Working Online with Student Writers
Many best face-to-face practices for assigning writing and working with student writers also apply to online settings. Some key practices don't. We'll populate this page with advice and resources geared to faculty who teach in content areas across campus.
Consider making a few shorter assignments rather than a single long one.
Make your assignments more focused than you might in f2f settings. (Specify purpose, reader expectations, source materials, conventions, etc. Can you give the assignment as a single, specific question?)
Provide an annotated model or two of the target writing students are to produce.
Students will probably do more writing in online courses than in face to face, simply as a matter of circumstance. Students will need to transact through writing many of the questions or ideas they might do orally in f2f settings.
1. Many professors find it beneficial to engage students by having them write brief discussion posts:
An answer to a focused question, a reading summary, an application of a reading/theory to a particular situation, or so on. This kind of writing, done many times throughout the course, has the powerful effect of helping students learn course material by active engagement. In fact, the practice long ago acquired the name Writing-to-Learn. If the practice helps students acquire some better skills, that's a great side benefit, but it's incidental. The main purpose of these assignments is to facilitate thinking and learning.
In Canvas, you can either assign these short exercises as private assignments, visible only to you as the professor, or you can assign them as discussions, visible to the entire class. That latter has some advantages of allowing you to point out particularly good examples, raising the bar for other students. Either way, you can develop rubrics or response templates to reply quickly.
2. For more formal assignments, consider making a few shorter assignments rather than a single long one.
Although the term paper is a venerable tradition, students online will likely benefit more from three 1000-word assignments, carefully made and deployed, than they will from a single 5000-word. More short writings get them feedback throughout the course rather than only once, at the end. Repetition helps them not only learn your standards and polish their writing from project to project but also keeps them engaged.
3. Make your assignments focused rather than open,
certainly more focused than you might in f2f settings. As tempting as it is to ask students to "write a paper on a topic significant to this course," that's a recipe both for trouble—and for lots of your time. If you keep things open, you should expect—practically and ethically—needing to do lots of explaining, intervening, and coaching. You'll find yourself approving topics, suggesting foci, suggesting readings, and so on. If you have the desire and ability to invest that kind of time, you certainly may choose that approach. Alternatively, you might frame assignments much more directly, as can be seen in this example.
Open (and challenging, both to students and professors): "Write a paper on governmental actions needed in our present economic situation."
Focused (desirable because of amount of scaffolding built in):
"Consider two possible responses to mitigating the current economic effects of the coronavirus. One, advocated by Engleson, is to cut payroll taxes in half immediately. Another, advocated by Stacks, is to provide direct payments of $1000. Based on the principles we've been studying, write an op ed of 750 words or so, for the Denver Post in which you argue thoughtfully that one of these actions will be more successful than the other."
Note that the second assignment frames the question precisely, identifies the source materials students are to use, and specifies a genre (op ed), audience (Denver Post readers), and purpose (argue for one action). Even at this, students face a complex (and, one hopes, interesting) challenge.
4. Provide examples.
If you ask students to do a certain kind of writing, try to give them one or two examples of what that writing looks like. Good work by former students can be effective for this purpose, taking care to obscure identifying information and asking the student's permission to share. Published models can work well, too, although the moves that professionals make in their writing can be daunting to students.
If the assignment is short enough, investing the time to write an example yourself up front can pay off in less time grading on the back end. If you can go a step further and annotate feature of the model (perhaps by inserting a few comments via Track Changes in Word), you'll help students better understand the nature of the task. Sometimes professors worry that students will slavishly follow models. Two replies: Most writing tasks are sufficiently challenging that good models at best provide guidance; they don't do the writing for students. And following a model has considerable pedagogical benefit.
Facilitating Idea Generating and Organization
- Offer some questions to generate thinking.
- Have students produce brainstorming, perhaps in online group spaces. Share some of your own brainstorming.
- Provide an annotated model or two.
How can you help online students generate content for an assignment you've given? A well-defined task will provide some help in and of itself. Still there some additional strategies you share with students.
1. First, some brief background
In the 1960's, more writing teachers and scholars "rediscovered" classical rhetoric, various strategies for helping people to craft effective texts to meet specific situations. One aspect of that rediscovery (of course, Aristotle, Cicero, Quintillian, and many others were never really lost) was the notion of a systematic process for creating a text, from initial ideas to a finished delivered product. These ideas contributed to an emphasis on helping students approach writing as a process. For the most part, college writing instruction had been a fairly product-oriented thing: "Here's a model; make one like it." Attending to the process of writing means helping students at various stages of producing a text. It acknowledges, for example, that knowing how the final product is supposed to look isn't much help if the writer has nothing to say. It acknowledges that a well-proofread paper is flawed if the content is wrongheaded.
