Augustana Center for Teaching and Learning
Two Writing Assignments to Encourage Close Reading
In College Writing, my students are required to read and invited to write for every session. In addition to longer multiple-draft assignments, students write ten 1-2-page papers that either reflect on or critique course readings. Both kinds of written responses must be turned in at the beginning of class, and a set of each requires one to two hours of my time to respond to. The two assignments have different requirements although they have the same goal: to require the student to read closely and then demonstrate independent and various responses to ideas raised.
The reflections consist of three parts: summary, personal response, and connections to other intellectual experiences. The first paragraph summary is limited to 100 to 150 words. The first sentence must identify the author, title and date of reading as well as provide an accurate statement of thesis or main claim. Then the summary must briefly and objectively describe how the author supported that main claim. This is the most prescriptive part of the reflection; however, these requirements allow students to practice for a later annotated bibliography as well as to experience editing choices writers make when they need to be concise.
Students may organize the personal responses and connections to other intellectual experiences as they find most meaningful. Personal responses include opinion, reaction, evaluation, and discussion of relevant personal experience. In the “connections” part of the reflection, students must describe how the particular reading compares to or contrasts with any idea (or ideas) found in other readings, lectures or events inside or outside our class. The course is built around key questions, and one connection possibility is discussing how this new reading contributes to our course “answers”.
Students often remark that prior to college, they have never been asked to offer their opinion on ideas they read about, nor have they been able to see how individual readings or academic events relate to others. Because they must practice these skills in 8 reflections over 7 weeks, they become quite good at it, and I hear intellectual connections made more often in class discussion and see them in many of their end-of-term research projects.
In the last 3 or 4 weeks of the term, I shift these short writing assignments from reflection to rhetorical critique. Instead of a summary, I ask for an opening paragraph more like a rhetorical précis as described in Reading Rhetorically (Bean et al. 62-63). The first sentence is very like the first sentence in the reflection: author, title, date, thesis/main claim. However, the next sentences outline how the author develops and supports this thesis, and describe purpose, intended audience, and voice (ethos). I do not put a word limit on this paragraph.
In the remainder of the essay, students must critique the effectiveness of the author’s argument. Here they must cite specific examples from the reading as evidence for their own assertions about how and how well the author makes his/her case. This kind of response is more difficult for them, but because I contrast the critique with the reflection, they see more clearly what a critique is not. At the end of the term, they are more prepared to write critiques, because we have discussed the rhetorical choices of writers throughout the weeks both in readings and in their own writing. One further advantage of all these short, frequent assignments is that students have multiple chances for improvement.
Bean, John C., Virginia Chappell and Alice M. Gillam. Reading Rhetorically. Brief edition. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004.
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