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University Writing Program

Working Online with Student Writers

facilitating idea generating and organization

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How can you help online students generate content for an assignment you've given? A well-defined task will provide some help in and of itself. Still there some additional strategies you share with students.

1. First, some brief background

In the 1960's, more writing teachers and scholars "rediscovered" classical rhetoric, various strategies for helping people to craft effective texts to meet specific situations. One aspect of that rediscovery (of course, Aristotle, Cicero, Quintillian, and many others were never really lost) was the notion of a systematic process for creating a text, from initial ideas to a finished delivered product. These ideas contributed to an emphasis on helping students approach writing as a process. For the most part, college writing instruction had been a fairly product-oriented thing: "Here's a model; make one like it." Attending to the process of writing means helping students at various stages of producing a text. It acknowledges, for example, that knowing how the final product is supposed to look isn't much help if the writer has nothing to say. It acknowledges that a well-proofread paper is flawed if the content is wrongheaded.

  • Invention is the process of generating ideas, coming up with something to say.
  • Drafting is the process of fleshing out content into a purposeful order.
  • Revision is the process of assessing how well a draft addresses the task at hand, the audience, topic, and purpose, then making changes (adding, subtracting, substituting, or rearranging) to better achieve the task.
  • Design, Editing, and Proofreading are the processes of fitting the text to expected conventions (format, citation style, etc); style, voice, and clarity; and correctness.

Of course, these four processes are recursive and intertwined, and of course knowledge of the target text is useful.

One last preamble. What counts as good writing varies widely across the university, and with disciplines offering different inventional challenges. (Students are taught to write in different research traditions in WRIT 1133.) Students doing the highly conventionalized IMRAD reports of the sciences and many social sciences (Intro, Methods, Results, Analysis, Discussion) face challenges at specific junctures. Especially difficult are the review of literature; knowing how much description to provide in Methods; and generating discussion that is more than summarizing findings. Students in the humanities face fairly different challenges.

2. Provide some questions to generate thinking.

Many professors are used to including questions in their assignments to prod students along. Questions are valuable, but they can have the unintended effect of leading to drafts that are simply a series of answers to questions. (Of course, if that's fine with you, then just assign question answers rather than insisting on a formal essay.) Take care to make clear which questions are essential (students must address them) and which are merely heuristic (choose the questions that seem most helpful to you—or ignore them altogether). Here are some types of questions:

  • How would you describe X (a reading, an event, a phenomenon, an observation, a problem) to someone who has never encountered it?
  • What are the causes of X?
  • In what circumstances did X arise?
  • What are the consequences of X?
  • Who is most interested/invested in X? Who is least?
  • Who benefits most from X? Who least?
  • What is the evidence for believing A about X? For believing B?
  • Who agrees with X? Who disagrees? Why?
  • What alternatives to X exist?
  • What theories best explain X?
  • How would someone with this perspective interpret X? How would someone with that perspective?
  • How would a critic look at X?
  • What assumptions underlie X? Are these the only ones possible?
  • There are endless possible questions, of course, just as there are many schemes for analysis.

3. Have students brainstorm.

Brainstorming—simply generating lists of ideas, some of which may be good and others worthless—is a venerable strategy. You can ask students to generate a list of at least X ideas or questions related to the task, then return to identify the Y best ideas from that list. You can do this as a class activity in Canvas, synchronously or asynchronously, by opening a discussion thread and setting things so that students have to post their list of ideas before they see anyone else's. As a second round, students identify at least Y ideas that strike them as most promising, then write about why. The collective ideas can then be fair game for the whole class. You might worry that strong students will carry the weak. Perhaps to a small extent, but the effort needed to move even from good ideas to a compelling draft is still considerable. It's learning, not a competition.

4. Model your own brainstorming or share your own drafting.

Consider shooting a 5-10 minute video, including a screen capture, in which you brainstorm some ideas for a task similar to the one you're having them do.  Let them see (albeit imperfectly) your own fits and starts in generating ideas.  Let them see how you explore questions, produce false leads, raise possibilities, note further reading or research you might need to do, and so on.  Alternatively, show students notes or an early version of an article that you produced.

5. Provide models of target texts: examples good finished work 

Even better, annotate those examples so students can see the moves the writer made in producing it. Don't assume that students will be able to see the same things you do; what is ingrained and obvious to you may be new and invisible to students. Here's an example


In Progress--DH