The Quickwrite: A Weekly Student Reflection Exercise

Adam Sanford, Undergrad Made Easier

The quickwrite is a weekly exercise, designed to encourage students to reflect on the week's lessons and rewrite their notes while doing so. It also allows them a method of asking questions about the course concepts without having to go through the embarrassing ritual of asking in class. This method also allows the instructor to keep a finger on the pulse of the class about important concepts; if a third of the class mentions a concept as a muddy point, it allows the instructor to follow up immediately, rather than finding out on the examination.

The quickwrite consists of five questions:

1. What terms were the most important concepts of this week's lessons? Be sure to define any important terms in your own words. (2 paragraphs per lesson, 6 points to make sure they write enough content)

2. What was your muddiest point (that is, what did not make sense)? (1 paragraph for the entire week, 1 point)

3. What would you like to know more about from this lesson, and why? (1 paragraph for the entire week, 1 point)

4. How does this lesson relate to something you have already learned outside of this class? (1 paragraph for the entire week, 1 point)

5. Why do you think you were required to learn this content? (1 paragraph for the entire week, 1 point)

Put in caveats that point 2 must be about the course content (not its operations, such as how the grading system works), that point 3 cannot be answered "nothing," that point 4 cannot be answered "it doesn't," and that point 5 cannot be answered with anything relating to grades, degrees, or other achievements that do not directly relate to the course content. 

Make it clear that these disallowed questions will be an automatic fail on the assignment, so that they will take points 2, 3, 4 and 5 seriously enough to answer them. 

They may also answer point 2 with "I had no muddy points." 

Point 3 can often be the seed of a student's paper topic. 

If they do not answer the "why" question in point 3 or the "how" question in point 4, fail the question and explain why. 

This exercise makes students review their lessons in point 1, ask questions about it in a safe and private environment in point 2, explore territory not covered in class in point 3, connect their learning to outside knowledge in point 4, and do some critical analysis of the curriculum in point 5. I have had students tell me they have adapted it for use in other classes for studying and working on finding paper topics.


Ask students to write about objects

John G. Maguire, Middlesex Community College

Many student papers are unreadable because they are way, way too abstract. When assigned to write about some idea, students can’t think of examples easily so they just keep repeating the idea word they’ve been given to write about. They’re caught in the sphere of ethereal ideas, they cannot get out, and they write painful-to-read mush.

Therefore, I begin a writing course with physical objects. The opposite of an abstraction is an object—right? If you want students to avoid over-abstraction, why not train them from the outset to write concretely?

So I demand physical things, from the first day of class: “Write with concrete nouns!"

“What is a concrete noun?" a student will ask.

"It's something you can drop on your foot," I always answer. "It's that simple."

"So if I am writing about markets, productivity and wealth, I am going to...."

"Yes indeed – no matter what you are writing about in this course, you are going to put in things you can drop on your foot, and people, too. Green peppers, ears of corn, windshield wipers, or a grimy mechanic changing your car's oil.”

The lovely thing about writing with things you can drop on your foot is that everyone loves it, the good writers and the bad. Everyone finds it interesting. Writing about abstract ideas in terms of concrete objects is strange at first, but it is doable. And as you can guess, the papers that result are far more concrete and vivid and enjoyable to read. I stick with the drop-on-your-foot theme for a whole semester and it produces great writers.

The pedagogy derives from the insights about concreteness and abstraction found in S.I. Hayakawa's 1949 book, Language in Thought and Action.

More details are given at

Another account of this pedagogy is at:

Make your course documents visually engaging

Joe Hedges, Northern Kentucky University and Miami University Hamilton

I teach beginning art and design students who are inundated with black and white rubrics, assignment information sheets, syllabi, etc. Most of these documents look like they were prepared for a fax machine, rather than pdfs for distribution online. Take a little time and redesign your course materials to be more interesting with dynamic layouts, images, and COLOR. Not visually minded? Consider finding a graphic design student and offering them their first paying job.

Creating my syllabus in the style of a contemporary magazine or reference book rather than in the style of a legal document sets a positive mood for the course. Good design engenders interaction and interest in students, while showing that I care enough about the course material to invest the time to present the content in a way that is enjoyable to read. Books are judged by their covers, and syllabi indicate expectations for a course; an aesthetically pleasing, professional-looking syllabus indicates that the course itself will be interesting and professional. Particularly with art and design students, who are continually working with the elements and principles of design, creating a visually engaging syllabus is good modeling, engendering confidence in me as a visual thinker. Additionally, designing a syllabus rather than simply writing one forces me to more carefully consider the hierarchy of information I wish to present; certain text may benefit from larger or smaller fonts, in a side column, et cetera. Delivering content in this way ensures that the students know what is most important to remember in order to have a successful course, and ensures that all the information in the syllabus can be found quickly and easily. The first day of class, students sometimes remark that the syllabus looks nice. I tell them that I have tried to make a document that I myself would enjoy reading, in the hopes that they will too!

