100 Very Sensible Writing Tips

Call this list common sense in bullet points, courtesy of Online Colleges.


Lit Review Writ Large (Starts Small)

Canadian academic James Keirstead suggests that one way to reduce production of an enormous lit review to manageable size is to blog your way through it.  Although addressed to doctoral students writing a dissertation, this post may help undergraduate thesis writers as well as faculty working toward publication.

Teaching Tip #4: Better Lectures?

The lecture method of instruction may be the original pedagogical strategy.  Before information was readily available in print form (and now online), a lecture was the most efficient way to transmit expert knowledge to novice learners.  Now, rather than being the primary source of information, faculty experts need to help students learn to find, select, use and evaluate ideas and information from the constant high-speed flow that surrounds us.  How effective is lecturing compared to other teaching methods for today’s learners, and how can we maximize the effectiveness of our lectures?

McKeachie et al. (1990) analyzed a large body of evidence and concluded that lecture is not a particularly effective method of instruction when compared to more active approaches. Discussion methods result in superior student retention of information, transfer of knowledge, problem solving, critical thinking, attitude change and motivation.  Print sources of information are superior to lecture since students can read faster than lecturers can talk and can review printed materials easily and at their own time and pace.  Despite these findings, lecture does continue to have a place in the pedagogical toolbox.  The trick lies in understanding how and when they are most useful.

Lectures can be an effective and efficient method of instruction by:

  • Providing information that is more current than written materials
  • Summarizing or adapting material from multiple sources
  • Helping students learn by providing conceptual frameworks, key concepts, principles and ideas
  • Motivating students to consider a different point of view, a new problem or a challenge
  • Modeling how to approach a problem or question; providing examples of a “scholar in action”

Making the best use of lectures:

  • Cognitive theory shows us that lasting learning depends on mental activity – thinking about, elaborating and using information makes it more likely to be retained.  Knowledge is stored in linked networks of concepts, principles and facts.  Effective lectures help to bridge the students’ existing networks and the structures of the discipline.
  • Watch out for “conclusion oriented” lectures – lectures that strive to summarize the knowledge “covered” in the day’s readings.  Aim instead to use demonstrations, metaphors, problems, and examples that allow you to help students learn how to read and understand their assignments.
  • Break up lectures into 10 – 20 minute segments.  Research indicates that listeners have trouble maintaining attention after this amount of time and without attention, there can be no retention!  The most effective lecture breaks require students to apply or use the material just covered.
  • Some sample lecture breaks include
    • minute papers (give students one minute to write about the main points of the lecture so far)
    • muddiest point papers (write down the most confusing part of the lecture so far)
    • think-pair-share (pose a visual, a question or problem and ask students to respond, then turn to a partner and share)
    • applying the lecture content to a case study or example (individually or with a partner or small group)
    • Using multiple choice clicker questions to quickly assess student understanding of points just made

You may be thinking that taking notes is enough activity to promote learning during lectures.  The research suggests that the answer is – not usually.  The usefulness of note taking depends on several factors, including the students’ ability to maintain attention, understand what was said, and hold onto it in short term memory (not to mention fast and accurate fine motor skills).  Studies suggest that students aren’t able to write down most of what was said in lectures, and that they get some things wrong.  This is because listeners have limited information processing capability, and if the material is complex or unfamiliar, the effort of note taking can detract from the effort required to comprehend and organize the material.   The bottom line?  When material is new and/or particularly complex, students do better when you limit the number of concepts presented, and provide multiple opportunities to understand the material.  Providing extra support such as organizers (outlines, concept maps, headings, etc.) that students can use to help them begin to process information more deeply is also helpful.

Do you lecture?  Why or why not?  What do you do to make lectures more effective?

McKeachie, W.J., Pintrich, P.R., Lin, Y-G., Smith, D.A. F., & Sharma, R. (1990). Teaching and learning in the college classroom: A review of the literature (2nd Ed.). Ann Arbor: NCRIPTAL, University of Michigan.

