Bespoke Writing Instruction: Tailoring Student Workshops to Fit

Note by Margaret Procter as conference participant

Sample instructional material by Nancy Johnston and Sarah King, University of Toronto Scarborough, and Allyson Skene, University of Windsor

The first session in Inkshed 30 engaged us immediately in a challenging learning activity — making us practice the participatory learning that  some us of preach, and enacting the conference theme of taking risks. As the presenters noted, in-class workshops in disciplinary courses are a popular means of supporting student writing. But these workshops risk becoming overly generic, reducing disciplinary and genre variety to homogenized advice, especially if the course instructors treat the writing specialists as visitors rather than collaborators. The fast-moving session immersed us in a classic situation of this kind, and asked us to find ways to avoid the pitfalls and make the most of the teaching opportunity. In so doing, we also found empathy for the risks students face in courses where writing instruction is an add-on. The handouts for this session are linked here as an indication of the breadth and richness of discussion that ensued.

“Their writing on the mid-term was awful,” says the course instructor in the given scenario. “Please come to class and tell them how to do better on the final project. Cover whatever you want.” The roomful of writing instructors of course burst into a flood of questions they would want to ask the instructor about the course and the assignment, a flood that took elegant shape in a sheet provided by Nancy and Sarah before we broke into small groups to tackle the situation. Their handout organizes likely concerns into a checklist of issues to raise with course instructors, and tabulates the potentials of using different kinds of writing samples to demonstrate expectations. HANDOUT: Some Considerations for Tailoring Workshops

The scenario was a large first-year Biology course where students are given scholarly articles as context for the experimental work in their labs, and then write up a capstone lab report that includes a synthesis of their reading. Participants were handed a package replicating student material to help us see the course context. Reading the assignment prompt, not to mention its elaborate accompanying rubric, and glancing at the types of articles students were expected to master, many of us felt daunted — just as students would. It was reassuring, however, to be taken through a sample workshop activity (prepared and used by Allyson Skene in 2011) that set out three short excerpts from scholarly articles about the hawk moth and asked us to work in small groups to make simple annotations, focussing initially on variations in terminology used. The tasks weren’t all that hard, and things started to make sense.  HANDOUT: Sample Workshop Activity

To reassure us further, we were then shown a one-page excerpt from another published article that wove together all three of our excerpts to indicate what was known about a specific element of hawk moth behaviour and what needed to be further investigated. The synthesis made clear sense as the introduction to an article about new research — and exemplified the structure, language, and referencing practices needed for the introduction to the dreaded final lab report. It could be done!  HANDOUT: Sample Model Activity

This experience led to a lively discussion about sustainable and effective outreach teaching. There was general agreement that the focus on reading and on vocabulary was practical to teach and very useful to students. The models fulfilled many needs, including that of showing dramatically what was really done in the discipline, not just talking about what an assignment demanded. Several people affirmed how important it was to engage the course instructor and teaching assistants as fully as possible in preliminary planning as well as the in-class event. Longterm effects on assignment design and curriculum planning were also mentioned – hopefully, but now with practical material and a sense of accomplishment to bolster those hopes.

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