Classroom Activities

UConn first-year writing (FYW) courses teach students how to write and share their work through project-based learning.

Our courses emphasize collaboration and discovery. During class, students make progress toward an ongoing academic project. They consult with their instructors and receive feedback from their peers. Classroom activities also introduce students to important concepts and skills needed to complete their project, such as:

  • Working with texts.
  • Citing sources.
  • Contextualizing ideas.
  • Revising and reflecting.
  • Presenting academic work to diverse audiences.

Because student projects provide the central focus of our courses, instructors should spend most class sessions working with students on their writing.

Below are examples of ways to promote student work and sample activities that instructors can use in their courses. 

Ways to Feature Student Work

Most class sessions should provide students with time to write and work on projects. Students should also practice giving and receiving constructive feedback by engaging with their instructors and peers.

Here are some examples of how to feature student work during class:

  • Circulate drafts in process or portions of drafts in any number of ways.
  • Ask students to characterize, frame, or situate each other’s work.
  • Build things together in a shared online space (e.g., a course bibliography document; an annotation or glossary of key terms; a HuskyCT blog or discussion thread exploring potential extensions of the texts).
  • Have students post drafts as discussion threads and assign a peer review process for group members.
  • Build time for peer review in and outside of class (through email or course management software).
  • Help students build “affinity networks” or writing groups around similar projects.
  • Feature a particular project from one student to help work through a problem or issue.
  • Share reflective writing and process notes.
  • Assign cover letters, informal presentations, formal presentations, or remediation projects (putting the larger project into a new context).

When students do individual or group work in class, block time afterward for the whole class to come together to reflect on the work they completed. To avoid having students simply list what they discussed or found, it may be useful to structure that time as informal presentations or to have groups upload their findings/work to a common digital workspace.

Examples of Class Activities

Below are sample in-class activities, organized by topic, that instructors can use in their classes. Instructors are welcome to use these activities to facilitate writing and group work and to meet the day’s specific learning outcomes.

Working With Difficult Texts

Unpacking Difficult Passages

Prepare a handout with difficult passages from the text, or have students identify difficult passages in the reading. Assign students to different groups based on a particular passage. In groups, have students trace how a term or concept is used in a particular passage and in the text as a whole. They should pull specific quotes that help them back up their understanding. Groups should use the textual evidence as a means to begin “translating” the passages. Afterward, they should go back to the text and reflect on why the author(s) used a specific term or concept in the text.

Visually Mapping a Text

A variation of this activity is to have students map the key terms visually. Together in groups, students should map and link key terms used by the author. Maps might not (and perhaps should not) be linear — students are encouraged to see the many ways the terms seem to interact in the text. Afterward, groups can compare maps to add lines or connections that they may not have noticed previously.

Exploring the Uses of a Text

Current, Past, or Future Contexts

Depending on your course inquiry and assignments, you may want students to consider how class readings can apply to and work in relation to different contexts, especially in the beginning stages of a larger assignment. Your specific learning goals will help determine which context will make most sense for your class to explore.

Current Context: Choose a current issue or have students work together to find a current issue that relates to your course inquiry and the text. Choose yourself or have students select key terms or concepts from the reading to help them examine or analyze the issue. Students will need to conduct research on the issue in groups. Then, on their own, in writing, students should draw connections between the text and issue.

Past Context: Ask students to bring a laptop or tablet to class, or divide them into groups (at least one student in each group should have a laptop). Using their devices, students explore the socio historical context of the reading in order to consider how it might have affected the text’s rhetoric (or vice versa).

Future Context: Have students consider how the text might be useful for future conflicts, issues, or developments in society or academia. The future context may be best paired with either the current or past contexts to demonstrate the development of ideas or movements over time. Students should explore self- or group-generated questions through individual writing, then discuss or otherwise share their ideas.

What’s Missing?

In small groups, students brainstorm for situations or concepts that the reading doesn’t seem to account for and why or how that situation or concept might be important to include or discuss in the conversation. The class makes a list of these various missing pieces, and then students individually reflect on how these choices reflect the priorities and rhetorical strategies of the author. What do their choices reveal about their aims?

What Is This Text? Who Is This Author?

Any assigned text can be accompanied with a small research component designed to help students place the text in a larger context. If you assign a text by Judith Butler, for example, students could be assigned roles to establish this context. One set of students could research Butler the person; another set could say more about what her influential writings are (and what they seek to do); a third set of students could trace the reception and influence of these texts. Based on this research, have students reflect in writing on the significance of these contexts and what these findings demonstrate about academic writing and this specific conversation. Next, use the contexts explored as a jumping-off point for students to begin exploring their next assignment.