McKeachie, W.J. & Svinicki, M. (2006).  McKeachie’s Teaching Tips. Boston, MA:Houghton Mifflin.

Terry Zawacki Is Coming to Campus

Nationally recognized Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) expert Terry Zawacki will be visiting MU on Wednesday morning, 1/27.   This is our chance to run ideas by an expert.

Terry Zawacki directs the WAC program at GMU and edits the Writing Fellows Programs section of the WAC Clearinghouse.

She’ll be presenting at the faculty conversation/lunch before Faculty Council.  She’s titling her talk  “The Role of Writing in Learning: What the Research Shows and Strategies for Using Writing to Forward Learning Goals.”

We’ve also scheduled her for two informal discussions in the morning:

9:30-10:20 am, Ballston 507:  “Managing Collaborative Writing Projects” and other topics of interest

10:30-11:25 am, Rowley 222:  “What is Writing?  Assignments in Traditional and New Media”

Please join us for any or all of her half-day visit!

Teaching Tip #3: Writing is Learning

Try this experiment:  ask your students to spend 5 minutes writing about a topic before beginning class discussion on the topic. You don’t need to grade it or even collect it, although you might want to use the students’ work as a way to take attendance.   Why do this?  Research findings suggest that students who write about topics learn more than those who do not.

Drabick, Weisberg, Paul, and Bubier (2007) compared the test performance of students who either wrote or thought about a topic for 5 minutes before engaging in a 10 minute class discussion of the topic. Ungraded writing produced larger improvements in student performance on both factual and conceptual questions than did merely thinking about the topic, with a larger benefit for conceptual questions. Even when student writing is not graded, these assignments can be effective strategies for improving student learning.

Brief, in-class “process” writing has other advantages.  Students who are reluctant to contribute to class discussion are more likely to do so if they have had a few minutes to gather their thoughts and write them down.  You can avoid calling on habitual responders and randomly ask students to share what they have written.

In-class process writing can also serve to quickly assess student knowledge about a topic.  You can use it as a pre-test, to assess reading comprehension or as an application exercise.  None of these writing assignments need to take more than a few minutes of class time, they require little faculty grading time, and they enhance student thinking and learning.

How do you use writing to learn in your classes?  Please share your ideas with us!

Want to hear more about teaching content through writing?  Join us for the faculty conversation on January 27, 2010 (11:30 am, main campus dining hall) with nationally recognized writing-across-the-curriculum expert Terry Zawacki.

Terry Zawacki will also be leading two informal writing-related conversations that morning–all are welcome.
9:30-10:20 (Ballston): group vs. individual writing projects
10:30-11:30 (main campus): writing and digital/new media

Thanks to Claudia Stanny at the University of West Florida for portions of this tip.

Drabick, D. A. G., Weisberg, R., Paul, L., & Bubier, J. L. (2007). Keeping it short and sweet: Brief, ungraded writing assignments facilitate learning. Teaching of Psychology, 34, 172-176.

Teaching Tip #2: Naming Names

Do you routinely learn and remember your students’ names? There are some excellent reasons to develop this skill, since research shows that when instructors display a personal interest in students it positively affects class participation and learning. Students see instructors who know their names as more supportive and easier to approach with questions. Your student evaluations may even improve!

Some folks find remembering names very easy, others (including me) don’t. There are many strategies you can try during these first few weeks of class. Set yourself a deadline for learning all your students’ names to motivate you (if you’re really brave, tell your students when it is). While you’re at it, you can make sure they know your name too. Here are a few ideas to try – if you have one that works for you, please post it in the comments section.

Use student names in class

Try to use student names as often as possible (without sounding like an idiot).  For example,

  • Call the roll for the first several weeks rather than circulate an attendance sheet (look at each student as you call their name and try to associate something about them with their name)
  • Call each student by name as you hand back assignments• Use students’ names when you respond to their comments and questions
  • Ask students to say their name before asking a question or making a comment during class discussions and to call their classmates by name as well.

You may want to ask students to wear name tags or use name cards for the first couple of weeks, and ask for reminders as needed. When students know that you really care about learning their names, they will appreciate your effort and help you out.

