First-Year Writing Instruction Online

Principles and Practices Overview

In spring, we scrambled to move already-designed, half-completed courses online. As we look to fall, we have time for more intentional planning. It’s tempting to focus on practical concerns: how can we do what we usually do in digital spaces and tools? But while our usual pedagogies work well in face-to-face classrooms, many of them don’t translate well online. A Zoom discussion just doesn’t work the way an in-person one does, and the easy improvisation most of us rely on in the classroom is stymied by technology. Online teaching requires more planning, but it may also benefit from different structures and strategies. To figure those out, we should begin not with tools but with ideas about writing and what our students need to experience and understand in order to develop as writers. The principles below echo the ideas laid out in our shared goals, and for each we’ve identified some online tactics for pursuing them.

I. Writing and learning to write are social activities.

Principle

Communication is an act — and an art — of interaction. We write to inform, persuade, entertain, or move others, and doing so creates and/or builds on our relationships with our audiences. Learning to think critically about the relationship between purpose, audience, and the choices we make as writers is the central focus of our writing courses. Learning to think about writing as a social practice is itself social. Much of our students’ learning emerges through interaction — talking about the choices they make as writers, discussing readings and drafts with other students, and consulting with faculty.  

In the current context, the social part of writing classes takes on added value. Most first-year writing students in the fall will be new to Georgetown, and they need opportunities to connect with each other and with us. They are also — like us — living through a particularly difficult period emotionally and cognitively. As Cathy Davidson wrote in a May HASTAC blog, as we design our summer and fall courses, we need to “begin from the premise that our students are learning from a place of dislocation, anxiety, and trauma. So are we.”  Creating social connections in our courses may be the most challenging part of our work right now, but it is also the most crucial. How do we make our online courses supportive, interactive social spaces for learning and connecting?

How to do this online

  • Ask students to introduce themselves and create opportunities early on for them to interact with each other, in real-time Zoom sessions, a Canvas discussion thread, or short videos or audio recordings. 
  • Hold individual and small group meetings with students. Early on, focus on getting to know students, but later, these sessions can focus on how students are developing an assignment or on talking about their drafts. 
  • Use breakout rooms with white boards in Zoom, shared Google docs or Jamboards, or real-time written chats to get students working together for low-stakes activities like framing questions about a reading or assignment.
  • Use the poll tool in Zoom to ask students to respond to discussion questions in an online session. 
  • Assign short projects that students can present and discuss online, such as Pecha Kuchas or short podcasts.
  • Assign low-stakes collaborative projects, and leave it to students to figure out how and when to work together. Devote a week or more of class time for students to work in these groups. Meet once with each group and/or communicate with them by email or Canvas discussions. 
  • Have students consult with the same small group as they work individually through the process of developing and revising a paper. Use Canvas groups (in the People menu) or discussion threads to organize these. 
  • Use audio or video to record your comments on students’ drafts or projects. This can create a warmer, more human feel, and some faculty find this easier to do than writing comments. Research shows that students generally respond better to this kind of feedback.
  • Ask students to post in Canvas or to open Zoom meetings with short personal insights, photos, even quick games. 
  • Have the class work on a shared project, such as creating short pieces for an anthology or multiple podcasts about a common theme.

II. Our students come to our courses with varied backgrounds, needs, and strengths.

Principle

These differences can enrich our classes even as they pose challenges.In part because writing is such a language-centric activity, complicated by inequities around class, race, and abilities, and because writing instruction in secondary schools varies so widely, inclusion and equity are especially important in first-year writing courses. These differences shape our classrooms during “normal” times, but during this pandemic, they may create additional challenges. Some students may not have the technology, quiet space, or protected time to participate comfortably or productively in real-time or on-screen activities. They are scattered across the country and around the world, in different time zones. We need to design course materials in ways that allow multiple ways of access. At the same time, students’ different situations and backgrounds can enrich class discussions and enable them to pursue varied projects or to bring distinct perspectives to shared projects. Addressing different students’ needs and building on their varied strengths encourages individualization.

How to do this online

  • Before the semester begins, survey students to learn about their locations, time constraints, wifi access, and work or family obligations but also about their concerns about the course and the semester. You may need to adapt course practices if students are in many different time zones or have limited wifi.
  • Ask students to write a short informal opening reflection about their prior experiences with writing, including their strengths and what they would like to gain from this course.
  • Ask students to write about places they know, including perhaps how their home places are being affected by the pandemic. These could be full-length essays, but you could also do a class mapping project, with each student adding a pin and a short description or story about their location on a shared map.
  • Make course materials available in accessible ways, and consider posting things in multiple formats.
  • Use real-time meetings strategically and consider what portions of your class could happen asynchronously. 
  • Encourage students to engage in projects that reflect their interests and experiences.
  • Begin Zoom class sessions with 5 minutes of individual writing — this could be about the class, about how they’re doing, or something else entirely. It can seem counterintuitive, but writing together, even when we’re all in separate spaces and connected through the artificial format of Zoom, can help create calm and a sense of commonality.

