Instructor Insights

Writing to Ensure Reading

In this section, Mitali Thakor discusses how the robustness of learning experiences in discussion-based courses often hinges on students completing the reading assignments. She suggests that having students write responses to the readings is one way to ensure that students complete the readings. She also shares a challenge she faced: responding to students’ underdeveloped writing skills in an upper-level seminar.

"Requiring students to complete short writing assignments in response to readings is one of the best ways instructors can ensure students are doing the course readings."
— Mitali Thakor

Undone Readings Jeopardize Discussions

In discussion-based courses, the robustness of the learning experiences often hinges on students completing the readings and contributing to classroom conversations. Even though most instructors try not to give gratuitous readings, I think many students at MIT do not prioritize readings for social sciences and humanities courses. This jeopardizes what students are able to learn from each other in their classes.

Short Writing Assignments as a Solution

Requiring students to complete short writing assignments in response to readings is one of the best ways instructors can ensure students are doing the course readings. In 21A.445J Slavery and Human Trafficking in the 21st Century, I assigned weekly response memos. These memos were 400-500 words in length. Sometimes I directed students to respond to specific questions in their memos. If I did not assign specific questions, students provided their own reflections on the readings. I graded the memos for completion. Weekly memos might seem like a lot, but they guaranteed students were completing the readings.

When Students’ Writing is not up to Par

Students came to this upper-level seminar having had a lot of experience writing lab reports and objective argument pieces, but far less experience writing personalized memos and essays.  I held one-on-one meetings to give feedback to students about their writing, but sometimes that wasn’t enough to bring their writing to the level I expected. The course wasn’t meant to be writing-intensive, and I am not a writing instructor, so I wasn’t sure how to deal with the challenge of responding to students’ underdeveloped writing skills. I would be very interested in learning how other instructors have handled this pedagogical issue.

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