Information Literacy and Handling Sources

Citation Trail

One way to begin the conversation about Information Literacy (InfoLit) and how to use sources effectively is to ask students to explore how other writers use sources. Working with the texts used in class, invite students to choose, in groups, one of the works that the author has cited. Have students locate that source, read it (in its entirety if it’s short or just the relevant section if it’s long).

After reading the source, ask students to free write on the source’s main idea, what kind of source it is, and why the author used it. Then, in groups, have students discuss how the author of the class text used the source and how the source is contributing to the class text’s author’s main claims.

After facilitating a brief class discussion of the groups’ findings, have students reflect, individually in writing, on the different ways a writer can use sources and how such choices can inform their own writing.

InfoLit Through Terms, Search Engines, and Databases

As a class, have students brainstorm a research question that engages with the next essay prompt. Afterward, have students brainstorm the kind of sources that may be useful for exploring said question, the fields that may already discussing or provide insight on the topic (like specific news sources or subject specific databases). Then, for each kind of source or each discipline, have students brainstorm key terms and discuss why certain terms are more useful than others in certain searches. After the list has been made, have students determine where to look for this information. From this point, you can decide whether to proceed with the search as a class or to have students to break into groups to explore different terms, search engines, and databases.

You may want to engage your students in a conversation about research questions before this activity or in a prior class period. Students will likely not be sure how to craft meaningful research questions. Be sure that you build in moments for students to reflect in writing on what the activity means for their own research processes.

Documenting the Research Process

As a take-home assignment, have students take screenshots of their research process for a larger project (including pictures of the key terms they use, the search results, the articles they select, etc.) or record their research process. Students can either save the images on their computer or print them (whichever is more convenient). If they took a video, ask them to bring in their computer with the video. In class, have students map out the process—from where they began to where they ended. It may be best to do this on large sheets of paper, index cards, or construction paper. As they map out the process, have students make connections through a freewrite between the choices they made (e.g., how one term led to a new term, how they followed several hyperlinks and where that led them). Once they have finished their map/web and their freewrite, have students pair up and talk through their process and connections. In pairs, students should help each other identify gaps in their research and brainstorm new terms, websites, databases, etc., to explore. At the end, have students write out a research plan for the next portion of their assignment.

Annotated Bibliography

Have students bring an annotated bibliography and the original sources to class. It’s important to stress that this research often includes a lot of excess—simply choosing the first hit is often not the right match for a research project. Have students write about the choices they made in selecting their sources and reflect on how these sources contribute to their developing projects.

An alternative or add-on to this activity is to make students’ in-class work multimodal. With their annotated bibliographies, have students use either Prezi or construction paper and string to create a web that represents connections between sources. Students can address these questions: How do the sources talk to each other? How do they agree or disagree or qualify each other’s discussions? After students create their webs, have them reflect on the gaps that seem to exist in their web or identify the outlying sources that no longer work in their developing projects.

Depending on your course, you may want to make the annotated bibliography a collaborative project, where students contribute the sources they have found to a class archive that other students are encouraged to draw on in their writing projects. Google Docs (or a similar technology) can enable your class to create a “living” bibliography that each student can alter, add to, and improve throughout the semester.

Using Sources

Working with Other Voices

Have students highlight all the material borrowed or quoted from another source (including their own previous projects) in their essays in one color, and in a different color highlight all the places where they respond to or analyze those passages. Then ask them to evaluate their use of other voices—or trade papers and discuss with a partner. Are the passages adequately unpacked, explained, and analyzed? Is the reader left hanging? Are there more quotations than the students’ own words? How does the student build on and revise or drop things they wrote about in the previous assignment?

This activity could work well alongside a discussion of the difference between summary and analysis.

Outside View

Have students pass their essays around in groups. Each student should choose at least one quotation in their peer’s paper and answer the following questions: Do you know where the quote is from? Does the writer describe how or why the quote is useful for considering something interesting or troubling about their project? Is the quote integrated into the discussion of the paragraph? Afterward, students can return their papers to the original writer, and students can spend five to ten minutes revising their use of that quote.

Exploring Structure

Reverse Outline

Have students create a reverse outline of a reading, thinking about questions like: Where is the agenda, the method, and the evidence? Is the argument linear? Does the reading present a compelling argument or an interesting idea? Students can do this work individually, in groups, or together as a class. They can also identify what work each paragraph of a challenging section is doing in the author’s argument (beyond what each paragraph is saying). For instance, is a paragraph introducing a key term or idea? Illustrating a key point of evidence?

