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.


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. 

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.


Paired Reading Responses

With each reading assignment, assign two students to be the designated responders. A day before in-class discussion of the reading, one student must post a brief response to or critique of the reading on the class’s online space. The second student must post a brief response or rebuttal to the first student’s piece. All students are required to read both commentaries before class.  -DG

Source: Filene, Peter. The Joy of Teaching : A Practical Guide for New College Instructors. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2005, 71.

Advance reading handout

With each reading assignment, hand out a sheet to each of your students that includes an Invitation, a set of Reading Questions, and a set of Discussion Questions. The Invitation sets out why you care about the reading and why you believe your students should care. This can be three or four sentences that orient your students ahead of their reading. The two or three Reading Questions should guide your students as they read, help them identify what’s important, and underline what they should understand by the end. The Discussion Questions prompt students to think about the main issues and implications in the reading, and prepare students to come to class ready to talk about them. You can choose to collect these sheets and/or grade them if you wish.  -DG

Source: Filene, Peter. The Joy of Teaching : A Practical Guide for New College Instructors. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2005, 65-70.

Low-stakes pre-writing

At the beginning of class, give students a question about their reading, the material covered in the last class, or a topic that will be relevant to that day’s class, and give them ten minutes to write an answer. This writing can go ungraded, or it can be turned in and count for a tiny percentage of the final grade. The writing gives students time to think, reflect on the material, and get into the right mindset for a discussion in class. It can also give shy students the confidence to speak up in class, because they only have to look down and read from their paper to make a contribution.  -DG

Source: Lang, James M. On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009, 90-92.

End of class conclusions/questions exercise

 Leave 5-10 minutes at the end of each class. Ask students, “What major conclusions have you drawn from today’s class/reading/discussion?” and “What questions remain in your mind?” Have students write down the answers to these questions, then go around the room, asking for some of their answers. Let those answers drive a discussion that helps cement the content of that day’s class, and/or contribute to what you teach in the next class.  -DG

Source: Bain, Ken, What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004, 103.


 To reinforce ideas within a lecture, it’s worth pausing between big concepts and asking students to reflect and interact on what they’ve heard. Here’s a structured way to do that.

   "1. Think—Pose a question either as review (‘What has been the main point so far?’ ‘Why do the Balinese regard death lightheartedly?’) or as a transition” to your next big idea “(‘Given what you’ve heard…?’) Give them sixty seconds to write an answer.

   2. Pair—tell students to confer with a neighbor (for two or maybe five minutes) and compare answers.

   3. Share—Ask one pair to report their answer. Ask whether other pairs have different answers. After a brief discussion, move on…”  -DG

Source: Filene, Peter. The Joy of Teaching : A Practical Guide for New College Instructors. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2005, 54-55.

A strategy to improve a challenging class

Peter Filene has a suggestion for dealing with a course that does not seem to be going well. If discussions falter, responses to the readings are cursory at best, and you do not seem to be getting through to students, Filene suggests involving the students in diagnosing the problems. Distribute index cards to the students and ask them to evaluate the course by responding to questions. These can be very general, as in “What is going well?” and “What do you think could be improved or changed?”. The questions, alternatively, could be more focused on specific issues: “How does the difficulty of the readings compare to your other courses?”, “What holds you back from participating in discussions,” etc.

At the end of the exercise, you can collect the index cards, take them home and think about your students’ answers. Or you can shuffle the cards, return them to the students, and have each student read a card aloud, beginning a class-wide discussion of what’s wrong with the class and how the problems can be fixed.  -DG

Source: Filene, Peter. The Joy of Teaching : A Practical Guide for New College Instructors. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2005, 71-73.