Engage students with project-based pedagogy

Angela Velez-Solic, Indiana University Northwest

An active learning strategy I employ and encourage of the faculty members I train is project-based courses. This can work for any teaching modality- traditional, hybrid, or online. Think about a big project idea that gets the students involve in DOING or CREATING something that is realistic, something that will benefit them in the long run, something that makes them a particular 'expert' on an area of content. Here are a few that I've designed:

1. 100-level reading, writing, study skills course: The big project is a plan to change something in their community that they want to see change-- a law, helping a specific group, advocating for animals, opening a soup kitchen, whatever they want. Each assignment has them investigating change, how people do it who are 'ordinary' but who do extraordinary things. One assignment has them looking inward and evaluating their own strengths and weaknesses for making a difference. In the end they have a plan that they may or may not see played out.

2. Professional/Business Writing. The project involves them opening a business branch overseas. They make up their business, its product or process, choose a country, a city, inform their employees of the branch overseas, write a letter to the media to quell rumors, design a brochure to lure volunteers, research the country and its communication preferences, dress code, business practices, food, entertainment, etc. and they create a handbook for employees. It culminates in a final presentation for employees and stakeholders.

3. British Literature. Students choose an author and they become an expert on him or her. Each assignment involves them investigating the author's personal life, climate of Britain and historical 'goings on' at the time period, the various works that person wrote and summary of them, and other projects. It culminates in a presentation of what they've learned about the author.

Students love how these are very real for them (well, British Lit, maybe not so much, but the other two definitely). They're learning how to write, how to communicate, and how to research, but are having fun and learning essential skills while doing it. The learning is memorable and sometimes life changing.

Interview important people in your field, even if they are dead

 One way to supplement course readings and lectures is to have students reach out to significant people in the field that the course covers. Science students can get in touch with working scientists, (or with officials who set policy for public research), political science students can contact politicians, art students can reach out to artists, etc. You can introduce your students to a prominent figure, and have them come up with questions for that person. The project can be a great way to demonstrate that the course’s subject is a living one, as well as bringing in contrasting perspectives to complement your own.

But what do you do if your subject is ancient history, or the literature of the nineteenth century? Well, you could contact another historian, or a literary scholar. But another possibility is contacting the very people that you are studying. Have students research a historical figure, say, or one of the authors on your syllabus, and prepare a slate of questions for him or her. You may want to play the role of the interview subject yourself—doing your best to answer the students’ questions—or you could assign one or more students to play the part. This project could easily be expanded to a more complex assignment, with students taking a number of weeks to research and write an essay, answering the peer-generated questions in the voice of the designated figure. Encouraging your students to take this fictional interview seriously will help them see your subject from a new angle.  -DG

Source: "84. Contact the Players." and "85. Travel Through Time and Space." Robert Magnan, ed. 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Professors. Madison: Atwood, 1990. 35-36. 

Gauge student expectations with first day questions

Sarah Neville, West Virginia University 

On the first day of class, ask students to submit (in writing) answers to the following questions:

1) What grade do you anticipate receiving in this course?

2) What will you do if you discover that you are receiving a lower grade than the one you anticipated?

3) Why do you feel these strategies will work? 

Students' responses to question 2 typically vary from the reasonable ("go to the professor's office hours and ask for feedback", "visit the writing center", "complete extra-credit assignments, if there are any") to the deliberately silly ("beg, or possibly cry"). Other students use this as an opportunity to recognize that they may need to cut back on hours at their job if their schoolwork suffers, or that a failure to meet personal expectations might be signalling that they should get more sleep. 

The point of the exercise is to force students to consider their goals for the course at the outset, along with their new plan-of-attack should things not work out as they intended. I hang onto these writing assignments and bring them out when students visit my office hours; students get them back at the end of the term so they can consider how/whether they met their stated aim.

Teach your students how to plagiarize

It can be difficult for students to understand that plagiarism can come in forms other than deliberately copying someone else’s work. Jack Dougherty suggests a clever technique for introducing students to the various forms of plagiarism: give them an assignment where they must plagiarize.

Give your students a paragraph or two from a published text, along with the passage’s citation details. For each of the following instructions, the students must write 1-2 sentences.

“1: Plagiarize the original text by copying portions of it word-for-word.

2: Plagiarize the original text by paraphrasing its structure too closely, without copying it word-for-word.

3: Plagiarize the original text by paraphrasing its structure too closely, and include a citation. Even though you cited it, paraphrasing too closely is still plagiarism.

4: Properly paraphrase from the original text by restating the author’s ideas in different words and phrases, and include a citation to the original source.

5: Properly paraphrase from the original text by restating the author’s ideas in different words and phrases, add a direct quote, and include a citation to the original source.”  -DG


Source: Jack Dougherty. “Avoiding Plagiarism Exercise.” Educ 300: Education Reform, Past and Present. Trinity College. 18 February 2013. Web. 20 August 2013.

