Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

In-Class Activities

Rather than setting aside large blocks of time to talk about writing, most WR courses integrate writing and discussions of writing into the regular activities of the course. Almost any attention you pay to writing during class time will do double duty: it will help students understand the material more deeply, and it will help them write about it more effectively. Each of the following suggestions can be tweaked to emphasize its effect on writing or learning in your course, and any one of them can be done in just a few minutes.

Writing activities that support lecture/discussion

The one-minute paper
Traditionally used at the end of a class session, the one-minute paper (popularized by Richard Light at Harvard) asks students to take one minute and write on a separate sheet of paper: (1) the main point they’re taking from the day’s lecture, and (2) one question they have or issue they don’t quite understand.These would normally be turned in without names. For the professor, the one-minute paper allows more direct access to what students think about the material. Read through them quickly (5-10 seconds a piece) and take notes on recurrent themes or questions—these findings can guide the opening of the next day’s lecture or discussion. For the students, the one-minute paper prompts them to start synthesizing the lesson and to identify elements for review.

Writing to prompt or focus discussion
Before opening up the floor to discussion, or at a point where the class seems stuck or confused, have students take two minutes to take notes on what they’re thinking about: you will double the number of hands raised to offer a question or comment. The invitation can be as open as the questions for the One-Minute Paper (see above), or can focus on a specific issue you’re trying to explore. Here are some examples of questions you might ask

  • What questions do you have about the topic or text we are discussing? What ideas or passages in particular do you find challenging, intriguing, or frustrating? Why?
  • What new ideas does this text or topic offer? How do they relate to the debates or ideas established in a previous reading or class discussion?
  • What are three challenges you could imagine to the argument or approach we’ve been discussing?

If you want even more students to join the discussion, follow this writing with two minutes for students to discuss their ideas with someone sitting near them

Writing activities that support an assignment

Writing about the assignment
Hand out the assignment for an upcoming paper during class time and have students write (1) what they understand, and (2) questions. Give them time to ask questions in class. In the ensuing discussion, tell students about some successful and unsuccessful approaches from previous semesters.

Partner or group work
Setting aside a few minutes in class for students to talk with each other about their writing can be beneficial. By allowing students to discuss aspects of their peers’ writing, they in turn internalize how to recognize particular writing issues and methods for addressing them. For example, an instructor could spend a few minutes discussing what makes a strong argument, and then ask students to share and give feedback on each other’s statements of argument for an upcoming essay. Asking students to compose together—perhaps a sample introduction or a body paragraph—can also help students to discuss and internalize the concrete strategies of good writing.

Writing Guides
Most professors can name four or five qualities that distinguish good undergraduate papers. If you write these down, students can think about the skills involved even before they start writing: when they’re reading for your course, during lecture and discussion, when thinking about their topics, etc. This handout can greatly enhance the discussion of writing in your course. See Writing Guides for examples of this kind of handout.


Using models and examples of student writing

Highlighting writing and thinking skills during lecture or discussion
During lecture or discussion, most professors model some of the skills needed to write good papers: framing questions, analyzing data, considering alternate views, etc. These moments of modeling can be made more effective if you call attention to them, especially if you echo the language of your Writing Guide. E.g., “Note that I’ve borrowed one of Rubin’s terms, but redefined it. This is the kind of ‘pushing back against sources’ I want you to practice in your papers.”

Using sample student papers
Just handing out a good example from a previous semester will help some students produce better papers. You can enhance the effect by taking one minute to explain what you like about the sample. If students read the paper for homework, and you explain what you like the next day, they will be in the best position to understand your emphasis. Papers from your previous courses work very well for this purpose, but the Yale Writing Center website also includes a trove of Model Student Essays from a variety of disciplines, all available for use in Yale courses.

Selecting excerpts to highlight techniques
A variation on using an entire sample paper is to discuss one or more brief excerpts that illustrate a technique you want students to employ. Reading excerpts takes less time, and using two introductions reduces the chance you’ll promote a single, rigid model of a good paper. You should also identify moments in the main course readings where authors demonstrate good techniques, although this approach will be more relevant with secondary sources than with primary documents.

Discussing a set of papers
When you return a set of papers, take a few minutes to talk about the general strengths and weaknesses of the batch. This discussion can help students better understand the feedback on their own papers.

Grammar presentations by students
Students learn to identify and correct grammar mistakes most quickly when they work with writing generated for the course. One way to address grammar problems is to assign one student per class session to make a grammar presentation on a common grammar issue: sentence-fragments, possessives, semicolon use, etc. Presentations could be time limited (ex. 3 minutes) and the presenter would be required to provide the class with a handout that shows how to identify and correct the problem using examples from their own writing for the course. This kind of brief presentation both provides students opportunities to master common grammar problems and a resource that they can use for their future writing.