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During the following year, the Teaching Times will be featuring the winners of the 2010-2011 Elizabeth Baranger Awards for graduate teaching in the Arts and Sciences. In this issue, Gregory Gandenberger, History and Philosophy of Science, shares a useful and time-efficient strategy to teach domain-general writing skills in any class.
Critical thinking and communication skills live at the heart of a liberal arts education. Instructors in the arts and sciences can help students develop such skills in addition to teaching them course-specific content. Courses explicitly devoted to critical thinking and communication skills are essential, but such courses are most effective when supplemented and reinforced throughout each student’s education in multiple contexts. Writing-intensive courses represent a step in this direction, but the ideal situation would entail the suffusion of the entire undergraduate curriculum with instruction in critical thinking and communication skills.
It can be difficult to incorporate instruction in critical thinking and communication into courses not explicitly devoted to those skills. Typically, instructors find that there is not enough time in a single semester to cover adequately all of the domain-specific material that they would like to address. Moreover, the complexity of these skills may lead instructors to wonder whether attempts to foster them in a course not explicitly devoted to them could make a significant difference. As a result, instructors are typically reluctant to take any time away from domain-specific material in order to teach domain-general skills. They may attempt to impart those skills to some extent by giving students assignments that involve applying domain-general skills to domain-specific content. For instance, they may attempt to improve their students’ writing skills by having them write essays related to the course material. Unfortunately, this approach by itself is not very effective. Simply having students write a few essays will not improve their writing skills substantially. Targeted and timely feedback can provide useful instruction, but there are also other ways to teach critical thinking and communication skills.
Though difficult, teaching domain-general skills effectively is possible without substantially sacrificing the amount of course-specific content one is able to cover. One way to do so is to combine a small amount of explicit, advance instruction in those skills with assignments that require students to apply those skills to course-specific content. The key to this approach is to craft the instruction and the assignments carefully so that the assignments reinforce the instruction as much as possible. When used in this way, a small amount of instruction goes a long way.
I recently used this approach to teach writing skills in an introductory philosophy of science course. I distributed an earlier version of the annotated handout linked below to introduce three simple writing tips to about 20 students during a 50-minute session. The handout is designed specifically to teach writing skills to a relatively small class in the philosophy of science, but it could easily be used as a model for teaching various domain-general skills to classes of various sizes in various fields. I reinforced the writing tips in this lesson by requiring students to write ten one-page essays throughout the course as well as two longer essays. I worked to ensure that these assignments succeeded in reinforcing the tips given in this lesson by referring back to the tips whenever I gave a writing assignment and by referring to them in my feedback to students. The lesson made it much easier to give the kind of succinct feedback that students are likely to use. For instance, instead of writing on a student’s paper, “It is generally a bad idea to use ‘this’ without a noun,” I would simply refer back to one of the tips we had discussed by writing “+ noun.”
I annotated the handout included with this article in order to explain why I designed it as I did and how I would use it in teaching. In general, the handout lends itself to three useful teaching techniques: teaching through concrete examples, introducing important ideas one at a time, and eliciting students’ participation as much as possible. The handout is organized into three sections, each of which discusses one writing tip. Each section begins by introducing the core idea of that section through an example. It then uses a series of additional examples to introduce a few wrinkles into that core idea. Each example is there to make one simple point. After the examples there are a few notes that sum up the ideas those examples illustrate and a textbox that restates the main point of the section. The lesson should be highly interactive, with students reading examples and suggesting revisions throughout.
After we finish the handout, I give students a passage from actual academic writing that these tips can help improve. I highlight a few particularly bad sentences and tell the students to edit these sentences in groups of two or three. I give help and feedback to individual groups while they work. When they are finished, we discuss the sentences they have edited as a class.
The students to whom I taught this lesson did use the writing tips I gave them, and their writing became noticeably clearer as the semester progressed. Because the tips are relatively simple and were consistently reinforced, I expect these improvements to persist. Ideally, students would receive similar instruction in domain-general skills such as writing throughout their studies.
Thanks go to my high school English teacher Ed Jodlowski for teaching me the rule "this + noun", and to my freshman composition teacher Anita Hagerman for teaching me not to nominalize. The example at the top of page 3 of the handout comes from the University of Chicago's Little Red Schoolhouse course. The rest of the examples are my own.
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The Teaching Times newsletter is devoted to the support of teaching and learning at the University of Pittsburgh. The Teaching Times shares faculty teaching experiences, strategies and techniques that can be applied in classrooms across the University. The Teaching Times welcomes letters and articles from faculty about any topic affecting University teaching and learning.
Carol DeArment, Editor