Writing and Research

Designing clear writing assignments and identifying strategies for providing effective feedback are some of the challenges of integrating writing into your classroom. The following Teaching Tips have been designed to provide you with strategies for successfully meeting these challenges.

Developing and Formatting a Writing Assignment

You will be more likely to get the papers you expect from students if you give them a written assignment that is well planned and carefully formatted. Students report that the most effective assignments are typically no longer than a page, but definitely longer than just a paragraph or even a sentence.

Learning Goals:

As you develop your assignment, ask yourself about your goals for giving the assignment. What will students gain by doing the assignment? How does the assignment further your course goals? How does it connect, in terms of content and writing skills, to assignments which have come before and will come after?

What do you need to tell students on the assignment sheet?

  • Task: What is the student supposed to write about and why? Can you break the task down into manageable parts or steps? What format will be easiest for students to follow? (Students generally find bulleted directions easier to follow than paragraphs of directions.)
  • Goals: Have you told students your goals for this assignment? Will students have a good sense of what they are being asked to produce and why?
  • Audience: Are students writing just for you, the teacher? For another assumed audience? (Depending upon the level of the course, you might consider asking students to address their paper to you and to students at the same level as they are in the discipline. The dual audience helps them make decisions about information they might need to include rather than just assuming the teacher knows it all already.)
  • Format and due dates: Explain the process to be followed, including due dates for drafts and revisions if applicable. State clearly the expected length and manuscript form. You may want to include other expectations, e.g., Use standard experimental report format.
  • Criteria for evaluation: How will the final product be graded? What criteria do you need to give students? How much weight will be given to various parts of the paper? What are the criteria for an “A,” a “B,” and so on? Do you have sample “A” papers to show?

Final advice: Try doing at least one of your assignments yourself!


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Using Writing to Learn in Your Classes

In-Class Writing-to-Learn Activities

  • Think, Pair, Share: Ask a question relevant to the day’s lecture, have students write a short response, then give them a few minutes to talk to a partner about their response.
  • Priming the Pump (start of class): Ask students to write down a question they would like to ask you about the material from the last class or about the reading for the day. Collect the questions and pick one or two to discuss at the end of class or at the start of the next class.
  • Clarification Pauses: About 15-20 minutes into the class, ask students to write down any questions they have at that point. Or ask them to summarize what they’ve heard so far. You can respond to one or more, or they can share their questions/summaries with a partner.
  • Think, Pair, Share (end of class): Ask students to summarize in 3-5 sentences the key points of the lecture and then to discuss their summary with the person next to them. You may want to collect their summaries and choose one or more to read in the next class.
  • Minute Paper (end of class): At the end of class, ask a question about the day’s material for students to answer in short essay form. Some useful minute paper questions:
    • Describe the most important point from today’s class and why it’s important.
    • Give an example of a specific thing the professor does that helps you (or makes it more difficult) to learn [insert appropriate topic for your course].
    • Describe the most difficult or confusing thing in today’s lecture and why it’s confusing or difficult.
    • Give an example of how _______ can be used to explain _________.

Outside-of-Class Writing-to-Learn Activities

Practice essay exams:

  • Give students a sample question with clear directions and criteria. Ask them to read the question in class and mark any parts that are unclear or that they are unsure about. They can complete the essay outside of class and then meet in groups to compare their responses. Ask them to select one essay from each group to turn in to you. (You may want to give the student who wrote the selected essay extra credit.)
  • Use the best practice essay(s) of those submitted as a model with the class, explaining what makes the essay(s) good.


  • Have students write 200-250 words (on the reading or lecture) with a thesis and evidence.
  • Collect and choose a random number of these to score each time. Give a number score and tell students the criteria for each score. Use the best themes to teach course concepts.


Journals work best if you give students specific prompts, e.g.:

  • Connect a course concept with personal or observed experiences.
  • Describe material you’re having trouble understanding: what’s difficult about the lesson?
  • Explain a course concept/a reading/an experiment to a peer.


