Stop and write

Short bursts of writing can be used effectively in teaching situations to get students engaged and participating actively. Though we tend to think about seminars, for example, as largely involving oral discussion and exchange, they can often benefit from a pause in which everyone thinks independently for a few minutes before discussion is resumed.

Here are some simple suggestions for introducing writing to lectures and seminars:

  • Before the start of a lecture or seminar ask your students to write down the main points they learnt in the previous week and what they hope to learn today.
  • Stop in the middle of your lecture and ask your students to formulate in a couple of sentences what they think is the main point so far, or a question/confusion they have in their minds.
  • Vary the kind of prompts you give, so that students have to do different kinds of thinking. For example, ask students to write for a minute or two about their own experiences of some concept or phenomonen the lecture or seminar is covering. This may help make connections that help to build understanding.
  • At the end of your lecture/seminar ask students to summarise what they feel they have learnt or pose a question. Collect a sample in or ask individuals to read theirs out – the students have had to think and you’ve had valuable feedback which may alter what you do next time you meet.

What one lecturer did:  He started to use the technique of asking students to spend the last few minutes of a lecture writing down what they thought the main points were. As they left the lecture theatre he collected the comments in from students and then spent about ten minutes every few weeks looking through them and gaining insight into what the were making of the content. Towards the end of the term, he decided, on the basis of the feedback he’d had, to abandon the two or three final lectures he’d planned and spend the time instead working with the students to develop what they’d covered already, making connections, reviewing. To do this, he confessed, he needed to overcome a kind of vanity about what he, as the expert, thought a course on this topic should contain...

Getting students to write means they externalise what they know (or, as usefully,  recognise what they don‘t know) and how they are thinking, in writing. Once they’ve done this they can do things with what they’ve written: look back at it, speak about it, compare it, shape and extend it….

  • Ask your students to pick out a key phrase or word in what they’ve written, put it at the top of a new page, and write for a further 2 minutes, on that phrase or word. This will extend their thinking and begin to give shape to their initial thoughts.