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Writing Assignments in Large Classes

The following discussion of how to handle writing assignments in
large Women's Studies courses took place on WMST-L in January
2005.  People interested in issues concerning writing may also
wish to look at an earlier WMST-L file entitled
Grading and Writing Instruction. For additional WMST-L files
available on the Web, see the WMST-L File Collection.


Date: Tue, 4 Jan 2005 07:12:58 -0800
From: Betsy Keller <elynnkeller AT YAHOO.COM>
Subject: Need suggestions for dealing with writing assignments in large
Dear List,

 I teach intro to WS at a large state university where state budgets
 cuts etc. have been forcing the class size up and up and up in recent
 years. I now have 50 in each section and I usually teach 2 sections
 per semester, thus I'm dealing with about 100 students. Since I am a
 part-time instructor I don't get a living wage for this work, so I
 must do lots of other freelance work to supplement my wages. The
 biggest problem is that our intro course is designated as a "writing
 intensive" course which officially means that we are supposed to give
 at least 5 writing assignments per semester. Our director does
 understand that as the class sizes grow, it becomes less feasible to
 assign lots of writing, and we understand that there is some
 flexibility. Still, it's necessary to give some writing assignments,
 though it's completely up to us what form they take. For me the
 crucial thing is not how many writing assignments I give, but rather
 how these assignments actually help my students !  to learn something
 about writing more effectively, and to sharpen their critical
 thinking skills. To me this means being able to provide meaningful
 feedback on the writing and also providing writing instruction in
 class. In recent years I have chosen to give one very serious and
 substantial writing assignment--a 6 to 8 page paper analyzing a men's
 and a women's magazine-- and to require that students first submit an
 outline, then a rough draft (subjected to peer review in class)
 before handing in the final paper, on which I write lots of
 comments. The other writing assignments are then shorter and more
 casual and I don't provide extensive comments. I truly like this
 magazine comparison assignment, and feel it does help students with
 their writing skills. Students generally like it a lot and find it
 eye-opening in many ways. I would hate to abandon this paper, but I
 am finding that grading papers of such length, in addition to
 commenting briefly on their outlines and fielding private questions
 about their rough drafts, is becoming impossible as the class sizes
 grow. So my question, finally, is: how can I give *meaningful*
 writing assignments in such a large class? I am free to assign a
 journal and to count it as 2 writing assignments, but in the past I
 have found that many students didn't take journal writing very
 seriously. I can be as creative as I like in crafting assignments. I
 would appreciate tips from others about how you incorporate
 meaningful writing assignments into your classes, without breaking
 your back on the grading end.

Betsy Keller
elynnkeller  AT

Date: Tue, 4 Jan 2005 10:31:21 -0500
From: Daphne Patai <daphne.patai AT SPANPORT.UMASS.EDU>
Subject: Re: Need suggestions for dealing with writing assignments in
Hello Betsy,
How all is well with you.  One thing that I do is give my students a "key"
to my coded corrections. It's one sheet of paper with both standard
proof-reading marks explained and my own abbreviations (e.g., i. a.  =
indefinite antecedent).  Then I just mark their papers with these codes.
The question is: do they actually bother to read/absorb the corrections?
I'm never sure. My guess is a few do.  Since the main problems with their
writing revolve around a few key issues, it often becomes clear after a
while what those issues are and what sort of help/clarification they need.



Date: Tue, 4 Jan 2005 10:47:01 -0500
From: Rebecca Whisnant <Rebecca.Whisnant AT NOTES.UDAYTON.EDU>
Subject: Re: Need suggestions for dealing with writing assignments in

I have found it very useful to move a lot of the writing students do in my
classes from papers that they hand in to me to the discussion board (like
on webCT or Blackboard or whatever your campus uses).  I've found many
advantages to this, to wit:

* I can respond with depth and substance to *some* of their posts, without
having to respond to every single one.  I find that the students are
usually pretty interested in seeing what I have to say about *other*
students' writing as well as their own, so they read my posts in response
to others and thus get the benefit of whatever feedback I have offered to
other students.  (Not every student does this, of course, but the ones who
don't are probably the same ones who wouldn't read my comments on their own
papers, either!)