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How to Help Students Give Effective Peer Response

Give students specific guidelines for each peer response session:

  • Give students questions to answer about their peers’ drafts. Consider using a checklist that includes room for written responses, not just a “yes” or “no” response.
  • Explain how students should monitor their time in the group and/or in pairs.
  • Suggest a set amount of time they should spend on each peer’s draft.
  • Make students responsible for turning something in at the end of the peer review session, both writer and reviewer.
  • Acknowledge and respect the advice students give one another even though you may not fully agree.
  • Explain that they are free to use or ignore their peers’ advice based on their own best judgment.

Questions students might use in responding to each other’s drafts:

  • How would you sum up the writer’s main claim or focus?
  • What two big questions do you have about the writer’s argument? How would getting these questions answered help you as the reader?
  • What is the most interesting part of the draft for you? (I call it a “hot spot.”) Why?
  • What part of the draft is clearest and/or most effective?
  • What part is least clear and/or effective?
  • What specific suggestions do you have for revising the unclear parts?

Ideas for processing peer review commentary:

  • Each peer reviewer should write a note recommending revisions to the writer based on responses to the questions above.
  • Once reviewers have responded to their peers’ drafts, ask the writer to re-read his/her draft with the peers’ responses in mind, then to write a note to him/herself outlining the revisions to be undertaken.
  • Students might also be asked to pick the draft from their group that they liked the best and explain all of the reasons they liked it. This discussion can help the other writers determine characteristics readers value. The group should then make a list of characteristics they think are important in papers written in response to this assignment.


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Managing the Paper Load and Responding Effectively to Student Writing

Give feedback appropriate to the stage of the writing process:

  • Formative: Purpose is to provide feedback for revision. Students will often choose not to read formative feedback if there’s no opportunity to revise.
  • Summative: Purpose is to sum up strengths and weaknesses and to give evidence for the final grade. Summative feedback can be brief.

Invest time up front by doing the following:

  • Read and explain the assignment in class. Try writing a thesis or opening paragraph yourself.
  • Provide students with a list of characteristics for A/B/C/D/F papers and/or show them an example of an “A” paper and discuss the reasons it received an “A” grade.
  • Clarify your evaluation criteria and make a criteria sheet/rubric for grading. Give students the rubric well before the paper is due and discuss it with them.
  • Ask students to fill out the rubric for themselves, using it as a sort of checklist before they turn in the paper.
  • Show students examples of comments you make on papers and tell them your pet peeves.

Practice minimal marking:

  • Resist the urge to over edit. Research suggests that it does students more good to find and fix their own errors. Focus on two or three kinds of errors you see recurring. Put a number by the mistake the first time you see it and explain the error. When you see the same mistake, put the same number beside it. No need to re-explain. Syntax errors are harder to categorize (and for students to fix). You can explain what a syntax error is, fix one or two sentences, and mark others for the student to fix.
  • Edit one paragraph thoroughly and explain the errors. Tell the student it is his/her job to edit the rest of the paper in the way you’ve modeled and resubmit. If you know the errors are due to carelessness, give the student a late grade when he/she resubmits.
  • If you don’t allow students to revise and resubmit papers, ask them to include a cover memo on the next paper explaining what they have paid particular attention to in this paper based on your comments on their last paper.
  • You don’t need to grade all writing the same way, e.g.: mark “completed/not completed” or “acceptable/unacceptable” or “professional/unprofessional”; use a simple rating scale; comment only on the items you’ve focused on in the unit. Be sure to tell students what these ratings cover.

The final comment:

  • Appreciate what the student was trying to do by restating the paper’s main point and discussing some of the paper’s strengths.
  • Don’t give students so many comments they don’t know what to do first. Prioritize and limit your critical comments, and explain briefly why the weak areas present problems for readers.
  • Give students some tips for the next paper. If this is the only or last paper they will write for you, give them some guidance on how to improve their writing overall and for future courses. Control the size of your handwriting. Handwriting often gets larger when the teacher is annoyed by the writing.
  • Consider how much time to spend grading work you know has been carelessly done. Require the paper to be resubmitted with a grade penalty for being late. If you don’t want to let the student resubmit the paper, give a grade that reflects your anguish and/or annoyance, and explain briefly your reasons for giving the grade, being direct but also courteous, recognizing that students too must set priorities.