- Invention is the process of generating ideas, coming up with something to say.
- Drafting is the process of fleshing out content into a purposeful order.
- Revision is the process of assessing how well a draft addresses the task at hand, the audience, topic, and purpose, then making changes (adding, subtracting, substituting, or rearranging) to better achieve the task.
- Design, Editing, and Proofreading are the processes of fitting the text to expected conventions (format, citation style, etc); style, voice, and clarity; and correctness.
Of course, these four processes are recursive and intertwined, and of course knowledge of the target text is useful.
One last preamble. What counts as good writing varies widely across the university, and with disciplines offering different inventional challenges. (Students are taught to write in different research traditions in WRIT 1133.) Students doing the highly conventionalized IMRAD reports of the sciences and many social sciences (Intro, Methods, Results, Analysis, Discussion) face challenges at specific junctures. Especially difficult are the review of literature; knowing how much description to provide in Methods; and generating discussion that is more than summarizing findings. Students in the humanities face fairly different challenges.
2. Provide some questions to generate thinking.
Many professors are used to including questions in their assignments to prod students along. Questions are valuable, but they can have the unintended effect of leading to drafts that are simply a series of answers to questions. (Of course, if that's fine with you, then just assign question answers rather than insisting on a formal essay.) Take care to make clear which questions are essential (students must address them) and which are merely heuristic (choose the questions that seem most helpful to you—or ignore them altogether). Here are some types of questions:
- How would you describe X (a reading, an event, a phenomenon, an observation, a problem) to someone who has never encountered it?
- What are the causes of X?
- In what circumstances did X arise?
- What are the consequences of X?
- Who is most interested/invested in X? Who is least?
- Who benefits most from X? Who least?
- What is the evidence for believing A about X? For believing B?
- Who agrees with X? Who disagrees? Why?
- What alternatives to X exist?
- What theories best explain X?
- How would someone with this perspective interpret X? How would someone with that perspective?
- How would a critic look at X?
- What assumptions underlie X? Are these the only ones possible?
There are endless possible questions, of course, just as there are many schemes for analysis.
3. Have students brainstorm.
Brainstorming—simply generating lists of ideas, some of which may be good and others worthless—is a venerable strategy. You can ask students to generate a list of at least X ideas or questions related to the task, then return to identify the Y best ideas from that list. You can do this as a class activity in Canvas, synchronously or asynchronously, by opening a discussion thread and setting things so that students have to post their list of ideas before they see anyone else's. As a second round, students identify at least Y ideas that strike them as most promising, then write about why. The collective ideas can then be fair game for the whole class. You might worry that strong students will carry the weak. Perhaps to a small extent, but the effort needed to move even from good ideas to a compelling draft is still considerable. It's learning, not a competition.
4. Model your own brainstorming or share your own drafting.
Consider shooting a 5-10 minute video, including a screen capture, in which you brainstorm some ideas for a task similar to the one you're having them do. Let them see (albeit imperfectly) your own fits and starts in generating ideas. Let them see how you explore questions, produce false leads, raise possibilities, note further reading or research you might need to do, and so on. Alternatively, show students notes or an early version of an article that you produced.
5. Provide models of target texts: examples good finished work
Even better, annotate those examples so students can see the moves the writer made in producing it. Don't assume that students will be able to see the same things you do; what is ingrained and obvious to you may be new and invisible to students.
Peer Review and Encouraging Revision
- Guide students in reading and responding to their classmates' works in progress, using online spaces.
- Make peer review more about describing and helping than about evaluating or judging.
- Provide strategic quick comments on drafts.
- Have students write process memos to you.
Online Writing Resources for Students
The Purdue Online Writing Lab (The Purdue OWL) has a complete writing handbook online. It has tips on grammar and style, writing conventions, and documentation, including MLA, APA, Chicago Manual of Style.
Commenting and Grading
- Use minimal marking/response strategies.
- Build smart and useful rubrics.
- Share good student writing examples.
- Use student process memos to open a quick dialogue.
In an online teaching environment, writing will take on more importance. As a teacher, you will be reading more, and students will be writing more. The most important thing is to not feel like you have to comment on everything. Here are a few strategies for commenting and grading.
