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:

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.


A strategy to combat common writing errors ("gateway criteria")

If your students’ papers are filled with spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors, and you don’t wish to spend all of your marking time correcting these basic problems (particularly if you are not teaching English, and you have other content you wish to emphasize in your marking), here’s a strategy from Barbara Walvoord and Virginia Anderson’s Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment. They suggest setting “gateway criteria” for your class, clearly laid out standards that students must meet on each assignment before the paper is even graded. If they are not met, the student is given an F, and asked to revise and resubmit to be graded.

These criteria should be adjusted to the level of the students and made absolutely clear to them beforehand. Walvoord suggests that students can submit drafts a day or more before papers are due, to see if they meet the gateway criteria.  -DG


Source: Weimer, Maryellen, “A Strategy for Grading Student Writing Assignments.” Faculty Focus. Magna. 31 January 2012. Web. 24 July 2013. Bas ed on research by Walvoord, B.E. and Anderson, V.J. Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.


Term-long informal writing exercises

Devote the first ten minutes of each class to an informal writing assignment: give the students a prompt and have them write an answer in a specially devoted notebook. You can collect these student writing journals several times throughout the semester to check on your students’ progress and perhaps give them a grade. Some portion of the final class of the semester is devoted to an exercise that asks students to reflect on their writing throughout the term. You have them respond to four prompts:

            1) Go through and choose their strongest response of the term and briefly explain why it is the strongest;

            2) Choose the response that was the hardest to do and briefly explain why;

            3) Choose the response that “does the best job of stating their values and beliefs, and then … discuss how those values and beliefs have affected their ability to understand course content”; and

            4) Compare answers written during the first few weeks of the term with those written near the end of the course and describe the changes they see.  -DG

Source: Weimer, Maryellen. “Informal Writing Assignments: Promoting Learning Through Writing.” Faculty Focus. Magna. 6 November 2012. Web. 22 July 2013. Based on research by Hudd, S.S., Smart, R.A., and Delohery, A.W. “My understanding has grown, my perspective has switched: Linking informal writing to learning goals.” Teaching Sociology, 39.2 (2011), 179-189.


Collect essay drafts without doubling your marking

Many teachers teach the revision process by having their students turn in each paper twice: first a draft, which is marked up and handed back, and then a revised version. John Sturtridge suggests a strategy that encourages students to take their first drafts seriously while potentially reducing the workload for the teacher. Require students to turn in rough drafts, but offer any student who receives an A grade on the first draft the option of taking that grade without having to revise and resubmit. Sturtridge reports that his students put more of an effort into their drafts, and he does not need to grade two papers for every student.  -DG


Source: Sturtridge, John. “Too Many Papers to Grade? Two Solutions.” Faculty Focus. Magna. 12 July 2013. Web. 21 July 2013.


Have students respond to marked papers

When you return papers to students, have them 1) correct any grammatical or syntactical problems you have pointed out, either on the paper itself, or on a separate sheet, and 2) respond to any marginal comments you’ve made. Perhaps offer bonus points for thorough responses. This ensures that students actually read your comments, and that they might actually learn from them. -DG

Source: Tollefson, Stephen K. Encouraging Student Writing: A Guide for Instructors. Berkeley: Office of Educational Development, University of California, Berkley, 2002. 9.