* I can have a mixture of just general discussion forums where they can
post comments of whatever length and depth they want, and more specific
assignments like "post a several-paragraph response in which you do x, y,
and z, being careful to do such-and-such in your writing" -- more like a
paper assignment but they do it on the discussion baord.  Either way,
again, I don't have to respond to every single one (in fact, if I did it
would be too unwieldy).

* They (some of them anyway) are actually more motivated to make their
writing clear and comprehensible, because they are trying to communicate
something to their classmates as well as (or more than) to meet my
standards (which, let's face it, they may not care that much about).

It works best when they are writing about something that is interesting and
compelling to them, where they're likely to be interested in seeing what
their classmates have to say about it (and then what I have to say about
that, etc.).  Fortunately this is almost always true in women's studies
classes -- as opposed to a class on Descartes, for example.  :)

Again, I'm a total convert to this way of doing things.  I've managed to
rediscover the fact that I actually *enjoy* responding thoughtfully to
student writing, which is something that's easy to lose sight of when you
have 100 examples of it that you feel you have to find something to say

And by the way, if you're not familiar with webCT or Blackboard or those
sorts of platforms, don't be scared of them -- they are really
user-friendly (Blackboard especially, webCT a bit less so but still OK).
I'm a total web idiot (couldn't set up a Frontpage website to save my life)
and it's no problem for me to use this software.

Hope this is helpful . . .

Rebecca Whisnant
University of Dayton
Department of Philosophy
rebecca.whisnant  AT


Date: Tue, 4 Jan 2005 11:04:48 -0500
From: Georgia NeSmith <gnesmith AT FRONTIERNET.NET>
Subject: Re: Need suggestions for dealing with writing assignments in
A couple of things:

1) Reduce the number of original writing assignments and require revisions
based on your comments (and/or student comments if you add #2)

2) Create learning teams where students critique each other's work in
advance of doing revisions. (Students MUST submit drafts to you on time,
although you may or may not provide responses, in order to ensure that the
students have done their work in advance of the team meetings.)

Before you create these teams, have some small writing assignment that gives
you an opportunity to assess skills before you assign people to teams, so
you can be sure that there will be people with top writing skills on each
team. You can allow some time in class for students to do group interaction
on these papers. Provide a questionnaire based on your evaluation criteria
(evaluation criteria should be part of your syllabus) that students use to
evaluate each other. You "float" from team to team, ensuring that people
stay on task and responding to questions. Learning Team days require very
little preparation because the work is done by the students in class.

If you don't think you can spare some class meetings for these interactions
(or even to provide additional opportunities), use your university's
capacity for online enhancements to face-to-face classes.

I currently teach exclusively online. I have three learning team assignments
that require them to produce two small collaborative documents (actually
only several paragraphs long), and one assignment where they are required to
respond to their teammates' final projects online in advance of submitting a
revision. With the online environment I can easily keep track of who is
doing what. I do not grade the collaborative docs -- instead, I grade
people's participation (the online environment provides a record of their
participation). That ensures that people who do the most work get the most

With an online enhancement to a f2f course, you can have students post their
papers to their groups for response. This eliminates the necessity for them
to 1) photocopy their papers (which can be expensive and time-consuming);
and 2) find time outside of class where they can meet as a group. It also
provides an "e-paper trail" that gives you a record of who is doing what.

When I have people submit their revisions, I have them copy and paste their
teammates' responses at the end of their documents, so I know what they have
been told by their classmates without having to refer back to what is posted
online. Occasionally they will follow a bad suggestion, so I can take that
into account when I grade. Normally, however, the papers are substantially
better than they would be without the learning team participation.

