Using Writing to Promote Engagement and Participation
Many professors express concern at the lack of student engagement and participation in classroom discussions. Some students find it difficult to maintain concentration during a lecture. Some are content to sit back and let others participate in class discussion. Using low-stakes writing during the class session is one way to ensure that everyone in the classroom is active and involved. Pausing in the midst of a discussion or lecture to have students write allows students to gather their thoughts, identify areas of confusion, and assess reactions to the material being covered. Below are a few specific strategies that faculty have used to create active, participatory classrooms.
- Writing to start class
- In-class writing
- Using Blackboard’s Discussion Board feature
- Gallery walk
- Writing and small group work
- Writing at the end of class
- Suggestions for further reading
Whether or not students complete a homework assignment alongside their reading for the class, it makes sense to give each student a chance to refresh his or her memory at the beginning of a class. You might ask students to simply look over what they read for the day and write a few questions or comments in response. If students have completed a writing assignment for the class, you could ask them to exchange that writing with a peer and write a response to that student. Some professors begin class by putting a writing prompt on the board and asking students to write for the first 5-10 minutes. Others allow students more leeway, leaving the initial free-writing task openended. When they become part of the regular rhythm of the class, these approaches encourage students to take an active part in the day’s activities and focus on the work at hand.
Informal writing during class can help break up the class session and encourage students to remain mentally engaged. Consider having students write briefly in response to a new idea or to “use” that new information it in some way. For instance, after covering a particularly challenging concept, you could ask students to write a paragraph explaining the idea in their own words or making a connection between the introduced concept and a personal experience. Rather than assume that students are paying attention and understand the material being covered during class lecture and discussion, require them to demonstrate their knowledge by writing a few sentences in response to a prompt.
One of the wonderful things about Blackboard is that it allows you to bring online discussions into the classroom. Classroom discussions can feed into structured online conversations using the Discussion Board feature of Blackboard. This discussion, in turn, can be brought back into the classroom. For instance, you might make copies of a particularly interesting post or exchange and ask students to write in response to it during class. There are many resources available if you need help getting started using Blackboard.
- Getting Started Guide for Blackboard [PDF]
- Sample Blackboard Discussion Board assignment [PDF]
- Sample Midterm Exam incorporating Blackboard discussion [PDF]
One way to get students out of their chairs is to plan a “gallery walk.” In a gallery walk, students move from one station to the next at regular periods of time. At each station is a large poster-sized piece of paper with a question or prompt. Isolated textual passages or visual materials like political cartoons, art, or graphs can also be pasted onto the posters. Each student, or group of students, has an opportunity to write in response to the question or displayed material and to comment on what other students have written. After visiting each station, students are asked to analyze the various responses and compose a brief summary, which is then discussed in class.
Putting students into smaller groups can also help to promote student engagement. Many students who will not contribute to a classroom discussion will take an active role in small-group discussion. Make sure that each group has a specific task and that each student has a role. For instance, you might ask students to do some writing individually, bring that writing to the group, and then work together to summarize the different ideas expressed and then briefly present them to the class.
A good way to end class is to have students do some writing in the last five minutes. Sometimes called “exit slips,” this writing might consist of responses to questions you pose in the last few minutes of class, or questions that students write in response to the material covered during the class period. In either case, writing at the end of class helps students take stock of the day and, if collected, gives professors a good idea of what students are taking away from the course on a day-to-day basis.
Arthur N. Applebee, “Chapter 8: Toward a Pedagogy of Knowledge-in-Action,” Curriculum as Conversation
John Bean, “Chapter 7: Designing Tasks for Active Thinking and Learning,” “Chapter 9: Coaching Thinking through the Use of Small Groups,” and “Chapter 10: Alternative Approaches to Active Learning in the Classroom,” Engaging Ideas