Using Writing to Promote Participation

Learning as a Social Activity

For FIU students, many of whom commute to school, hold jobs, and have numerous responsibilities outside of the classroom, participation in class discussion brings important social-educational benefits. The Spring 2018 FIU Gateway Survey found that more than 90% of FIU students taking Gateway classes are commuters. Therefore, for a number of our students, the classroom is a primary contact point, a site for building skills, confidence, engagement and supportive networks. Learning is a social activity, dynamic, cooperative, and constructed through exchange. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than a lively classroom or small group discussion where students are invited to communicate with each other –and where they accept that invitation.

So, how can we incorporate writing assignments that also promote participation, communication, risk-taking, and team building?

Writing is an especially potent tool for generating participation because textural exchanges

  • Give introverts, second-language learners, and others a space for silent, contemplative thinking to make sense of information and think through how to best form a question or reply.
  • Neutralize loud voices and forceful personalities and potentially give everyone’s contribution equal weight.
  • Reduce the sense that class participation is a performance and so accordingly reduce performance anxiety.
  • Allow everyone the status of being heard – students “love to see their point responded to in print because [the response] confirms that people are interested in what they have to say.” (Brookfield and Preskill 28).
  • Provide a route through which everyone in the working group (students and instructor) may come to know each other better.

Some Writing Activities that Result in Productive Exchange

Beginning Class Brainstorms

A task as simple as asking students to write for a few minutes before whole class or small group discussion about key take-aways from assigned readings, lingering questions about current course content, or their progress with a course project can help students focus their thoughts and generate contributions to discussion. See additional WAC resources on Writing to Learn:

Send a Problem

In this activity, students will work in groups of 3 to 5 to generate questions about course content and to formulate tentative answers to these questions. The groups will then share their questions and answers. This activity encourages students to use writing to engage with course material and with each other.

Step 1. Following a brief introduction of course content that the class will cover, divide the students into groups.

Step 2. Instruct each group that they have 5 minutes to complete this step. Each group must write a question or problem related to that content on the blank side of an index card. Then, group members must reach a consensus about a response to their question, and then turn the card over and record their contribution on the ruled side of the card, leaving plenty of space for more writing.

Step 3. After completing Step 2, each group passes its card to the next group, which discusses their own answers to the question or problem on another group’s card, compares them to the previous group’s contribution, and may write an alternative solution on the back. After 5 minutes the group must pass the card on. Stacks rotate until returned to the original senders, who examine and discuss the alternative answers.

VARIATION: The instructor creates questions/problems and staples them to a manila folder which is then passed from group to group with answers placed inside.

[Adapted from the University of Iowa, Center for Teaching online resources page.]


Four Corners/Linear Continuum

This activity asks students to take a position on an issue and then discuss that issue with classmates.  Because students have to physically stand with other like-minded students, the activity encourages interaction.

Step 1. Create four (or two if a continuum) large signs with the phrases STRONGLY AGREE, AGREE, DISAGREE, STRONGLY DISAGREE. Place the signs in the four corners of the classroom.

Step 2. Prepare a position statement on an overhead or whiteboard (you might prepare a series of these)

Step 3. Instruct students to move to the corner that best describes their feelings on the statement. Each person in the corner writes his or her views directly on the sign and then discusses the view recorded on the sign with similar-minded classmates.

Step 4. Each corner is now a like-minded group. Instruct each group to present summaries of their justification to the rest of the class. Students may change their places after reading/hearing others’ arguments.

[Adapted from The Discussion Book: 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking by Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill (2016).]


Poster-board dialogue

This activity asks students to document a small group discussion and then respond in writing to other groups. Because much of the exchange happens anonymously, students may offer questions, comments, and solutions that they would not offer otherwise. Furthermore, the discussion that takes place at the end of the activity may help the students to delve more deeply into course material and/or question previous assumptions.

Step 1: Divide the class into small groups. Each group will use writing to discuss a topic, problem, or question provided by the teacher.

Step 2: After initial small group discussion, each group records all comments, questions, complications, and solutions covered in small-group discussion on to their group’s poster board (or newsprint or on the classroom’s white boards). Groups are told that everyone in class will read all comments carefully, so members should be as thorough, clear, and concrete as possible.

Step 3: Groups tape their posters to the wall and hang another blank poster next to their posting.

Step 4: Each student takes a pen or pencil and visits the poster board of each group in the room, writing down on the blank poster provided any reactions, agreements, or challenges to other people’s responses to the posting prompt.

Step 5: After 10 minutes or so, small groups are told to return to their poster and talk about the comments left there. Then the entire class reassembles, and small groups are invited to say anything they wish about the comments responding to their poster.

Sometimes no one has anything to add, in which case, you may want to point out to the class that every person has interacted in a personal way with every item on the original postings and that a thorough debriefing has occurred.

[Adapted from The Discussion Book: 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking by Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill (2016).]