And the better the papers, the less time it takes you to mark and grade
them. You are happier, and they are happier because they get better grades
-- which are earned, because they have in fact learned something.


Georgia NeSmith, Ph.D.
Adjunct Associate Professor
Communication Dept.
University of Maryland University College
gnesmith  AT

Date: Tue, 4 Jan 2005 11:07:02 -0600
From: Glenn Blalock <gblalock AT GRANDECOM.NET>
Subject: Re: Need suggestions for dealing with writing assignments in
Find a copy of John Bean's _Engaging Ideas_, (Jossey Bass); Bean offers
several chapters of suggestions.

Date: Tue, 4 Jan 2005 09:13:19 -0800
From: Tamara Agha-Jaffar <tamara_aghajaffar AT YAHOO.COM>
Subject: Re: Need suggestions for dealing with writing assignments in
Hi Betsy,

Have you considered staggering due dates for your longer writing
assignments?  I don't have nearly the number of students you have in
my women's studies classes, but I do require a lot of writing.  One
thing that I do which helps to alleviate huge bulks of grading all at
one time is to allow my women's studies students to determine their
own deadlines for their two long writing assignments.  The short
writing assignments (journal entries and reading responses) are
required weekly.  I simply scan those, respond briefly to content when
necessary, and assign points.

I handle the longer writing assignments differently.  Usually around
the second week of the semester, I ask students to select two topics
from a list of longer writing assignments I have given them.  They
give me their choices with due dates.  I encourage them to look at
their other classes, family commitments, work schedules, etc., and
see when it best suits their schedule to submit their WS papers.
Since students determine their deadlines and choose their own due
dates, they end up working on their papers at different times in the
semester.  They genuinely appreciate that flexibility.  Some like to
get their papers done early in the semester; others prefer to wait
until the end of the semester.  But what usually ends up happening is
that my work is staggered throughout the semester.  I may be
providing feedback on one student's rough draft while grading
another's final paper.  The work comes in a constant stream, but I
find it is far more manageable than being deluged by !  papers all at
the same time.

I am at a community college where I have to teach a couple of Comp
sections every semester.  Depending on the semester, I may have to
grade anywhere from 60 to 100 papers every 2-3 weeks. I find that
staggering my women's studies papers helps me keep a handle on the
grading.  In fact, it has worked so well for me that I have introduced
a modified version in my Comp classes.  I assign due dates for all the
comp writing assignments (with all that writing, I siimply don't have
a choice), but I do allow students a "grace period."  They are
permitted to turn in their essay no later than the following class
period with no penalty.  Any later than that and I reduce it by one
letter grade for each class period it is late.  Again, the consequence
is staggered grading since some students turn in their papers on the
due date while others take advantage of the grace period.  And, of
course, there are those that never turn in their papers at all.  But
that is a whole other story.

Anyway, that's my suggestion.  I hope it helps.

All best.

Dr. Tamara Agha-Jaffar, Professor of English
Kanss City Kansas Community College
7250 State Ave.
Kansas City, KS 66112
tamara_aghajaffar  AT
taghajaf  AT

Date: Tue, 4 Jan 2005 13:31:05 -0800
From: Jessica Nathanson <janathanson AT YAHOO.COM>
Subject: Re: Need suggestions for dealing with writing assignments in
I have really appreciated all the feedback to Betsy!
You all are providing wonderful suggestions.

