Seven Questions Students Should Be Asking about Writing Assignments

The most common questions professors get about assignments have to do with the number of pages or sources and formatting. More seasoned students might want to know if they can “give their opinion” or if they can “use the word ‘I.’” 

(For the record, students should always be able to offer their opinion, if by opinion they understand it to mean reasoned analysis. And yes, they should be able to use the word “I,” unless the result is language that is too wordy or too conversational, which it almost always is.)

But here are the questions students should really be asking:

1. What’s the verb?
Bloom’s taxonomy of learning is a handy reference point. Is the assignment designed to evaluate understanding or is it a higher-order skill, related to analysis, comparison, or application? Short assignments probably expect only one of these aims, while longer ones might require a combination.

When students understand the purpose of the paper is analysis, for example, they will realize that large chunks that are nothing but descriptive should be cut or trimmed. Knowing what to write often begins with knowing what to leave out.

2. What’s the form?
The five-paragraph essay refuses to die, even though it exists almost solely in classrooms. (I don't recall ever seeing one in the wild.) It might be a convenient tool to help students understand the basic purpose of academic writing, but it should not be an end unto itself. Why we expend so much energy getting students to master a form that they will never be asked to replicate (even if they become academics!) is beyond me.

Students need to know if they are free to break free from its shackles. If not, asking might make instructors who insist on using this format consider other approaches to improving student writing. 

3. Can I write on something else?
There are many reasons why a professor would want to assign a common topic. Sometimes it's not to limit student choice, but to help students know what to write about. That said, if a student has an interest that is consistent with the objectives of the assignment, students should inquire about the possibility of writing on that, instead. It shows curiosity, initiative, and self-direction, which should be encouraged as much as possible.

4. Can we work on this in class?
Far too much time in class is wasted on things that could be done before class—having a professor walk through a textbook chapter, being the most egregious and perhaps the most common. It would be far better for students to do the prep before class and work through the more difficult material or activities when they can easily receive help. This is called “flipping the classroom,” and there is a some preliminary research showing it to be effective. 

Even if an instructor is uncomfortable, unwilling, or unable to flip an entire course, merely spending one class period on a writing workshop will help students immensely. Students will learn a lot about the professor’s expectations from getting immediate and direct feedback, and professors will learn a lot about what students need by watching them work.

5. Can I meet with you to talk about my paper? 
Professors have strong opinions about drafts. Some require them, to avoid having to assign grades and give feedback on a pile of dreadful papers. Others avoid them like the plague, not wanting to grade everything twice. But even professors who refuse to look at drafts will almost always offer an office consultation. This is even more valuable—to get direction on a thesis, evidence, or the organization of ideas. Advice on introductions and conclusions are also essential to writing a good paper (and getting a good grade).

Relatedly, students should get in the habit of having their colleagues read their writing. That's what academics do. Self-evaluation is one of the hardest things a writer can do, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that students are not great at it. What's more, presenting writing as a social activity can go a long way to having students understanding writing as process, rather than product.

6. Will you give us feedback on revisions?
Professors sometimes give credit for revised work, in attempt to have students take their feedback seriously—as opposed to merely looking at the grade and going back to Snapchat or whatever fun thing they were doing. 

What students ought to really be doing is revising work—even without the credit. This is the opposite of extra credit—gasp! What better way to let the professor know that you are serious about improving as a student. And since the revised paper will not be part of a pile, the quality of the feedback the student is likely to receive will be much greater than it otherwise would have been.

7. Can we use contractions?
Let me close with one minor stylistic pet peeve: the prohibition against contractions. There lurks in many college classrooms a nasty prejudice that somehow formal writing is stilted writing, with contractions being the worse offense. Contractions are not a sign of poor writing, but not using them is a barrier to appreciating the natural beauty and flow of the written word.

If you’re not convinced, go watch the Coen Brothers 2010 remake of True Grit. It’s painful. No one talks like that, so no one should write like that. 

In one activity, I have my students select an article from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or The Economist and offer an observation about the writing style. (There are contractions aplenty.) After spending semester after semester reading b textbooks (where language and excitement goes to die), they are stunned by how alive the prose is. 

“Can we write like this?” one student asked. “Not yet,” I responded.

What is Critical Thinking?

Most college courses include “critical thinking” as a desired learning outcome. But what do we mean by the term? And why is it so importantfor coursework and for life?

“Critical” is derived from the Greek word krisis, which means “to separate.” When we think critically, we are pulling things apart to evaluate them, but we are also separating ourselves from our thinking (our interests and biases) to be better thinkers. 

Sometimes that is easier said than done.

Let’s take something easy to digest: sports. It’s easy to have a favorite team. Mostly, loyalties come from who your family favors and where you grow up. You can root, root, root for the home team, but if you are going to make a claim that any one team is better than another, you’re going to have to back it up with evidence. 