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Helping Students Avoid Plagiarism

Almost nothing is more distressing for faculty reading their students’ writing than spotting an instance of plagiarism. Echoing a word root that means “kidnapping,” plagiarism certainly feels like a major crime, especially to academics whose publications are our pride and our legacy. While we’re careful to cite anything we didn’t write, for students, source acknowledgment is often a murky and confusing process that varies from the popular world to the academic one, from high school to college, from one discipline to another, and from one classroom to another. They are constantly learning new rules, relearning rules they misunderstood the first time, and adapting to increasingly complex writing tasks. It makes sense that they would sometimes make errors.

Here are some questions you might ask to decide whether students are deliberately plagiarizing or are still trying to figure out what needs to be cited and how.

Are your students deliberately plagiarizing?

  • Did the student copy someone else’s work and present it as his/her own?
  • Did the student ask someone else to write the paper for him/her?
  • Did the student purchase a paper or download one from the internet?
  • Did the student “patch write,” i.e., copy and paste passages from other sources without attribution?
  • Did the student make up sources?

Plagiarism is cheating, and it should be reported to the Honor Committee.

Are your students making serious citation errors, which may stem from misunderstanding?

  • Might uncited material have seemed like “common knowledge” to the student? (What is considered common knowledge may vary from field to field and even teacher to teacher.)
  • Might a student have misunderstood whether a particular source needed citing? (Some faculty tell students that textbooks, handouts, or commonly used sources do not need citing.)
  • Might citation problems reveal a student unsure of when to quote, and when and how to paraphrase? (Students in some disciplines are told that they do not need to quote phrasing that’s five or fewer words, or add citations more than once per paragraph.)
  • Is some source material incompletely, inaccurately or inconsistently documented, as might happen with poor note-taking, unfamiliarity with a new format, or carelessness?

Widespread serious citation errors can create a document that is effectively plagiarized, even if the student didn’t intend that outcome. Faculty must judge whether to report such students for cheating. Sporadic citation errors may indicate a learning process. Faculty may choose to designate a significant grade penalty for such errors—as they might do for errors of fact or insufficient argumentation—without labeling such problems as cheating.

Whether deliberate or unintentional, you can help students avoid plagiarism by reducing the opportunity and temptation not to do their own work (plagiarism is often a last-minute decision):

  • Discuss the definition of plagiarism in class. Include all variations depending on the field (e.g., citations, etc.).
  • Include in your syllabus an explanation of plagiarism and your policies on plagiarized work.
  • Ask students for a proposal for their research and/or to commit to a topic early on.
  • Discuss with students what their original contribution should be and what it might look like: source-material choice? synthesis? analysis? proposals? separate from or integrated with source material?
  • Break your assignment into parts: prospectus, drafts, annotated bibliography, thesis and rough outline.
  • Give students clear guidelines for using, citing, and documenting sources. Ask students about their uncertainties and/or confusions about using sources.
  • Spend time in class practicing how to paraphrase and document sources relevant to your field/assignment.
  • Ask students for frequent updates on their research and research process.
  • Require different kinds of sources (e.g., books, websites, articles, etc.).
  • Make time in class for students to write about one or more of their sources and how the source helps them develop their argument.
  • On the day the paper is due, ask students to write about their research and writing steps, the writing choices they made about structuring the paper, and how they chose which sources to use.


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20 Questions About Writing Assignments

Students can ask these questions about assignments they receive—and we can ensure that our own assignment prompts and explanations give students these key pieces of information.

Questions about getting started:

  1. If I have my own idea for a topic or angle that’s interesting to me, can I use it, or do I need to complete the assignment exactly the way it is described?
  2. Is there an assignment model, a sample essay, or a kind of published writing that I could look at to help me better see how to do this assignment?
  3. If I write an essay draft early, can I come see you [the professor] to talk about it, or email you to ask a few questions?

Questions about the assignment’s main purpose:

  1. Why do people in this field write or read a text like this? What’s the main goal for this kind of writing?
  2. Should I mostly review the similarities, differences, events, theories, or key features, or should I make arguments, draw conclusions, or give my interpretations about these ideas? Do I need to answer the question, “so, what?”
  3. Should I broadly survey the field or issue, or should I narrow my focus and “go deep” with my analysis?

