Teaching Tips

What’s it all about, Alfie?

I like giving my students as open-ended writing assignments as I can. If they can choose a topic or a piece of literature that they connect with, their papers will be stronger and more thoughtful. But often they sit staring blankly at a piece of paper trying to think of what to write about or how to get started. That’s when I use a free-questioning method. That’s right: free-questioning, not free-writing.

The technique is simple. I ask them to choose a poem from one we’ve read (or if we are focused on one particular piece of literature, to think about that piece) and sit and write for five minutes. My one restriction is that they can only write questions. I tell them that it’s okay if the process seems unnatural at first. If they can’t think of any questions to start with, they can write, “Why do we have to do this silly exercise?” But it doesn’t take long before they move into truly substantial questions.

When the five minutes are up, I ask them to cross off all questions that would require outside research (if the assignment is a close reading assignment) or to cross off any questions that don’t require research (if it’s a research paper). Once they’ve narrowed down the questions, I ask them to choose their three most difficult questions–the three that would require them to really dig into the material. Once they’ve done that, I ask them to choose the one question of the three that they most care about exploring. The students then share their questions, and I give them feedback on whether or not the question might need refining or expanding. Finally, I point out to them that once they discover their answer, that will be their thesis.

This procedure has many advantages, but the main one is that they begin to understand that writing a solid paper requires real engagement with a topic, real questioning and exploring. They also learn that formulating a thesis isn’t as much a mystery as they thought.

Heidi Snow is an associate professor of English at Principia College, and she has been teaching at Principia College for 12 years. Besides being a professor, Heidi is also a published writer. Heidi enjoys reading and traveling abroad to Europe.

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