What are some writing assignments I can use with my students to prompt thinking or help my students show understanding in interesting ways?

Students do not have to write polished reports in order for an activity to help them learn course content, show understanding or develop their writing skills. Brief, informal writings, for example, can be used by themselves or as a step toward a more formal, polished assignment. The following activities can be adapted to any content area.

HOT CARDS. Students are given a note card and instructed to respond to a prompt. If the teacher wants to check for understanding, he or she can instruct students to write three quick sentences summarizing what they learned in class that day, list 10 facts about a topic, write five quiz questions they would like to be asked about the day's lesson, or give a quick explanation of their understanding of a concept. If the teacher wants to find out where students are having difficulties, he or she can instruct students to list any questions they have about the topic, tell about something they don't understand right now, or describe something that confuses them. The teacher can either check the cards after class or can use a few minutes of class time to address questions/comments on the cards with the class. The benefit of using note cards rather than paper is that they can be easily sorted, they limit the amount of information the student needs to provide, and they can be easily stored for later use.

VENN DIAGRAMS. Students are given two or more concepts and are told to draw interlocking circles that overlap in some places but are separate in others. They then write in what they know about each concept. They show their understanding of each concept's relationship to other concepts by writing information that is "shared" by concepts in the part of the circles that overlap and the information that is distinct to each concept in the outer part of the circle.

TELEGRAMS. Students are instructed to write a telegram summarizing the day's lesson or their understanding of a concept. Because telegrams make an economical use of language, students must choose their words carefully to be concise yet get across meaning.

ANTICIPATION GUIDES. An anticipation guide (Burke, 1999) consists of a list of statements about a topic that bring to light differences of opinion. Statements such as the following tend to promote thinking and discussion: "All people are born basically good," "Science gives us definite answers to the questions we ask," "Math requires creativity," "The internet has improved life for everyone," or "Art is only effective when it causes controversy". More specific statements can be designed for any type of unit. The student indicates that he or she either agrees or disagrees with the statement. Next, the student can be asked to write a brief paragraph about the statement that he/she feels the most strongly about. Students then discuss the statements in small groups or as a class.

LETTERS.Students write letters between two historical figures, literary characters, or current newsmakers to show not only their understanding of a concept but their ability to see it from more than one perspective.

CUBING. Cubing (Mondschein-Leist, 1997) allows a student to consider a subject in six different ways. Students are instructed to visualize a cube with different instructions on how to respond to the subject written on each side. The instructions are as follows: describe it, compare it, associate it, analyze it, apply it, argue for or against it.

CROSSWORD PUZZLES. Individually or in pairs students generate crossword puzzles using a list of terms related to a unit of study. Then, they can swap puzzles with other students as a way of reviewing content. The students focus not only on the terms themselves but also on writing the clues in their own words. Puzzles can be created online at http://www.puzzlemaker.com.

ACROSTICS. An acrostic is a poem that is formed by writing a word down a page and using the letters in the word to begin each line of a poem. For example, Bachman-Williams (2001) provides the following sample acrostic from a science class:

Blood brings oxygen

Records memories

Always working

Imagining plans

Neurons tell the body what to do (p. 14) Students can write acrostic poems to show their understanding of the qualities of concepts, historical figures, or terms such as "Euclid," "alternative energy sources," "simile," "Doppler Effect," "New Deal," "Cubism," "health risks," and "pitch."

STEPPINGSTONES. Progroff (1992) uses the term "steppingstones" to refer to "…those events that come to our minds when we spontaneously reflect on the course that our life has taken…" (p. 76). He recommends sitting in silence and then making a list of 10 or 12 items that come immediately to mind. Students can use this technique in a variety of content areas to recall content and crystallize their understanding. For example, they can be instructed to pretend to be a character from a novel and write a list of steppingstones that character would identify as "events" that come to mind when reflecting on his or her life. Or, students could be instructed to think of a modern invention such as the automobile, the internet, or the use of a pig's heart for transplants and make a spontaneous list of "steppingstones" that led to that invention or discovery. These steppingstones can then be used as a product for class discussion of the evolution of knowledge in a field of study.

THIRTEEN WAYS. Worsley & Mayer (2000) recommend using the poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens to encourage students to approach a topic from several different angles or to view the topic in surprising ways. The more specific the topic the better, but most anything lends itself to the activity. Students can create poems modeled on Stevens' poem on topics such as syncopation, a cell, light, the internet, a retiree's budget, pi, a comma, Guernica by Picasso, or the atom bomb.