There is a big difference between saying (1) the Cubs are the best team in baseball and (2) the Cubs are the best team in baseball because they had the best regular season record and went on to win the World Series. (Yes, that really happened.) Critical thinking can be directed toward others, but we need to be the most critical about our own views.

Very quickly, however, invoking statistics (win-loss record, runs scored, etc.) becomes a discussion of the relative merit of one piece of evidence over another. The classic example of this is batting average, which was for far too long exaggerated. On-base-percentage (which also takes into account walks and being hit by pitches) is a much better measure of a hitter’s skill. 

In academic settings, critical thinking is more than just remembering or understanding content or offering an opinion. It's an essential skill that requires analyzing and evaluating theories and evidence; identifying biases and challenging assumptions; considering the consequences of hypothetical or counterfactual situations; developing new and probing questions; making informed decisions about complex problems; and applying knowledge to a new field or area and even creating new knowledge. 

A great example of critical thinking is Lorenzo’s Oil. The 1992 film documents the true story of Augustos and Michaela Odone as they attempt to find a cure for their son’s adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a fatal disease. The cure they discover, a combination of rapeseed oil and olive oil, is counter to the established medical wisdom of the time and resisted by most experts they consult. They eventually have seek help abroad to have their cure manufactured, and it ends up adding 20 years to Lorenzo’s life.

Critical thinking is almost always radical because it goes “to the root” of things, which is why it is so essential to problem solving. Karl Marx, rather cynically, alleged that people can only see a problem once a solution is available. A more optimistic, if idealistic, version comes from John Lennon (from “Watching the Wheels”), where he sings, “there's no problem, only solutions.” Marx and Lennon were both critical thinkers, but Lennon wrote better songs.

Critical thinking is not always creative, but thinking critically is essential to the creative process, if by creativity we mean seeing things in a new light. Steve Jobs was a great critical thinker. “Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes,” he said to The Wall Street Journal in 1993. “It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.” For him, trial and error were essential, but so too was not letting biases stop him from throwing an idea overboard.

Some people might be more naturally critical and independent thinkers, but everyone can improve their thinking. We especially need to be mindful about the undue deference we give to both experts and what is commonly held to be right or true. Social conformity and tradition are powerful obstacles to critical thinking.

Even though our aim is more than content knowledge, knowing something is the first and most important step to critical thinking. We need to get in the habit of reading extensively and carefully and then giving ourselves enough time to know what it all means.

Show Me Your Knowledge: An Interview with Rick Magee

Rick Magee is an associate professor of English at Sacred Heart. He won the Excellence in Teaching Award in 2015 and has a reputation for being one of the most effective and most popular instructors on campus. I wanted to see what he was up to, so I could steal some of his best ideas.

I’ve heard many students comment that your courses are remarkable for how much the students have a say in how they are run. How do you incorporate student feedback or choice into your course design?

Last Spring, I picked up an anthology—we stared off with one novel—and I had some secondary readings that we talked about to establish our theoretical framework for the class, to give them the vocabulary and all of that. Then I said: “Here’s the anthology. Every week you are going to pick out the reading and break up into groups. Every group was going to do two readings, based on how people there were in the class and how many weeks we had, and you’re going to teach the class that day”—so they did it.

I thought that worked surprisingly well. I also said: “How do you want to be assessed? How do you want me to find out what you’ve learned? Here are some things that I’d like to see. I want to see this and this and this. What would be the best way to be able to do that?”

One of my students who is an English major who had had me before said, “I really like the micro-essay,” which is a very focused, super short close reading of about 250-300 words, where, for example, they have to find one word in the essay and analyze it.

How are the micro-essays different from what might be called a standard essay? And what other kind of writing do you have them do?

I had students who still tried to write a 5-paragraph essay, but I told them to get rid of all the unnecessary introductory material because it’s all throat clearing. It’s all fine, but that’s the prewriting and you get rid of that in your final draft.

We had a couple of papers like that due, then I said: "I want to have you do something that shows me that you got something out of the class. Show me that I’m not wasting my time. I don’t know what we’ll call this. And one student said ‘Let’s call it “Show Me Your Knowledge,”’ and I said, “‘Ok, cool.’

“And it can be anything,” I said. “Play to your strengths. If you’re a short story writer, then write a short story. If you’re a painter, then paint me a picture. Just show me that you learned something—somehow.” And they were panicked about that. Complete panic. For the last class, they all had 5 minutes to show their projects, and everyone did really, really well.

I was really careful not to tell them “This is what I want you to do,” but I said, “Come to me with an idea because I’m not going to tell you what you should do.’”

This semester I collected all the readings from a lot of places, but they were in charge of whatever we talked about in class. Having them lead the discussion is less-pressure version where you ask a question and wait for someone to answer it. It put enough pressure on them or we’d sit around and stare at each other till someone said something.

Last semester, they lead everything. If they came to some big idea and I saw how I could insert something I would jump up and scribble on the board and we’d talk about it. And then some of the students would try it on their own in the essays and have fun with that.