After the assignment, a meta-assignment

James Clements, American University of Dubai 

When teaching Creative Non-Fiction, one of the challenges is helping students understand the difficulties of "telling the truth" in narrative prose. As the "truth" behind another author's writing is not accessible to the reader, it can be difficult for a student to really understand the craft involved in shaping a personal experience into a work of non-fiction. To help with this, I often give a two-part assignment: First, I ask the students to write a piece of creative non-fiction themselves, usually on a general but significant topic, such as "The Day That Changed My Life Forever." Once I've collected this assignment, I tell them that the piece will not be marked, as the second part is the "real" assignment. In this second part, I ask them to write an essay in which they should reflect on the decisions they made while writing the first part. I include the following list of questions they might consider:

• Why did you choose to tell the story in this way? Could you have told it in a different way?

• Did you know the “meaning” of the story before you started writing, or did it only become clear during the process? 

• Did you change, exaggerate, or remove anything to make it fit your narrative? If so, why? And what are the larger consequences of these changes?

• If other people appear in your narrative, how do you think they would feel about the way they’ve been depicted? How do you feel about their depiction? In what ways are they distorted or under-represented, and what was the reason for this?

• Do you feel that the narrative truthfully communicates your experience? If so, what is it about the form that communicates the essence of the experience? If not, what feels false about the narrative?

• Do you feel you were honest in writing your narrative? If not, why do you think this is?

• How did it feel to write the story down? Did it make you uncomfortable? Did it feel satisfying? Did it help you “make sense” of the event?

• Did you have any issues with your memory? If so, what did you do about the gaps in your memory when writing?

Students usually respond very positively to this assignment, and it gives them a new way to approach the remainder of the readings on the syllabus.


Use Bloom's taxonomy to set assignment objectives

David Royse points his readers to a potentially useful set of guidelines for thinking about what you want to accomplish with your assignments. He quotes from Benjamin Bloom, whose "widely heralded set of educational objectives [...] may provide you with a useful starting place to begin thinking about the assignments you require." 

"Bloom's Cognitive Taxonomy

(Arranged from concrete to abstract and simple to complex levels)

Knowledge  (remembering factual materials): Students must remember, memorize, recognize, describe, and recall. Sample verbs that would be used: define, describe, list, name, cite, recall, state, identify.

Comprehension  (grasping the meaning of materials): Students must interpret, describe, and explain knowledge. Sample verbs that would be used: discuss, explain, interpret, extrapolate, arrange, sort, classify.

Application  (problem solving):   Students must apply facts, rules, and principles to produce some result. Sample verbs that would be used: apply, illustrate, sketch, solve, demonstrate, use.

Analysis  (an understanding of the structure and components of knowledge): Students must be able to break down knowledge and show relationships among the parts. Sample verbs that would be used: analyze, appraise, categorize, contrast, criticize, distinguish, examine, differentiate, compare.

Synthesis  (creating a unique, original product; combining ideas to form a new whole): Students must bring together parts and components of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for new situations. Sample verbs that would be used: compose, create, construct, formulate, propose, plan, design, organize, prescribe.

Evaluation  (making value decisions about issues; resolving controversies): Students must make judgments about the value of materials for given purposes. Sample verbs that would be used: appraise, argue, assess, attack, compare, evaluate, predict, support, defend, recommend."  -DG

Source: David Royse. Teaching Tips for College and University Instructors: A Practical Guide. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2001. 42-43. Benjamin Bloom. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Vol. 1: Cognitive Domain. New York: McKay, 1956.

The Blank Syllabus

I got this strategy from Chris Walsh, of Boston University, who detailed it in his talk at the 2013 MLA Convention. He calls it the "blank syllabus," but it's not really blank at all. What is left blank are some of the assigned readings. In Chris's words, the students fill these blanks "by completing the first writing assignment, which requires them to choose a reading from the course anthology and to write a paper that advocates for making their selection required reading for the class."

I tried this out last spring in an American literature survey course. I wanted to have the students read one prose piece and one poem for each class period. I chose the prose pieces, but left an empty slot for a poem for each class. Each student's first writing assignment (due in the course's third week) was to find a poem in the class's assigned anthology and argue for its inclusion on the syllabus. After receiving these essays, I filled in the syllabus with the chosen poems; each student was tasked with leading the discussion on the day that his or her poem was discussed.

Walsh notes that this strategy can be modified due to the size of the class--I had under twenty students which made it pretty straightforward. With a larger class, Walsh suggests having the students vote for which selections actually make the syllabus.

In all, I found the strategy very successful, as it involved the students in the course's design from the start of the term, got them to actually spend some time with the anthology apart from the assigned readings, and encouraged them to discover what sort(s) of poetry they might actually prefer to read.  -DG


Source: Click here for a pdf of Walsh's more detailed explanation of his idea.