So, You're Teaching a First Year Seminar...
Where to Start
- Think about what you want your students to be able to do for your class, e.g., identifying terminology, applying ideas from reading, reflecting on observations, comparing experiences, etc.
- Think about how you learned to do the things you want them to do. Can you use those techniques to teach your students?
- Think about how to get students to write. If you want them to use the proper terminology, ask them to work in groups to develop a written definition. If you want them to apply ideas from reading, assign them one idea from the reading (to start with), discuss the idea in class to give them some ideas about what they can say, and then send them off with the assignment. See the Writing Assignments in a Writing Intensive Course page (and below) for additional example assignments.
- Build in class time to discuss the writing assignments. Then, build in some more to talk about the writing you're getting from them: show students what you like and what you don't.
- Look at example syllabi. No need to reinvent the wheel. You can also Google "writing intensive syllabus" and see what you get.
What to Remember
- Writing about it works. Your students will learn more through writing than through almost any other kind of assignment.
- You don't have to read everything they write. In fact, giving students assignments that they know you won't read provides them with a place to think in peace. That peaceful space is critically important, particularly for first-year students.
- Explain in detail. Spend time in class discussing with the students the writing you want them to do. It isn't time "taken away" from content -- it's part of how the students will process what you're teaching. Give them the time they need.
- Teach what you know. When it comes to writing, this oldie is still a truism. So, if you don't consider teaching grammar, punctuation or sentence structure as strengths of yours, then don't "teach" these things. (However, you're obligated to remind the students that standards and expectations are important at Stetson University and to and hold them accountable to what you decide is an acceptable level of error.) Conversely, if you're going to really stress the importance of the mechanics, then be prepared to spend class time teaching the students what they need.
- You know what you want. Take the time to talk about your assignments and what you want them to look like. (What is important to you? Paragraph structure? Documentation? Reflection and introspection? Organization? Placement or structure of a thesis?) It's normal to have some unarticulated ideas and expectations, and it's completely OK if you're figuring it out along with the students. Writing happens best after class-wide discussion about it.
- Model it. Show your students models and examples, and take the time to discuss them in class. Why are they good (or bad)? What are the techniques and "moves" of your own professional writing? If you don't have any examples ready, write some yourself. One last thing: it's very helpful to discuss how you would revise any problems in your examples. In other words, the examples don't always have to be excellent.
- Learning happens in stages. Be patient, and consciously build those steps into your course design.
- Help is available. Incorporating writing into the teaching process can raise a lot of questions, big and small. Ask your fellow FSEM faculty, ask the director of the Writing Program, ask a Writing Center tutor, and ask anyone else who teaches. There's a wide range of expertise at Stetson University: take advantage of it.
Recommended Assignments (more)
Teaching students how to summarize a reading or a passage or an argument is essential: if they can't summarize what someone else has said, they can't build from it very well to build their own ideas. Assign summaries of readings and then, before you start grading those summaries, talk about their strengths and weaknesses with the class. Once you've spent time talking about what you want to see more of, and what you want to see less of, you can start grading them. Take some time to read the Guide to Writing at Stetson; there's some very basic discussion of summary.
The Reading Response
Asking students to reflect on what they're reading is one of the best ways to ensure that they're getting it. Students retain concepts they've written about much more than concepts they've only scratched the surface of. Ask the students to identify one idea that resonates with them and to explain why. Assign a brief writing in which students compare the ideas in one reading to a set of contrasting ideas in another reading. No need to grade these assignments, but you probably want to read them, to see which students are making reasonable progress and which students need a little more help from you. Assign at least three reading responses over the semester.
The "Minute" Essay
Asking students to write briefly about a specific question teaches them to focus and process in a short period of time. These minute essays shouldn't be graded, but they're invaluable to get a sense of the class and also give the students practice at quick response. Assign them at the end of each section of your course, or after a particularly lecture- or experience -heavy day. Try these: What are you hoping to learn from this class? what was the most important concept you got out of today's class? What elements of today's discussion do you want to spend more time discussing next time? What do you already know about this topic?