Be sure to give students time to reflect on what they have discovered through the reverse outline and how it can apply to their own writing. You may want to give them an in-class writing activity that asks them to take their own draft and model it after the essay and reflect on how the new structure influences the content and purpose of their draft.

Mapping the Text

Using the whiteboard, blank paper, or colored construction paper, have students, in groups, create a visual map of the text that they read for class. Encourage them to make design choices that reflect the author’s purpose in the text. Students can then discuss the choices the writer made in response to a specific audience or conversation.

Introduction Workshop

Project (or copy and distribute) a student’s introduction to the class and have students write what in the introduction is helpful for them as readers and what they might still need information on (for instance, if the required texts for the assignment haven’t been introduced). Have them restate the author’s project in their own words. Afterward, students should gather in groups to discuss various strategies for addressing potential issues that may have arisen, and then the whole class can discuss approaches to revision.

Also, before looking at student writing, you might have students consider introductions from the assigned readings, especially if you’re asking students to write in a similar genre. Discussing the readings can then serve as a jumping-off point for looking at student work.


Collaborative Revision

Revision can be one of the toughest aspects of writing for students to fully grasp and take advantage of. Extensively working with revising in class to demonstrate what effective revision can look like helps students to understand that revision is more than simply correcting grammar and word choice. At any stage in the drafting process, working on revision with the entire class can help students conceptualize how revising can be done effectively. Depending on your class and its needs, you may either want to pre-select students whose essays best exemplify an issue the majority of the class is grappling with or have students volunteer their work themselves. If you pre-select students, you’re most likely going to gear your discussion toward a particular issue that the sample drafts exemplify. Self-volunteered drafts may engage several different issues. As students look at the samples, have them think about how the project might be supported with texts from the class, how it contributes new knowledge, and how the writer might move forward in the essay. It may be helpful to have the student identify a specific location where they’re having trouble. As you go about your discussion, you will be modeling ways of responding to texts in peer review. Be sure to make that explicit to the students.

Topic-Specific Workshop

After reading a round of student drafts, you may find that there are common challenges that students are working through. These common issues can be the basis of in-class workshops to help students navigate these particular challenges. Below are two examples, but there are many other writing challenges to work with in class.

Transitions: Some students may be listing their major points in the body of the paper rather than developing a project; consequently, you might call on a student volunteer, or project two anonymous paragraphs from a student paper, to examine how one paragraph moves to the next. Ask students how the two paragraphs might be related and, in groups, have them rewrite the ends and beginnings of the two paragraphs so as to make explicit how the ideas in the paragraphs build on and relate to one another. Have each group present their revisions and discuss their strategies.

In-Text Citations/Using Sources: Using sources effectively in a text is a challenge for many students. Students must not only cite information correctly, but also integrate the quote into their own language and consider how the quote is working with their argument. You may first want to examine an assigned text and, as a whole class or in smaller groups, analyze the author’s use of quotations and other outside sources. Try to push students to decipher the different ways that sources can be used to support a point (using a text like Joseph Harris’s or FYW’s webpage Why Quote? can give students a vocabulary or starting point for discussion). From here, get a volunteer from class (or choose a student ahead of time) and project or distribute a paragraph from their essay. As a class, discuss how the writer could revise their quotations and citations. Then, have students turn to their own texts and work on the way that they use sources in their projects.

Paired Read-Alouds

Pair students and have them read each other’s paper aloud. Paired read-alouds can be used at different points in the drafting process for different purposes. With a rough draft, you can ask: Does the new set of eyes see more places to push the project further? Are there places where the evidence is unclear? Where might more textual support be needed? At a more polished stage, read-alouds can highlight fluency, sentence structure, and grammatical errors.

Reverse Outline

Useful for working through difficult readings, reverse outlines are also beneficial to students during drafting. Have students reverse outline their own papers, identifying the individual aims and rhetorical moves of each paragraph, and then have them reflect on what they have noticed. Or have students swap papers and reverse outline their peers’ papers, and then return the papers to their original authors. The students could also reflect on what they notice from their peers’ rendering of their projects. In any case, at the end of the activity, give students time to write about and reflect on what the reverse outline has revealed to them about their work and how they’ll use it to move forward with their draft.

For a more multimodal approach, students can create their reverse outlines using Prezi, construction paper, or the like.

Creating Revision Plans from Feedback

Students don’t always know what to do with comments after they receive your feedback or feedback from peers, so it might be useful to build in time for them to prioritize and plan. Have students look at a sample paper with comments first; then engage them in a discussion of how to prioritize and use feedback. Afterward, give them the opportunity to reflect on their own feedback and write a revision plan.