BRAINSTORMING. Perhaps best known as a technique for prewriting, brainstorming can take many forms and can also be used as a way of gathering and/or organizing information throughout the writing process. Students can be instructed to brainstorm by making lists, by webbing (put a concept in a circle in the middle of a page and "web" out associations with that concept), or creating concept maps. Teachers can use brainstorming activities at the beginning of a unit to help students gather prior knowledge about a topic, during the drafting stage of writing if a student gets stuck and needs more ideas, or as a prewriting activity during topic generation.

EXIT SLIPS. To use exit slips (Olson, 2003) students are instructed to spend the last five minutes of class reflecting on what they learned that day. They summarize it, write questions about it, share something that puzzles them, or describe an insight. As they leave class, they hand the exit slip to the teacher standing at the door.

THINKING WITH PROSE. Kenyon (2000) suggests that students in geometry who are having a mental block while trying to complete a proof may benefit from writing out their thoughts and frustrations to "unload" their memories. Eventually, this process may allow them to organize information more effectively so that they can experience success with the two-column proof. This technique could be adapted to any content area where the "form" of the activity inhibits student thinking.

BUMPER STICKERS. To help students elicit the essence of a historical period, scientific discovery, health danger, artistic technique, or technological concept, students can be instructed to create a bumper sticker advertising or taking a position on the concept being studied. Students should be reminded that bumper stickers are short and capture the essence of something in a memorable way.

LECTURE INTERRUPTIONS. Interrupt a lecture at a surprising moment with a five-minute quickwrite (Worsley & Mayer, 2000). Students can be instructed to make a quick list of information they remember from the lecture so far (without looking at their notes) or review their notes to list higher level questions or just questions borne of curiosity that might be raised about the information presented so far.

COUPLETS. Students create couplets (two rhyming lines with a regular rhythm) about terms such as "macroeconomics," "behaviorism," or "topology" to help them remember the meaning of the term as well as distinguish the term from others (such as microeconomics, behavior, or topography). For example, astronomy helps us understand the stars; astrology helps us know what fate is ours.

TIME-LAPSE WRITINGS. Students are given a topic for freewrites to be completed at several different points during a unit (all on this same topic). The write about the topic before it is introduced, at least once during the unit, and at the end of the unit. The teacher collects these freewrites and gives them back to students at the end of the unit for reflection. Students then write a final five-minute paragraph describing the progression of their thinking about the topic as the unit progressed.

METAPHORS. Students can generate metaphors (surprising comparisons between things that are not usually thought of as similar) to help illustrate their understanding of a concept, historical event, musical style, or technological innovation. For example, they can create a metaphor for items such as a state lottery, jazz, graph, e-commerce, Victorian Age, pollution, physiology, or New Criticism. For example, the heart is the engine of the body, pumping blood to keep the machine running.

WANT ADS. Students can create want ads to show their understanding of literary characters or historical figures by composing want ads that depict something the person seeks, wants to sell, or could offer as a service.

SNAPSHOT SUMMARIES. After students work collaboratively on an activity, they individually write a five-minute snapshot summary of the content of the discussion, activity, problem-solving opportunity, or experiment that they just experienced. They then regroup briefly to compare "snapshots" and add to or correct their snapshots as necessary to provide a record of details for later review.

In Psychology, students write acrostic poems using names of some major theorists (such as Kohlberg, Maslow, Piaget, and Freud) to capture the essence of their beliefs and theories as a way of reviewing content in the class.

In Healthful Living, students complete an anticipation guide on the topic of weight management prior to a unit on that topic. The anticipation guide consists of the following statements (students mark either "agree" or "disagree"):

  • Anyone can lose weight if he or she tries hard enough.
  • It is possible to lose too much weight.
  • Weight has little to do with a person's actual "fitness" level.
  • Proper diet is more important to weight management than physical activity.
  • People should be encouraged to feel good about their weight, whatever it is.
  • Weight management is best learned at home.
  • Chronic diseases can be affected by weight management.
  • Dieting is the best way to manage weight.

After students complete the anticipation guide, the teacher instructs them to select one statement with which they agree or disagree most strongly and write a paragraph explaining their opinion. Then, through class discussion, the teacher uses this writing to help students better understand the preconceptions and beliefs that they bring to the unit. Teachers ensure that students challenge myths that they may have about weight management and provide accurate information for them. At the end of the unit, students write an essay answering one of the following questions: "What is effective weight management?", "What effect does nutrition have on weight management?" or "How can someone use weight management to help control diabetes?" with a section of the essay devoted to what they used to believe about weight management but understand differently.

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