Managing the Paper Load

Successful Strategies for Including Writing in General Education Courses
Sharon E. Preves, formerly of the Department of Sociology

Faculty Teaching and Learning Conference
Grand Valley State University
August 23, 2000

"Preserving Writing in Large Classes: The Dos and Don'ts"

I am dedicated to incorporating writing in every class I teach, regardless of size. Some have called me nuts over the years, as I really do assign papers to every class, no matter how large - even when I worked at the University of Minnesota with classes of 250 students! Fortunately my classes at Grand Valley don't get any larger than 50 students, but I have found that the same basic pedagogical principles apply, regardless of class size.

Over the years I have learned a lot, certainly by trial and error, about what works and doesn't work, for me as an instructor and for my students. Here I provide an overview of the dos and don'ts I have discovered over the years, with particular focus on what worked.

I typically assign both graded and non-graded writing assignments to give my students and myself a balance and a little variety.

For Graded Assignments:

Keys to success: foresight and planning; staggering and pacing

Plan ahead for an overarching and balanced paper flow as you create syllabi for all of your classes. For example, have a calendar handy and be sure to plan assignment deadlines for all classes so that they don't occur at the exact same time (note re: staggering deadlines for multiple sections of any given course)

Within any given class, stagger the assignment deadlines so that you don't get all of the papers at once. For example, give a basic assignment for students to write a paper on the week/topic of their choice. Pass around a sign-up sheet the first week of class with the semester's topics and due dates, asking students to rank their first three choices. Head home and set up a schedule so that rather than getting 30 papers at once, you get papers from two students per week throughout the semester. The next class session, give students a list of their assigned topics and deadlines and hold them to it.

Another version of this staggering technique is to have students sign up to be key discussion leaders or "experts" on the week/topic of their choice (as individuals or in pairs/trios). Ask them to prepare discussion questions and to lead the class in a discussion, as well as write a paper summarizing their responses to the course material for the week, and a rationale for their choice of discussion questions.

For Ungraded Assignments:

Keys to success: focused questions, contained and uncensored writing time, followed by discussion

Use the "think, pair, share" model which helps stimulate and clarify students' positions on lecture/presentation material.  For example, after giving a lecture on a particularly sensitive or provocative topic, pose a focused, written question to the class (on the board or on an overhead) and give them 5-10 minutes to collect and write their own responses. Follow this exercise with a pair and/or larger group discussion. Writing may or may not be turned in (often it's better not to see this free form writing, as students may write more freely if they feel less censored).

Page last modified February 16, 2017