Create a directory
It’s easier to remember someone’s name if you know a little bit about them. Write a brief introduction of yourself and post it to the Blackboard Discussion Board, along with your picture. Then, ask students to do the same. This is especially useful if you are planning to use the Discussion Board, since it helps students learn how to post to it. It’s great for online classes too. And, it takes no class time. Since students control what they choose to write about themselves and the site is only available to the class, you should not run into privacy issues. However, if you prefer, you can snap digital pictures and collect the information yourself, and create a private directory.     Hint: To post images to BB, you need to either have the picture online already or put it in your content collection. An easy way for most students to do this is to go on Facebook, pick a picture they want to use and copy the image location. Then tell them to click on the image icon in the Discussion Board screen and paste the url.

Play a name game
Name games do take up class time, but they can help a class develop rapport and have fun as well as learning each others’ names. Here are a few examples from an article in the National Teaching and Learning Forum (for the whole list, go to: http://www.ntlf.com/html/lib/bib/names.htm.)

Unforgettable Neighbor (by Ed Nuhfer)
Have students turn to their neighbor and introduce themselves. The assignment is for the neighbor to introduce their companion “with a trait that no one can forget.” Obviously the partners have to be helpful with a trait or mnemonic aid. Pick randomly from around the room for introductions. After a third person is introduced, point at those introduced while the class names the individual. Continue with the introductions and cumulative reviews. The repetition in reviews really helps.

Alliterative Adjective Name Game (by Tim Kennedy)
The student sitting at one of the corner desks at the front of the room begins by taking the first letter of their name and selecting an adjective that begins with the same letter. Examples include: “Gross Greg” or “Awesome Alicia.” The second person has to repeat the first person’s name preceded by its alliterative adjective and then gives their own. The third person repeats from the beginning and adds her own moniker to the game. When all of the students have participated I recount them all back by adding my own name at the end. It may or may not be your cup of tea, but it’s an effective device that is always good for a few laughs.

The Name Game (by Bonnie Kendall)
Lots of professors play a variant of The Name Game, but my version is based on what I call “the group mind” technique. I tell the students that we have three weeks to learn each other’s names and that we are all responsible for insuring that everyone does it. I explain that cultures all over the world have developed strategies for insuring the social distribution of knowledge, such that if one person is lost, the knowledge is retained somewhere else in the group (you can skip this step if you teach, say, engineering and don’t want to talk about fuzzy stuff like culture). I encourage them to help each other in the learning process.
Start by having seven to ten students introduce themselves and then ask an individual in the group to name other individuals: “Luke, which one of these people is Rick?” “Rick, point to Susan.” “Susan, what’s the name of the person sitting next to Attila?” If Susan doesn’t know the name of the person next to Attila, I’ll say “Ask Attila!” or “Ask Luke!” In doing it this way, I can keep everyone on his or her tippytoes, because anyone might be made responsible for an answer at any time — and everyone knows that someone nearby can be counted on for help. No one is made to feel stupid, because the entire group helps out.
At the beginning (and sometimes at the end) of each class in the designated period, we play the name game: “Susan, is Attila here today?” “Bob, what is the name of that woman coming in the door?” “Kathy, point to two people named Mike.”
This is also a nice technique to interject in the middle of a long class, just to shake up people’s minds and get their attention revved up.

Got Undergrads Doing Great Research?

Here’s a publishing opportunity for MU students.  This Stanford journal is no longer just for Stanford students:

“The Stanford Undergraduate Research Journal (SURJ) is now accepting manuscript submissions for the Spring 2010 issue. SURJ is an interdisciplinary journal published annually that seeks to provoke curiosity and intellectual exploration across both the Stanford community and at leading institutions nationwide. Papers should be 1500-2500 words in length and written for a very well-educated general audience. Highly technical manuscripts may be submitted for consideration but may need to be thoroughly edited if selected for publication. The deadline for submission is February 9, 2010.

You can find submission guidelines at the journal’s Web site.