Wednesday, June 15, 2011

In praise of in-class writing

The last two quarters, I've been experimenting with in-class writing a fair bit — the sort of writing students don't turn in. For the most part, my approach has been simple: I've put a question on the board or on PowerPoint, usually a question designed to evoke a reaction to an assigned reading. I give the students 3-6 minutes to write a response in their notes (though if after the alloted time, I observe that students are still writing, I tend not to interrupt.) Sometimes I've kicked off the class meeting with this, but sometimes I've done it in the middle of a class session to add variety.

On the whole, I'm pleased with this strategy and wonder why I've not often observed in-class writing used in college or university classrooms. My guess is that it seems too baby-ish, a bit like high school math class with students sitting quietly solving equations. But I see a lot of advantages to in-class writing, and I'd be interested to know how others use in-class writing and why.

  • They're writing. I firmly believe that we don't ask students to write frequently enough. At the university level, there's too much emphasis on 'the big paper'. In a typical philosophy course, students will often write two medium-sized papers and a longer term paper. I'm in favor of longer papers, mind you, but most of my students need to become more comfortable with the process of writing, particularly the beginning of the writing process: conceptualization, organizing ideas, identifying a thesis, etc. Frequent in-class writing helps them become more comfortable and fluent as writers.
  • If they're writing, they're thinking. And we want them to think, right?
  • Low pressure. Since they don't turn this writing in, it's very low pressure — something that takes the pressure off those students who are graphophobes and helps them focus on the writing task rather than on the evaluation of their writing.
  • Discussion is more fruitful. I suspect one reason students often don't participate in discussion is the sense of being on the spot, of having to respond immediately (and intelligently!) to an argument or idea. I often follow the in-class writing with discussion, and it's usually more lucid, engaged, and thoughtful than the norm. I had one student who would read her written responses in class as a contribution to discussion. This seemed awkward at first, but it clearly reduced her anxiety when she had 'her text' to work from. So by giving students a few moments to gather their thoughts, the in-class writing appeared to stimulate better discussion.
  • Better small group discussion. When I've used in-class writing as a prelude to small group discussion, the groups tend to get started faster, be more focused, and stay more on task.
  • Signaling expectations. Lord knows we want our students to read the assigned material. When the in-class writing concerns the assigned reading, there's a signal that doing the reading matters. And when students who haven't done the reading, there are looks of embarrassment when other students begin writing almost immediately.
  • It's OK to be quiet. I've worried in the past that our loud world makes the solitude that philosophy thrives on harder to achieve. I'm attracted to the stillness of my classroom when in-class writing is taking place. Oh sure, there's plenty of energy and noise in my classroom the rest of the time. But we preach the merits of the reflective life. Why not make the classroom a place for reflection from time to time?


  1. Michael, I love your post. Your experience of the power of in-class writing is a taste of what the National Writing Project is all about. As a freshman comp teacher, I use in-class writing almost every class period. There is a ton of Comp Theory that supports the effectiveness of your pratice, such as Janet Emig's classic work "Writing as a Mode of Learning."

  2. Michael, thanks for this. I've been thinking of experimenting with in-class writing and several aspects of the post are strongly nudging me from thinking to acting. A question: would you be willing to provide an example or two of questions you've used for 3-6 minute writing exercises. For me, perhaps strangely, this is the big stumbling block. The questions/tasks I think of tend to generate one of two sorts of fear: The question is so simple many students will be finished within 10 seconds; OR, The question is complex so if I stop them after 5 or 6 minutes they'll be just getting their steam up.

    Any suggestions much appreciated.


  3. For my intro-philosophy course, I have the students break into pairs or small groups (depending on class size) and prepare a debate on a question related to what we will be talking about that week.

    The debate itself takes 15 or so minutes, after which I use in-class writing like you describe. I ask students to express in writing which side of the debate they thought was correct and why. Depending on how much time I want to devote, I also sometimes have the students break into small groups and compare their writing and be prepared to present their reasoning to the whole class as to why they agreed with one side of the debate or the other. I then call on a few students at random to share their responses.

    When I started doing these debate sessions three semesters ago I thought I would be devoting too much time to them. (It seemed a necessity of a rather awkward class schedule.) But I have been pleasantly surprised with how well it works. Tuesdays are usually "debate" days and are more student-led, with me occasionally doing a mini-lecture (with no required reading) in the second half of the class; Wednesdays and Fridays follow the normal more traditional lecture/Socratic method approach. I've found it gets students interacting with the general issues so they are better equipped to deal with the philosophical readings we do later on, and also encourages more shy students to speak up in class.

  4. Kevin,

    Sure - here are some from last quarter (this was a lower-level intro to ethics course):

    Aristotle doesn't think that taking this ethics course is likely to make you a morally better person. How come, and do you agree?

    On p. 214, Kant describes an example of 'false promising.' How is false promising supposed to be irrational or inconsistent, according to Kant?

    What is the main ethical principle Singer appeals to in his argument for our having a duty to alleviate poverty?

    What are two main problems Nathanson identifies with 'lex talionis'?

  5. I've taken some K12 writing ideas (I taught middle and high school science for 12 years)and implemented them into my philosophy classes. One of the most engaging is to have the students "discuss" while writing: each student (in groups of 4-ish)gives their answer to a question for about 2-3 minute. It can be the same question, or a different one. Then, they pass the paper around, read the paper they've just received, and respond. They continue passing them around as long as you choose. The students are surprisingly into it, and come up with good comments and questions.


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