Questions about the assignment’s target audience:

  1. Should I write for a knowledgeable audience that has read (or studied) what I have read (or studied), or do I need to give additional background or summary?
  2. Should I try to write for a resistant audience that will need a lot of evidence, or should I write for an audience that generally agrees with my point? Should I address and refute counterarguments?
  3. What kind of evidence will be most convincing in this field (or to this audience): numbers, descriptions, direct quotations, logical reasoning, examples, case studies, expert testimony?
  4. Will I need to consult outside sources, and if I do, what kind of sources are appropriate for this field, audience, or genre?

Questions about style and format that differ among disciplines:

  1. Is it preferred that I use the scholarly language or format of this discipline or genre, or should I use standard paragraphs and plain, direct language accessible to a range of readers?
  2. Are lively, graceful introductions and extended paragraphs expected by readers in this field (or for this assignment), or will short, informative paragraphs be sufficient?
  3. Is it important to readers in this field that I write smooth, stylistic sentences, or is a straightforward “just the facts, ma’am” style enough?
  4. What citation format should I use for outside sources?

Questions about the context or specific assignment:

  1. Is it okay to use first person (“I”) or second person (“you”)? Is it okay to use specific, relevant examples from my own life or experience?
  2. Should I try to avoid passive voice (“to be” verbs)? Does it matter whether I use present tense or past tense verbs (as long as I’m consistent)?
  3. Is the page-length specification an absolute requirement, or is it more of a guide to how much information I should plan to include in order to satisfy the audience’s needs?
  4. Can I include relevant visual or other non-text information (pictures, charts, diagrams, sound or video clips), or should I include only text?

Questions to gauge individual professors’ goals and concerns:

  1. What do you think is the most difficult part of this assignment? What are the most common mistakes students make with this assignment?
  2. What is the most important aspect of this assignment? What should I spend most of my time and energy on as I write and edit?


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Return on Investment: 4 Core Strategies for Commenting on Student Essays


What did you most struggle with as a writer in college? What kind of comments helped or didn’t help?

Why do you give comments as a teacher? What makes you feel best/worst about responding to writing?


Research in writing education demonstrates that:

  • Students quickly get overwhelmed by teacher-comments on their essays, even positive ones
  • Comments specific to the essay have more power to engender learning than generic ones
  • Students don’t automatically “transfer” learning from one assignment to the next
  • Students learn to write by writing/revising more than by reading advice about writing
  • Students don’t always improve their next essay’s sentences simply from seeing teachers’ corrections; students improve by themselves attending to and working to improve the next essay’s sentences

Your own experience should tell you that:

  • Teachers quickly get overwhelmed by commenting on everything on all student essays
  • Few students revise more than about enough to raise their essay grades one letter-grade level (10%), and few students will improve in a dozen different ways from one essay to the next one
  • Extensive comments that students don’t apply to their own writing have limited pedagogical value
  • Writing comments merely to “justify” a grade of less-than-“A” is not a soul-enriching endeavor

Common sense should thus tell you that:

  • Fewer, carefully targeted, engaged-with comments could be better for students and for teachers

Core Issue

Your time spent grading is a significant investment to make in your students this semester. How can you ensure the largest return on that investment (ROI)?

