. Prior to consulting with students, instructors should provide a rationale for the meetings and indicate what they hope students will come prepared to discuss and what they hope students will learn or benefit from the check-in. For example, a rationale might be an opportunity to ask questions, share strategies, and to think together about possible solutions.

Example: As part of their required internship experience, students in Landscape Architecture submit a 5–7-page synthesis essay that describes their internship experience and the ways that it aligns with concepts they have studied in the major. After students have begun drafting, the instructor meets with students in groups of four to identify and address common challenges, to discuss synthesis strategies, and to invite students to offer suggestions to one another.

Students standing together to test the design of a toy

Suggestion 3: Adjust office hours to accommodate evenings and weekends.

Most office hours are held M–F within the 9–5 work day. However, a good deal of work that is done on final projects falls outside this time frame. For the final few weeks of the semester, instructors might consider replacing one of their traditional office hours, especially one that has been poorly attended during the term, for an evening or weekend hour. For some instructors, this might not be feasible. However, many instructors do spend some time in the evening and on weekends responding to student inquiries, so scheduling a dedicated “afterhours” office hour might be effective and not add any more work than is already being done.

Example: For the final month of the semester, an instructor in Computer Science designates an evening hour on Wednesday and a late morning hour on Saturday for students to meet virtually to discuss their final projects. Students are encouraged to drop by on Zoom to ask questions about their work in progress. The instructor also compiles the questions and issues students raise in their evening and weekend visits and addresses them through a discussion forum on Canvas.

Suggestion 4: Introduce or remind students of the many resources in place.

Toward the end of the semester with competing demands and diminishing time, instructors may not be able to meet the work-in-progress needs of every student. Likewise, not all students may feel comfortable approaching their instructors with looming deadlines to ask for support during the final stages of an assignment. Even with such restraints, instructors can still provide students with additional options to discuss their work in progress by encouraging them to use the wonderful and individualized resources available through Student Writing Support, Peer Tutors, Peer Research Consultants, one-on-one online consultations with Media Services and the 24/7 chat with a librarian option.

Example: Midway through the semester, an instructor in Anthropology schedules a five-minute virtual visit from a consultant in Student Writing Support. The consultant provides the class with an overview of a student writing support consultation and encourages students to drop in or make appointments to discuss any aspect of the assignments they are working on.

Suggest 5: Empathize and motivate.

Toward the end of the writing process and semester, when consultations, in-class work sessions, and office hour visits may not be possible, students can benefit from messages of encouragement. Instructors can remind students of the work they have done throughout the semester that contributes to their success, celebrate the efforts they have made thus far on their assignment, and indicate their excitement to read their students’ final projects. As José Bowen (2012) documents, such messages can lower stress and increase motivation, “creating optimal conditions for learning” (95).

Example: During the the final weeks of the semester, an instructor in Food Science and Nutrition uses Canvas Announcements at the beginning and end of each week to send positive messages of support to students who are completing a grant application as the final project in their Community Nutrition course. The instructor includes memes, gifs, and links to positive videos in the announcements.

What strategies do you find useful for supporting students with work in progress at the end of the semester? We invite you to share in the comments below.

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.