The October 15 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education featured an interesting piece called “An Old-School Notion: Writing Required,” By Dan Berrett. Quoting scholars of writing studies such as Chris Anson, Paul Anderson, and Chris Thaiss, Berrett argues something writing teachers will cheer for: that writing aids “deep” learning. Citing the National Survey of Student Engagement and the related Partnership for the Study of Writing in College, he reports that this research tells us that
clearly explained assignments in which freshmen and seniors had to construct meaning through their writing—summarize something they had read, explain in writing the meaning of numerical or statistical data, argue a position using evidence and reasoning—had a noticeable effect on deep and sustained learning.
YES! In fact, research conducted over the last fifty years has supported this conclusion: the more writing, the more—and better—learning. In addition, research strongly suggests that a number of short writing assignments—with clear response from peers and instructors—are more beneficial than the one-shot, end-of-term assignment that is still ubiquitous at the college level. Every term in our Hume Writing Center, I work with students who come in with a vague assignment to write an essay on some aspect of the course and to turn it in at the end of term. No draft, no peer review, no instructor feedback. Just write an essay (often 20 or 25 pages long) and submit it. Not surprisingly, students have great difficulty with such assignments and routinely file them away without a glance after they are done.
So while there is clearly a strong link between writing and learning, the kind of writing students do is very important as well. At the end of the Chronicle article, Berrett quotes Charles Paine, director of rhetoric and writing at the University of New Mexico. “You need not assign the big old 25-page term paper,” Paine says. “The kind of writing they do is more important than the amount.” I’ve been trying to take this lesson to heart in my own teaching, first by having one-page analyses due every week and second by making a series of shorter assignments that link together by the end of the term into a longer, sustained piece of writing. I like the one-pagers because they give students an opportunity to synthesize the reading and research for that week and to then carry out a mini analysis of it. I think of these like mental exercises, and students get better and better the more of them they write.
I’m working right now on a course I’ll teach this winter, on Writing 2.1: The Art of the Digital Essay. The end goal of the class is for students to produce a powerful digital essay of their own. What we will do over the course of the term is just what good writing teachers do: break the digital essay into chunks or sections, or even what Winston Weathers called “crots,” and work incrementally, with lots of feedback and response for each section. We may end up with lengthy essays, but we will have worked through them little by little, individually, in small groups, and in conferences with me.
I look forward to reporting on how this course goes when I begin teaching it in January. In the meantime, I’d like to know how you sequence assignments and what you do to use short assignments to good effect.