Do you spend a great deal of time selecting materials? You certainly offer what I would call cool courses—the “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It)” on dystopian literature or the course on nature.

I have to go back to my own undergraduate courses. I loved reading trash, all through childhood and high school. I would read trashy spy novels by Robert Ludlum, and I was a huge Stephen King fan. Then I got to college and it was—Oh, you don’t talk about that stuff because it’s like some shameful secret that you read these guys. You don’t dare let anybody know. And that was a real turn off. Even in grad school, I remember there being other grad students who would play the sophisticated card, and I decided that was just a bunch of bullshit.

Reading is not supposed to be this onerous task. It’s fun, that’s what I have 10,000 books at home. So I try to exhibit that. Students have a very regimented, factory notion that if it isn’t in this fancy leather-bound volume, then we can’t talk about it.

I taught The Walking Dead, the graphic novel, and we watched most of the first, pilot episode in class. Both of my First-year Seminars were both on the quiet side, but toward the end I asked them to pick out one of the panels or images in the graphic novel, and we just talked about it. They were doing some really sophisticated reading of symbols—for example, what’s in the foreground versus the background and how things are shaded differently and how the art is conveying a message. They can do it; they just don’t think they can. Or they don’t think it’s something they need to know how to do.

What about technology? How do you incorporate that into your courses?

I’ve gone back and forth. I feel that I’m not using it as much as I should. I use Blackboard. I have them submit their papers electronically. I encourage them with the final projects to use it. I have students editing videos and things like that. Two of my current students put together an 18-minute video of their time in Vermont on the Appalachian Trail—it’s hilarious, it’s well done, it’s well edited.

I also put a great number of links to news stories and blogs and videos. Especially when I’m doing something like the apocalyptic class, there’s always a news story that uses the term “apocalypse” or something like that, and I’ll talk about it a little in class.

How do we develop an atmosphere where students feel free to express their opinions, even with or especially when they disagree with us?

I feel like you can over prepare. When I over prepare, when I think that I have everything figured out about a text, it doesn’t work. But if I go in and say, “Here’s what we’re going to talk about,” then it works. Once a few students start to say something, more often than not, it’s not something I was planning on saying, but it’s a cool idea. Then I’ll write it up on the board.

It’s not them disagreeing with me, but it opens up the space where they feel that they feel that their voice is being heard and that they can say something legitimate.

Closely related to that is the idea that a lot of students have that the line between literary analysis and BS is non-existent. I’ve had a lot of students say, “I just wrote a bunch of BS,” and I have to say, “No, this is actually really good analysis. You were looking at the text and asking ‘What does that mean?’ You were making it up, but you were basing it on the text, and that’s what literary analysis is.”

They’re taken aback by that because they think there is an actual answer. I think a lot of high school teachers teach literature as if it’s a puzzle to figure out—“What does this symbol mean?” and “What does this theme mean?” and that the text is some kind of lock that you have to pick.

In literature, readings are layered. If you peel it back, you get another reading. If you peel that back, you get something else. And they’re all added together, and that’s why literature is so rich. All of these readings work, and they can contradict each other.

All or mostly all of the students are capable of doing that, but many of them won’t realize that they can do it. They also don’t think that they’re allowed to express that they don’t like something. You don’t have to like everything you read, but you have to like it respectfully. Tell me why you don’t like it.

Could you give an example of something that you tried that didn’t work and what you learned from it?

I’ve tried to do debates. Maybe I don’t have enough training on how to set it up, but it’s tough to do with literature. What I’ve learned is that the debates are too binary, for one thing, and binaries just don’t work in literature. Sometimes they don’t want to disagree—it’s not polite.

One other thing that I’m contemplating, and not necessarily because it’s failed, and that’s the research essay. “Go to the library and find a bunch of sources and use them”—I don’t think that model works very well. What I end up doing in a lot of my classes is to do what I do as a professional, and I don’t think that necessarily helps them. The idea that they’re supposed to engage in the conversation, but that’s not what a research paper does.

I’m thinking I might explode that and have them do an annotation of once source. Then have them use the ideas that they learn from that source to write an essay about a work of literature.

How has your teaching changed since you first started?

I was a disaster. I started teaching as a grad student in 1993. Sometimes I feel like I should find all the students that were in my first classes and pay them back. I had the worst student evaluations I ever had. I had a letter of resignation ready to go, and I was ready to drop out of this writing program. I thought I would do it one more time, then everything changed.

I was very gung-ho, that we have to do this Big Thing. I realized that I wanted them to be way up here, and they’re coming in here. I’m not going to drag them up to that high level. And I learned to take myself a little less seriously, and I think that helped a lot. In the last ten years, I’ve started to feel like I kind of know what I’m doing.

I’ve also become less defensive about English. It’s easy to be really defensive about English because we get marginalized all over the place. I don’t worry about that as much any more. I know that it’s important. At the same time, it’s a safe place to stretch your intellect.