This is a slightly different take on the staggered due
date idea.  I'm currently teaching an interim
Sexuality and Gender course.  My classes meet daily
for around 3 hours and there is a heavy reading load.
One of the assignments for the course is three short
(3pp) critical analysis papers, one due each of the
first three weeks of class.  They need to analyze one
or two of the assigned readings.  However, the
students decide when to hand these in.  The only
restriction is that the paper is due on the same day
as the reading assignment on which they wrote the
paper.  Right now, everyone seems to be waiting to
hand their papers in on Friday, but I'm hoping that
the next two weeks will result in staggered papers.  I
figured this would make it easier for me to grade
thoughtfully, given that I, too, have a heavy reading

And, here is an alternative to journals (my students,
too, have not seemed to enjoy journals and have not
taken them very seriously, at least here in SD.).
In my Gender and Lit course last semester, I required
students to turn in a very short reading response
(100-150 words, but next time I would make it 200-250
words) and two discussion questions for nearly every
class.  (I used to have them write 1-2pp responses,
but I had a larger course load last semester and I
wanted to cut down on grading time.)  Sometimes I gave
them specific questions to respond to.  (Once, when we
read the play _Trifles_, I asked them to draw the set
and cast the characters, and to write a justification
and description of these.  This was a way to emphasize
the importance of the setting and characters to a
play, but it also gave them an opportunity to take a
break from the routine and be a little more creative.)
 Although these were very short and informal writing
assignments, it meant they were writing regularly
(which I think is important in itself in teaching
writing).  They were also quick and easy for me to
grade.  These assignments had the added benefit of
forcing them to keep up with the reading, and even, as
they told me later, giving them a chance to process
their thoughts about the readings before coming to
class.  The students even told me that they felt more
ready to discuss the readings in class as a result of
having done this work.

I hope this is helpful.

Jessica Nathanson

Jessica Nathanson, Ph.D. American Studies
Concentration, Women's Studies
Instructor, English and Gender Studies
Augustana College
Kilian Community College
janathanson  AT


Date: Wed, 5 Jan 2005 10:38:18 -0500
From: D.Uras <duras AT TRENTU.CA>
Subject: another writing assignment suggestion
Betsy, although this still requires a lot of feedback, below is a
description of something I tried with my students at Carleton
University, which adds a fourth (gradable) step to assigning one paper
-- in addition to the proposal, draft and final version of the paper,
each student also submits a writing portfolio, in which she gathers all
the material from the essay writing process, and reflect on four stages
of the process.

Last term for the first time I tried assigning a 'writing portfolio'.
These students are new to university writing and I wanted to have a
process which valued (and gave guidance on) several stages of
essay-writing, not just the final product. Before completing the final
6-page essay, students were required to

a. fill out worksheets which were designed to help them find and narrow
down their topic, and then to record what search terms etc they used in
the library system to find their research

b. write up a proposal, on which I graded & gave feedback -- it let me
know where they were headed, make suggestions, recommend resources etc.

c. participate in a "conferencing" session during which they read their
draft papers out loud to a classmate, then recorded comments &
suggestions for improvement

d. submit those drafts to me for comments & an initial grade

e. revise the draft & include the revision notes & final essay in the

f. organize their portfolio (binder) into four sections. EACH section
was to contain a short discussion of their reflections on that part of
the research process-- how they did it, what resources they used, and
how they might do it differently 'next time':

    1. topic & proposal (this section also includes their worksheets on
choosing & narrowing essay topic, the proposal assignment sheet, the
sample proposal I gave them, and their own graded proposal)

    2. researching (this section also includes their research log
worksheet, and a reasonable amount of their research notes & printed

    3. writing (this section also includes their first draft assignment
sheet, their paper's outlines [written before or after the first draft],
the graded first draft with my comments

    4. revising (this section also includes their conferencing
worksheet, their revision notes, an essay criteria checklist I gave
them, and their final draft

I gave them a 'table of contents' so they could ensure each section
contained everything it should.

All of this work on one final paper resulted in four separate grades
which were staggered through the course:
1. for the essay proposal
2. for the first draft
3. for the final version of the paper
4. for the portfolio which contained the worksheets, resources & reflections

It was truly wonderful for me to read their reflections on the process
and how they would do it differently next time. I will definitely use
the assignment again.

I've enjoyed reading the suggestions for writing assignments very much!

Daphne Uras
duras  AT


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