Use minimal marking/response strategies
Minimal marking replaces marking “errors” in written work with editing marks or extensive commenting with check marks or, in an online environment, you might use a highlighter feature in the word processor. Students then have to figure out the mistake, and Haswell’s original study found students were able to do so most of the time. Trait response. Respond only to 1-2 traits that are most important to a paper. For example, you might focus on conceptual traits (e.g., whether students can articulate a course concept covered that particular day) or technical skills (e.g., source integration).
Build smart and useful rubrics
Rubrics communicate a wider selection of traits for a written assignment, and often, ascribes point values to those traits so students can see how things are valued. However, you should communicate what a trait is within the rubric as educational-speak and jargon will often not help a student. For example, avoid phrases like “critical thinking” or “depth of analysis.” Instead, describe the actual trait that the writer can accomplish (e.g., has writer described two reasons why X happens; has writer provided 2 bits of evidence or sources). We would encourage you to develop rubrics for online discussions as well.
Share good student writing examples
If a student writer does something particularly well, share it with the class. You should always ask permission, and also ask whether they want their identity associated with the writing (it’s best to err on the side of always anonymizing). You don’t have the share a whole paper. It can be a passage or even specific sentence.
Use student process memos to open a quick dialogue
A process memo is a short email or message that updates where the student is in a writing or research project. These time-on-task activities hold the students accountable for working (rather than procrastinating) on a project, but you can use them in the aggregate to gauge what students might be struggling with, so that you can provide them with more instruction or resources. Responding to student writing can be done in a few ways.
Use of Speed Grader in Canvas
Students upload papers in response to defined Assignments in Canvas. You can then respond to those papers in one place. Speed Grader is helpful because you cannot do marginal comments—it is designed for end comments only, and it forces you to focus on larger order concerns such as strength or originality of ideas, evidence/support, and audience. Here is a short video from YaleCourses.
You can respond to student writing with video comments
There are a few ways to do this.
- If you have a large class, you can create a short video that responds to common patterns that you noted in a set of papers. For example, you might ask students to respond to a short, informal writing prompt. Rather than commenting on each one, or even adding check marks, you can create a short response video and publish it for all the students
- For more substantive assignments or smaller classes, you can respond via video to each one. For example, you might write marginal comments, but then a short video response that goes over the more important ones.
How do I use video tools to respond to students?
Zoom allows you to do this most easily. However, to do this, you will need to download Zoom to your computer. You will still log on with your DU credentials, but the software is on your computer, and it is more powerful than the cloud Zoom or the link to Zoom in Canvas. (Watch this short video on how to comment on student work with Zoom). While I use save to computer in this video, we would encourage using save to cloud and sharing the link to that cloud save with the student. You can also use Kaltura within Canvas to do this.
Using Zoom, Kaltura, or Microsoft Teams, you can do an online conference with students for 10 minutes about a writing assignment, allowing them to ask questions. You might ask them to come to the session with 2-3 specific concerns they have about their paper. Instruct them that “does it make sense” is not a specific concern, but “does this evidence work in my second paragraph” is a specific concern. You can also hold small group conferences with these same guidelines.
Self-evaluating or peer-evaluating
While this works best with a pre-determined rubric, you can allow students to self-evaluate or create peer-evaluation groups. In a self-evaluation, students complete a writing assignment by writing a 200-word evaluation of whether they achieved the goals of the assignment or met the rubric. Their grade on the paper can be split between your evaluation and theirs. Peer evaluations can also be helpful. Students are often more critical of each other than their teachers are, if you are concerned about rigor. In both self-evaluation and peer-evaluation models, you can portion the amount of the final grade that is determined by you, the student, and the peers.
Open Access General Resources for Online Writing
A trove of resources exist about writing in online environments. We'll curate the best of them here.
- Personal, Accessible, Responsive, Strategic: Resources and Strategies for Online Writing Instructors By Jessie Borgman and Casey McArdle
- Foundational Practices of Online Writing Instruction Edited by Beth L. Hewett and Kevin Eric DePew
- Bedford Bibliography of Research in Online Writing Instruction (2nd ed) Use student process memos to open a quick dialogue
Professors in most disciplines have faced increased challenges in the past two years when students have difficulty sorting out reliable facts and evidence from claims that are unsubstantiated or even opportunistic lies. Bruce McComiskey's smart little booklet Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition outlines issues for those of us who teach writing. Doug Hesse has put together a quick handout for students, suitable for linking in a syllabus: