writing prompts

Prompt: Please assume that Wendell Berry presents a philosophy of design in his essay, Preserving Wildness. How would you characterize his philosophy? That is, what might be the central constructs of his theory and how do the constructs fit together?

Format: One page of clear, concise, and interesting writing.

Berry, W. (1987). Preserving wildness. Home Economics (pp. 137-151). New York: North Point Press.

I think reading carefully, writing about difficult ideas, and class discussion helps students develop skills for using theory. I use us students’ ideas and thinking to shape our classes.

Writing prompts are one approach, where I ask students to write one page. I print out the pages, and I read, comment, grade the writing, and take some notes. Prior to class, I return the commented writing.Then, I draw specifically on individual students written responses, to guide class discussion.

During class, I ask the following kinds of questions:

  • Susan on page 1 of the reading, you highlighted X – can you please make your point to the class?
  • John on page 2, you said something different – building on Susan’s point can you please make your point?
  • Mary, your views are quite different – please weigh in.
  • Before we move on, who would like to speak: All questions and comments are good ones.

As the quarter unfolds, in many classes but not all, students take over — asking each other questions and giving room for all to speak.

These are things I try to model and encourage: (a) Speaking concisely and creativity; (b) Drawing on experiences while staying close to the readings; and (c) Thinking fast and being responsive to other speakers. My role is to listen and redirect so that, ideally, everyone has an opportunity to contribute. I’ll also weigh in when students misunderstand a point, when some kind of clarification will help move the class forward, or when a student is talked-over or otherwise does not fully express their points.

Commenting on students’ writing is perhaps the most impactful thing I can do — one-on-one, direct communication. I try to highlight where students are creatively and precisely engaging with the readings and where they can improve. I like to think of my reviewing as a quarter-long dialog, contributing to an intellectual community, one comment at a time.

I grade with a system of checkmarks. Getting a ✔ is just fine (satisfactory), getting a ✔- indicates a need for improvement (unsatisfactory), ✔+ is very good, and ✔++ is excellent. Getting a ✔++ is very difficult; all ✔- work can be re-submitted for re-grading so students can improve their writing and receive a ✔.

In my syllabus, I write that I cannot tell students how to obtain a ✔++. I honestly do not know. However, I know an outstanding response when I read it. I take this position because: I think it is important for students to know that excellence is recognized, not specified, and that excellence is developed through practice, not taught.

Writing prompts for doctoral students are usually short, like the one at the top of this page. For undergraduates, I often include more scaffolding, as these examples show: writing prompts.


Training a teaching assistant to grade writing responses takes some time. My approach is for the TA and I to grade four assignments, usually sitting side-by-side. Then, we discuss and I try to clarify what I expect and how I comment. After 3 or 4 weeks, I think the TA understands my sensibility. I ask the TA to summarize the writing, which helps with class.

To avoid order effects, I aways randomly mix-up the writing. After grading I put the work back into alphabetic order by first name. That helps me learn everyone’s name.

When reviewing, I take about 6-10 minutes per writing response. I find myself taking shortcuts after about 25 students. How to scale this kind writing to 200 students and 8 lab sections? I don’t know. I suppose one would need to give up on the essence of this activity. Or, spend a good deal of time coaching teaching assistants and developing a culture for reviewing and commenting.

Relatedly, perhaps a rubric could be prepared for each writing prompt. I’m not skilled in rubric-making and I suspect that I wouldn’t be very good at following them. But, I suppose, I should try.

I’ve used writing prompts in classes up to 35 students. After about 25 students, reviewing gets harder and remembering particular student points gets harder. It is interesting: I think there is a huge difference between working with 25 students and 35.

Frequently, I organize my classes so that our first weekly meeting (or the first part our class) is called “lecture.” This is where the writing responses are engaged and I introduce theory. The second weekly meeting is called “studio,” where we practice skills and use theory to make things.