Making Writing Assignments Worth Your Time: The Interactive Writing Process

The editors of The Jigsaw are pleased to publish this guest post by Kimberly Hieb, Assistant Professor of Music at West Texas A&M University and Secretary/Treasurer of the AMS Pedagogy Study Group.

We all know student writing is one of the most authentic forms of preparation for the “real world,” but as funding dwindles and class sizes increase, students write less and less. In addition to improving writing skills, research shows that writing assignments increase student engagement with course material and lead to improved educational outcomes in both specialized and general courses.[1] Students need to write despite limited time and resources, and therefore, every writing assignment must be productive.

Research completed as part of the National Survey of Student Engagement indicates three integral aspects of writing activities that lead to stronger educational outcomes: 1. the substantive quality of the assignment (i.e. the task the students are to complete in writing), 2. clear instructions and expectations, and 3. an interactive writing process.[2] I will leave the first two facets as a subject for another post and focus here on efficiently facilitating an interactive writing process without spending all of your (non-existent) spare time grading.

To make each and every assignment fruitful for your students, assign only the amount of writing you have time to comment on during the writing process. Students need the opportunity to take your initial assessment into account and edit their work. When planning the semester, assemble a calendar that includes both the project deadlines and dates for returning drafts for assignments in all of your courses to arrange a manageable workload throughout the term. As a service to your students and to avoid excuses that are certain to come later, consult with your colleagues to avoid, if possible, concurrent due dates for big projects, exams, or concerts.

As the semester progresses, be flexible with future deadlines based on the timing of your feedback and your students’ progress. Make sure students have the necessary time to take your comments into consideration, even if that means eliminating future writing projects to create space for the interactive writing process that will ultimately provide more value than assigning more work.

To offer productive feedback:

Make it timely. Aim for a swift revision cycle. Students should be getting feedback 7-10 days after submitting the work.

Comment in moderation. Productive feedback is given in moderate amounts. Don’t buy into the myth that conscientious teaching involves fixing every little mistake or re-working every unclear sentence. Students get lost in excessive feedback that is difficult for them to decipher.

Avoid copyediting. Instead, craft a shorthand to point out common mistakes to encourage students to fix their own issues and improve their writing in the long term. Skip commenting on mechanical and grammatical errors entirely and instead send students to your institution’s writing center for support. Limit your copyediting to problematic trends. Only comment once per problem and instruct the student to seek out other examples of the same problem and make the necessary corrections.

Be specific. Helpful comments address particular issues. Students learn more from a few detailed observations than a multitude of vague suggestions.

Providing feedback is time consuming. However, if you are short on time, it is still possible facilitate an interactive writing process. Consider the following:

Comment on outlines instead of entire drafts. With less text to read and correct you can provide timely feedback on the structure of an argument or the order of ideas. Requesting a point-based outline with complete sentences provides the opportunity to comment on writing basics as well.

Implement a peer review process. A blind peer review process can be conducted either in class with anonymous paper copies or facilitated via an online platform. Provide a guide for offering constructive feedback to direct the exercise. While you will still need to glance through the feedback given from student to student, this method is much quicker than reading and providing the feedback yourself. Moreover, this activity provides an opportunity for students to practice their own proof-reading and editing skills and can encourage in-class discussion regarding the writing process.

Rely on rubrics. Rubrics are time consuming initially but pay dividends later. An analytic rubric deals with issues such as a clear thesis statement, organization of paragraphs, presence and quality of topic sentences, grammar and usage, and word choices. A holistic rubric provides feedback on elements of the entire project. To localize your feedback use symbols to point to particular issues in the document. To save time later develop the rubric while writing the assignment and crafting the learning objectives.

Collaborate with colleagues across campus. While an institution’s writing center is a great place for students to get help with their writing, other departments across campus can provide excellent resources. Pairing members of your class with fellow students in the English or education department can create a powerful cross-campus collaboration, helping your students develop their writing skills while encouraging the other students to advance their teaching and proof-reading skills.

Rather than creating an unnecessary burden, an interactive writing process, if done thoughtfully, actually eases your workload. Investing time and energy in drafts throughout the semester expedites the grading of the final products. More importantly, an interactive writing process will make essay assignments more constructive for your students. While one might avoid assigning writing projects because of the time-intensive task of marking up manuscripts, it is that very activity – the feedback process – that creates vital and valuable learning experiences.

[1] Paul Anderson and Robert M. Gonyea. “Gauging Writing and Engagement Levels to Improve General Education Outcomes.” Research Presented at the AAC&U General Education Conference, February 2009.

[2] Paul Anderson and Robert Gonyea, et al. “The Contributions of Writing to Learning and Development: Results from a Large-Scale Multi-Institutional Study,” Research in the Teaching of English 51, no. 2 (2015): 199–239.