III. While writing students need explanations of some key concepts, learning to use those concepts involves practice, feedback, and iteration.

Principle

While Writing Studies has developed a large body of disciplinary content knowledge, our goal as a program is to prepare our students to respond strategically to the wide range of writing situations they will encounter, in college and beyond. That ability rests on their understanding of our core ideas:

We need to find creative, engaging, clear ways to present these and other core ideas in our courses, and there are many ways to do that, from readings to short lectures to podcasts and videos. 

But as David Perkins has shown, understanding isn’t about being able to describe these concepts. Understanding means being able to “apply concepts, analogize, represent in a new way.” To develop that kind of knowledge, students need to use these ideas, so our courses should emphasize application and practice rather than presenting information. 

In a face-to-face class, it’s easy to shift between explanation and practice, but in an online course, this requires more planning. We do need to present concepts, explain assignments, demonstrate ways of analyzing rhetorical situations, and so on. Much of the presentation can be done asynchronously, made available so that students can watch, listen, or read based on their individual schedules and available for students to revisit as they wish. Practice, too, can happen offline, individually, but also be shared and discussed in various ways. The model of the “flipped classroom” may be useful here, where students read/watch/listen to short presentations, do some practice on their own, and come together to compare notes. 

How to do this online

  • Present asynchronously to enable students to read/watch/listen on their own, multiple times, and be able to review materials later when it’s time to apply ideas in their own writing. 
  • Take advantage of free online writing textbooks, which have chapters on a wide range of topics. Writing Spaces and Writing Commons are both good. You’ll also find dozens on short YouTube videos about writing. These aren’t necessarily great, but they can be the basis for an interesting discussion. Ask students to select videos or other resources that they find especially useful or not, and have them post links with short reviews in Canvas.
  • Consider posting materials in multiple forms. If students can choose from a short video, a set of slides with notes, or a link to a short reading, they may be more likely to  watch/listen/read, and they can encounter key ideas more than once. 
  • Try to limit presentation time to short chunks — 15 to 20 minutes. It’s easy to zone out during any long presentation, and that’s even more likely online.
  • Ask students to  respond to or use the material you present before class, so they’re prepared for real-time discussion. They could submit questions in the discussion board or annotate a text in Google docs or Hypothes.is, and you can review these before class to identify points of confusion or openings for fuller discussions. 
  • Tap into student’s experiential knowledge or prior learning by having them work together to develop a document, using Google docs or a Canvas wiki page, about some aspect of writing or your course theme.
  • Have students research and present specific ideas or strategies. For example, have them identify aspects of writing that they find challenging, search for advice for addressing that challenge that’s available online, and then use Canva or another infographic tool to create a graphic  “cheat sheet” to share with the class. 

IV. Writing is a tool for learning -- especially in an online course.

Principle

The idea that writing facilitates learning is one of our longtime “Guidelines for Teaching.” One way to figure out what you think is to put your ideas into words, and writing courses often involve a significant amount of informal, exploratory writing. This principle also reminds us that exploration and research are part of writing. Students often imagine that “writing” is only about the act of putting ideas into words, on paper or screen. But writing begins long before you start crafting a paper. Using writing to explore questions or problems that matter to them can engage students while also giving them a chance to focus on the process of learning about a topic and developing their ideas. 

How to do this online

  • Discussion boards provide great opportunities for students to write informally as they learn. Structured or guided discussions generate more interesting and thoughtful responses. One way to do that is to assign students different roles over the course of a discussion. 
  • Online discussions also provide openings for us to teach students about things like how to frame good questions, how to develop a discussion, and how to respond to other people’s ideas. This Discussion Board FAQ includes some questions to help students think about how to contribute productively to an online discussion and some guidelines for grading online discussions.
  • Have each student save their work on larger projects in a Google folder, starting with informal writing about their project to notes on their research and outlines and then to drafts. They can share these just with you, or they could share them in small groups, which can review each other’s work as it develops and meet in Zoom breakout rooms to compare notes. A similar option would be a Digital Scrapbook, which they could build in  Georgetown Domains, WordPress, or even in Google Docs. 