Four principles for the savvy grading-investor

  1. Know what you’re looking for most in each assignment, and focus on those issues
    1. Choose core competencies for each assignment, 3-4 maximum
    2. Communicate those to your students through your assignment prompt, in-class discussions, rubrics, and/or handouts: clarify expectations and build a common vocabulary with students
    3. Triage each essay quickly: what 1-2 core competencies does this student most need to improve? What 1-2 core competencies can this student most likely improve?
    4. Use written-out comments only to address those central, understood, improvable issues; use a checklist to provide feedback on less crucial or less complex issues (e.g. format or style)
    5. Remember the value of praising the student’s best effort so far in one or more focus areas
  2. Use your individualized responses to teach at teachable moments
    1. Invest more commenting time early
      1. early in the semester
      2. early in the writing process for a project
    2. Invest less time in commenting on final and/or late-term assignments
    3. Write short, specific, leading comments that ask for or direct a particular kind of revision
      1. Prefer “What were you happier than?” to “Vague.”
      2. Prefer “Could you make this point clear earlier?” to “Reorganize.”
      3. Prefer “Try ‘X says ___; however, this won’t work because ___’” to “Be explicit.”
      4. Write end comments that prioritize achievements and necessary changes: what’s first?
  3. Enlist students in helping you (all) achieve maximum investment returns
    1. Share models of student-level writing; help students identify “stronger/weaker” sightings of your high-focus elements in those models, then in peers’ paragraphs, and then in their own
    2. Have students formally self-review their current progress based on your assignment or rubric: what are they doing well? what not so well? what questions do they have?
    3. Ask students to annotate any assignment they turn in: what they did well, what they might improve
    4. Require students’ responses to your/others’ comments before or with the next assignment
    5. Ask students to describe key revisions to the current draft and/or plans for the next assignment
    6. Use some in-class time for planning and starting revisions (or “revision memos” for documents they won’t actually revise) based on peer review, self-review, or instructor-review
  4. Use shortcuts, rubrics, other strategies to minimize time spent on ranking/defending/grading
    1. Use underlines (good!), squiggles (problem!), or X’s as minimal marking at the sentence-level
    2. Consider marking mechanical/stylistic errors only for a paragraph or two in intense cases
    3. Deliberately limit your written comments: for instance, write only two comments per page, fill limited space on your response sheet, stick to a formulaic response outline
    4. Make fewer evaluative decisions: fewer assessment categories, fewer scores within categories
    5. Use rubrics or scoring guides that state high-water-mark specific goals—“makes clear early argument” vs. “thesis”—to provide feedback on a range of commonly-expected competencies
    6. Keep a list of common critiques to share with and elucidate for the whole class
    7. Provide sample “A” vs. “C” paragraphs or checklists before handing back graded essays
    8. Offer to provide additional responses to direct, specific questions if students request them
    9. Don’t feel guilty!

Good Investments

More student writing, less grade-calculating:More information, less original writing:
Try minute-papers scored S/U/0
Assign/collect four responses; letter-grade two
Judge using fewer criteria
Use fewer score levels: ABCD v. 95-94-93…
Discuss and use abbreviations or codes
Use detailed rubrics, checklists, macros
Use whole-class handouts for common issues
Have students write the first comments
More awareness-raising, less fixing:More precision, less volume:
Minimally mark (don’t fix) errors
Mark one paragraph substantially as a model
Underline strong sentences/phrases/analyses
Comment on a few key issues
Use questions or leading-statements instead of vaguely evaluative language
Praise exactly: “Focused summary”
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Peer Review Across Disciplines

1. Imagine All Possible Benefits of Students Using Peer Review

STUDENTS who are assigned to participate in even a small-scale peer review can have all the following gains even if their peers’ comments on their writing are not particularly astute. Through peer-review participation, students can:

  • prepare an early draft and thus have the option to revise
  • imagine that someone besides “the teacher” will read their work, and thus have increased motivation
  • come to see review as a normal and valued part of writing
  • see peers’ versions of the assignment and norm/expand their own options (not the same as copying others’ ideas!)
  • learn to question the choices writers make
  • become more critical readers of their own and others’ texts
  • acquire additional vocabulary for referring to texts
  • suggest strategies to others that they might practice themselves
  • become more adept at and comfortable with drafting and revising

FACULTY who assign peer review activities can have the following gains even if students’ comments are imprecise:

  • build classroom community and engage students in active learning
  • vary the format of instruction/learning and often gain an energy “pick me up”
  • allow students to have feedback on their writing without increasing the faculty’s paper-load
  • have students certify that other students have met a writing deadline without collecting papers

2. Adapt Peer Review to Your Teaching Situation

Use as much or as little time as you need, in whatever format suits your class:

  • Students may review for as little as 5 minutes or as long as an hour (many of the benefits accrue regardless of time!)
  • Students may work with designated or random peers, in groups of 3-5 or with nearby partners
  • Students may share 1-page “rants,” hypotheses, sketches, abstracts, whole drafts or only parts thereof
  • Students may read drafts aloud, trade with a partner, pick up an anonymous draft from a front table and return it

