How do you use writing in a large-enrollment class? Chris Thaiss and Brenda Rinard of the University Writing Program explored this question in a 150-student sociology course at UC Davis taught by Laura Grindstaff and TAs Sarah Augusto, Joanna Rullo, and Jennifer Tyree-Hageman. The team developed multi-stage writing assignments and regular writing exercises that “required the students to respond to readings and get in the flow of thinking like sociologists,” Thaiss explains.
When the writing elements were first implemented in 2009, the 150 students were divided among the TAs so that each TA was responsible for 50 students. The students completed the multi-stage writing assignment, receiving feedback from their TA along the way, and completed the reading responses in a journal format – they submitted individual responses in the form of mini-essays via SmartSite that were graded by the TA.
At the end of that first year, the students were polled. Thaiss reports, “a majority of the students liked the weekly writings, but to a far less degree than they liked the multi-stage research project (they particularly appreciated the feedback they were getting from the TAs on their proposals and drafts).”
In the subsequent two years, the researchers and instructor decided to implement a more interactive element to the responses. Students wrote five responses throughout the ten-week course, posting them to a communal blog (this can be done effectively using SmartSite discussion forums). The students’ submissions were staggered so that there was always fresh content on the communal space, and students were required to respond to one another’s posts.
Poll results show that students liked this approach much better. “It was less work for the TAs, too,” Thaiss notes, “and it created an interactive environment in the class.”