The Second Draft
Sure, the need for a first draft is obvious. But many of our incoming students will rely on only the first draft's work to put together their final draft, and as a result, some of their graded writing will be weaker than it has to be. Two revisions forces extended time with an essay's idea. If you comment mostly on the big issues of content, clarity, adequacy of the research, or comprehension on the first draft, you can save comments about editing, word choice, and other important surface conventions for a second revision. Students are often quite good editors of each other's work, but they may not benefit from peer comments about the global or 'big ticket' items like clarity of thought. So give them your professional response to the core elements of their writing in a first draft; later, when they've sorted out the big problems, you can often ask peer workgroups to work on the details of editing. Don't grade drafts--that isn't fair to the student who is still learning what you want. But do offer some sort of measurement of the quality as you see it.
An end-of-term portfolio collects all (or a specific sampling) of a student's writing over the course of the term. Students should be asked to introduce the portfolio with some reflection writing on what they've written, how they've grown, what they've learned and so forth. The advantage for the professor is that it demonstrates the students' growth, all at once. It's a final demonstration of their "best stuff." Even better, because portfolios should be given one holistic grade -- one grade that captures the student's performance in that portfolio -- grading is easy. The students will not be revising the portfolios, so formative commentary isn't necessary; portfolios also save time. Be sure that you provide very clear instructions and a set of criteria on which the portfolio will be graded. There are numerous resources on portfolios.
Grading and Commenting
- Grade only the important items (final drafts of anything, for instance). Grading every assignment is a good way to burn out.
- Save yourself time by reading all the assignments at once and only then separating them into three stacks ("good," "not good" and "excellent"). Don't start commenting until this stage, when you've got a sense of the range of the class performance.
- Comment on what's most important to you. Commenting on every single thing you see is not only frustrating for you, but confounding for students, who can't tell what's most important to take care of. Aim for a maximum of four comments per page of student writing.
Plagiarism is about the documentation of information, and that is increasingly challenging to understand because information is everywhere and our students are encouraged to soak it in uncritically. It's relatively rare to see a student actually lift an essay off the web or put together paragraphs that someone else wrote -- and sure, they all know that's wrong.
But it's pretty common to see awkward attribution of ideas or misunderstandings about where the documentation goes or what "paraphrasing" really means -- and those things are not universally agreed upon. A teacher needs to talk about these things, and then talk about them more. Time spent in class talking about who owns information and how to acknowledge the intellectual footsteps is time spent teaching our students to think about what they're doing.
Students who are inclined to cheat are more inclined to do so when they think you don't care and when they think you're not paying attention. They're also more likely to cheat if you provide them with opportunities to do so. Poorly written assignments, generally broad topics and no written guidelines about the kinds and types of sources to use all contribute to plagiarism.
The Writing Center
The Writing Center is an eager partner for your teaching needs, and can help in these ways:
- First, take advantage of the one-on-one tutoring opportunities afforded by the Writing Center. Students in your FSEM can visit (by requirement or recommendation) for individualized assistance at all stages of their writing processes, from brainstorming to revision to editing and polishing. The tutors don't make any changes to the student's writing; rather, the tutors help the student learn to be a better writer. While this means that a single visit to the Writing Center may not be enough to earn that student an A on his or her essay, it does mean that repeated visits will help that student understand and navigate the differing demands of the writing assignments he or she will encounter at the university. After each visit from a student, faculty are offered the chance to chat with the tutor about the specifics of the session; in this way, faculty have the opportunity to fine tune the help being offered to the students.
- Second, the Writing Center offers faculty the option of workshops in your classes. You can arrange for a tutor (or a team) to visit your course and help your students learn the skills of revision, documentation and formatting, assignment reading, etc. Workshops can be 30 minutes to 90 minutes, depending on your needs and the tutor schedules. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll talk about what you need.
- Third, the Writing Center offers workshop opportunities, to which you can direct your students. In coordination with Student Success, we'll be assisting in student workshops on documentation, essential genres, distinctions between humanities and sciences, etc. Keep an eye on your email for when these workshops will be offered, and please join us yourself. The Writing Center tutors are the core of writing assistance for your students, and you are the ones who know best what you want. Help us help your students and join us at the workshops.