If you’re doing a portfolio in your course or wish for students to document their writing process, you may want to collect and respond to their revision plans or stress that they keep track of these documents.


Writing About Their Own Writing

At any stage in the writing process, ask your students to reflect on the writing that they have done so far, using the following prompts for in-class, informal, ungraded writing: What personal investment do you have in this issue? Why does your argument matter? What counter-interpretations might work against your emerging claims? What are you struggling with most as you approach the draft? How does the way you are writing aid (or complicate) your answers to these first questions? If you choose to, you can discuss these writings as a class or in small groups.

Representing the Writing Process

Have students use markers, pencils, Play-Doh, pipe cleaners—check out the art cart in the First-Year Writing Program office—to draw, make, or sculpt a representation of a certain part of the writing process (perhaps right after students have completed an assignment). Afterward, give them a few minutes to write about their representation. In small groups, students can share their various processes. Doing so allows students to unpack what approaches and strategies worked—it also gives them a chance to see how others approached a similar task.

Creative Synthesis

Near the end of the semester, have students read over their major essays and extract one or two “keywords” or important themes from each. (For instance, if a student wrote an essay about capitalist values in Maus, one keyword from that essay might be “capitalism,” or “homo economicus.”) In a new document, have students write their lists of keywords at the top of the page. They should then write a brief story in class that touches on each of these themes.

It’s not necessary to use the word itself—so, if one keyword is “masculinity,” the student doesn’t actually have to say “masculinity” somewhere in the story, so long as the idea is present. For example, if a student’s keywords were “capitalism,” “dystopia,” and “masculinity,” the student might write a story about a young man in a dystopian society who, in order to prove his masculinity and support his paralyzed father, has to engage in gladiatorial combat. Maybe this gladiatorial combat is televised, with pauses in the fighting for advertisements for men’s deodorant, etc.

“One-Minute Papers”

At the end of a class session, you can ask your students to write short responses to questions like: What is the one big idea or new insight you’ve taken from today’s class? What is still confusing for you? This will help students practice metacognition by allowing them to consider what in their thinking has changed and what remains a challenge for them moving forward.

Writing Across Technology

Key Terms and Infographics

Students can mine a text for key terms and concepts in groups. After discussing the terms and concepts in a larger group, the small groups can then use Piktochart or Canva to create an infographic to help explain how a specific term is being used in a text. This exercise can be framed with the following question: Assuming that your audience is future students in this class, how can you visually explain how the author is using [a particular key term]?

Critical and Creative Captioning

Practice using captioning software for videos, such as with YouTube or Amara. Students can consider how captioning functions rhetorically and depends on concepts of audience, context, and purpose. This activity can be used as students work on their own videos (such as a Concept in 60 video), or students can work in groups to caption sections of a short video in class. (Movie trailers often work pretty well here.)

Cover Design

Ask students to use the design concepts from The Academic Writer to analyze the design of a visual text—a book cover works well. After evaluating the effectiveness of the design choices in the text, let students work in groups to propose alternative covers. This can be done on computers (using software like Word, PowerPoint, GIMP, or Illustrator) or with paper and markers. Students can then present their designs (explaining why these designs are effective) and vote on the elements they’d like to include in a reprint of the text.

Electronic Discussion

If all students have access to bring-your-own personal technology (laptops, smartphones, or other mobile devices with internet access), discussions can become hybrid spaces with the use of online platforms. Allowing students to participate in discussions through technology can help second-language writers, students who are shy, and students with disabilities—and can, in fact, help all students contribute in more thoughtful ways, because writing an answer allows for more time to think. The platform being used can be projected, giving everyone easy access to responses. The instructor can choose to read these responses aloud to focus and direct the discussion or ask students to take a couple of moments to quietly compose responses to spark new avenues of inquiry.

Screencasting the Writing Process

Have students use a program like Kaltura or PowerPoint to screencast their writing as they work through a draft at home. Once they have turned in the essay, have students bring the video to class to watch individually. As they watch their videos, have them describe what’s happening and take notes on what they’re noticing about how they write. Afterward, have them discuss in groups what they noticed. After the discussion, have students review their notes and reflect on what went well and what could be worked on as they proceed in their next assignment.

Recorded Elevator Pitches

Sometimes students work through ideas best when they talk about them aloud. When they’re early in the writing or research process, have them pitch their developing ideas to each other in a minute or less and use their smartphones to record their pitch. At the end of the pitch, peers should provide feedback. As students move on to the next partner, they should incorporate the previous partner’s feedback (or make revisions based on their own observations). At the end, have students listen to their pitches and reflect on what changed from one pitch to the next.