V. Writing takes many forms, and practicing different genres can foster students’ rhetorical thinking skills.

Principle

Different genres call for different communicative strategies, and they tend to reflect the values, purposes, and ways of thinking of the discourse communities and settings in which they are used. Writers need to be able to identify and adapt to the conventions of different genres, including academic forms but also multimedia genres. Thinking about and trying different genres can help students develop both their understanding of how writing works and their confidence and agility as writers. In our program, we have long encouraged assigning academic, professional, and popular genres. While that can help prepare students for the varied kinds of writing they will do in other settings after our courses, it also deepens students’ understanding of genre as a key concept, an aspect of writing that they will need to recognize and adapt to as they move into new writing situations.

How to do this online

  • This period of online living may provide all of us new opportunities to think about genre, since it may make us more conscious of the forms in which we encounter each other. It also invites us, and sometimes requires us, to communicate in unfamiliar settings. Use the current situation to design assignments asking students to reflect on, analyze, or critique how people or organizations are responding to the pandemic. That might include inviting them to think, write, and talk with each other about their experiences in online classes. What for them makes a good Zoom session? A good recorded lecture? An effective written discussion?
  • You can also invite students to create their own online communications. While this wouldn’t be a new activity for them — many are regular, creative producers of online media — pandemic living has probably given them new insights, not only about the themes of your course but also about writing and communication, about education and social justice, about media, and more. Writing something to contribute to online conversations about this can provide a rich opportunity for students to think strategically about form, audience, content, structure, and style.

VI. Online courses put us in a distinct rhetorical situation, and we need to adapt our communications to suit the context.

Principle

One way to think about the challenge of online teaching is through a rhetorical lens. As we might remind our students, different forms or contexts require us to organize and present ideas in different ways. Thinking seriously about the needs and interests of our audience can help us make strategic decisions about organizing class time and activities, what content to emphasize, and our communication style, as well as about what tools to use.

How to do this online

  • Consider the insights from multiple surveys and reports that capture students’ responses to the online portion of Spring semester. They remind us that there is no single good way to teach online but also highlight some strategies that resonated with students.
  • Create some consistency in your course, so that students know what to expect. Choose and stick to a consistent way of communicating with your students and organizing course materials, and limit the number of different tools and platforms you use. You can also build consistency into the course schedule. Make every Tuesday a real-time Zoom session and every Thursday a time for off-line, individual, and small group work. Or post an update to your class every Monday, outlining the work for the week. 
  • While email is the easiest tool for communicating with your class, it might not be the best way to reach your students. Some have reported having difficulty keeping up with the flood of emails. Canvas announcements or modules, a course blog, a discussion board thread, a course Facebook group or Twitter hashtag, or collaboration software like Slack give us lots of options. 
  • Keep course materials neatly organized, and embed links in messages, assignment sheets, and elsewhere to make it easy for students to find the documents or resources they need without searching. You can also help students keep their work organized by having them collect their materials in a course blog or Google folder that they share with you and possibly with the rest of the class. 
  • Be accessible — but strategically. If you set up a discussion board thread where students can post questions — Dennis Winston calls his “Ask the Professor” — you can respond to common questions publicly, so students can find answers on their own. Schedule individual appointments using the “Appointment Group” tab in Canvas calendar, or hold open drop-in office hours in Zoom. 
  • Regardless of what form you use, break materials up into manageable chunks. Keep the Twitter abbreviation TLDR — “too long didn’t read” — in mind. Students will be more likely to watch or listen to a few short recordings, and you can break written explanations and instructions into multiple pieces. Consider posting a separate assignment in Canvas for each part of a larger project, so that students would submit planning documents like notes or outlines, then a draft, then notes for revision, the completed paper, and a reflection on the project. This reinforces that the project is not just about the product but also about the process, and it helps you and students keep track of the work involved.
  • Learn the tools. An hour spent exploring the capabilities of Zoom or any other tool can expand your options for using it and help you prepare to use it with more ease. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be to help students learn to use these tools. 
  • On the other hand, don’t be afraid to give students space to figure things out on their own. For example, you can assign students to work in small groups and suggest some tools they could use, but let them decide whether to meet in Zoom or via chat or some other way.

Bibliography

A Position Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction,” Conference on College Composition and Communication, March 2013.

Facilitating Digital Peer Review,” TeachingWriting, Stanford University.

Links for Teaching During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” WAC Clearinghouse, Colorado State University.

Online Writing Instruction Open Resource,” Conference on College Composition and Communication, n.d.

Warnock, Scott. Teaching Writing Online: How & Why.  NCTE, 2009.