Consider assigning peer review outside of class:

  • Course management systems, email, blogs, and wikis allow peer-review assignments to take place online
  • Students with clear task-lists and/or clear assessment protocols can begin/complete PR as homework

Adapt peer review to your needs and your students’ abilities:

With some minimal preparation, most students can:

  • explain what they liked best or were most persuaded by
  • ask three questions they have about a topic
  • suggest one place the peer could provide more detail
  • identify key elements important to the professor: “You have no direct quotations,” “You use passive voice”

With additional preparation (see below), many students can:

  • identify the most powerful/direct and the least powerful/direct sentences they read
  • make paired comments about particular criteria: “You’re best at ___ here; you’re least good at ___ here”
  • make suggestions to improve particular elements: “For better attention-getting, try ___.”

If you know likely traps students may fall into with this project, you can:

  • demonstrate what those are and
  • ask students to check each other’s work for exactly those possible missteps

3. Teach Key Reviewing Skills

PEER REVIEWING IS A TEACHABLE SKILL: Plan to invest 20-25% of scheduled peer-review time in discussing and practicing reviewing skills, especially the first time or two you add such an activity (even if you’re not a writing teacher!).

Generate and/or discuss criteria for evaluation to increase students’ attention

  • Ask students to deduce from the assignment prompt or a grading rubric what to look for as they review
  • Ask students to list, define, and give examples for criteria for good writing (in this genre/discipline)
  • Draw students’ attention to any particular criteria that are the focus of this peer-review session
  • Share and discuss “model” texts to help students’ vision
  • Create one or more “good” and/or “bad” paragraphs, thesis sentences, reports, rebuttals, conclusions, etc.; design the text(s) to model traits you want students to focus on during this particular review session
  • Let students—in whole-class discussion, in groups or pairs—identify strengths and weaknesses in the model text(s)

Share and discuss appropriate comments to help students’ practices

  • Provide model comments for students to review, and/or ask them to describe comments that are helpful or not
  • Ask students to generate “good” and “better” (usually more-specific) comments related to the model text
  • Encourage students to do the difficult, generous work of suggesting specific alternatives

4. Support Revision and Reflection to Close the Loop

REVISING IS DIFFICULT EVEN WITH GOOD FEEDBACK: Short activities help students value and use what they’ve learned

Help students understand what they may have gained, even if peers’ commentary is imprecise

  • Show of hands or quick freewrite:
    • Who saw something a peer wrote that gave you a good idea?
    • Who learned something about what this assignment could be or is supposed to do?
    • Who suggested a change to a peer that you might make to your own writing?
  • List on board: What were the most helpful comments from peers this time
  • Class discussion: Who got suggestions to change X? to add Y?
  • Student notes: A large, a medium, and a small change you could make based on what you learned today

Set aside a little class time for students to practice revising (soon) after peer review

  • Ask students to take 5 minutes to “try something” with their current draft: Add/Move/Delete a sentence or paragraph, respond to one peer’s suggestion, go “out on a limb”
  • Try directed group revision for common needs: “Everyone find one place to possibly add a sentence beginning, ‘Another example of this is….’ and then share your new sentence with your neighbor”
  • Ask students in class to try one of three improvements you know other students have often needed in this assignment; provide “before” and “after” examples to demonstrate options

Make revision and reflection part of the final document

  • Collect reviewed drafts with final drafts, at least as a check on students’ participation
  • Consider assigning 5% of points for “significant revisions” after significant class investments in peer review
  • Ask students to annotate their own drafts (yes, right on the pristine final draft!):
    • Make a margin note at two places to explain a revision you made that improved your essay: “Here I ___.”
    • Make a margin note at two places where you still have a question: “Do I have enough/too much ___ here?”

5. Consider Peer Review Instructional Time As An Investment

Time invested in carefully constructed peer-review sessions, even short ones, usually pays off:

  • In more student engagement, deeper and more active learning, and stronger community-building
  • In reduced grading time for faculty, especially those who angle reviews toward specific student misconceptions
  • In better student attention to and valuing of writing, which usually increases writing quality


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University Resources Offering Additional Information about Integrating Writing and Research in the Classroom