Using Writing to Focus Attention During Lectures

Someone once said, "It is impossible to learn anything without applying pen to paper." Short writing exercises, used judiciously, can be a valuable aid to teaching. These exercises do not need to be graded, and so they do not take much time to put into effect.

  1. The muddiest point. Near the end of a lecture, ask students to take out a piece of paper and write down what they are having the most trouble grasping out of the day’s lecture. Pick these up, look them over, and select one or two for clarification in the next class period.

  2. Getting set. At the beginning of class, ask students to open their texts to the reading for the day, to glance over the headings in order to refresh their memory, and then to close the book and write down three to five main points covered in the reading. If the day’s lecture is based on the reading, this exercise will help them begin to look for the main points of the lecture. Open your lecture by telling what your main points for the day will be and how they differ from the textbook.

  3. Collaborative review. Two class periods before a test, take 10–15 minutes to ask students to write down what they do not understand about the material for the upcoming test. Have them exchange these papers with a partner. Each student is to take their partner’s paper home, look up the materials in the text and in their notes, and then write an explanation of the material to the partner and staple it to the original. The next class period, let the partners exchange papers and explain their explanations orally. This exercise helps students review for the test and gain some practice explaining a concept. Pick up both papers and scan them briefly. If you have space in your test for a short essay question, you can select one from the papers you’ve just picked up.

  4. What I am saying. From time to time (perhaps once every three or four lectures), pause in the middle of a lecture, ask the students to take out a sheet of paper and answer this question: “What have I been talking about just now, and how do you understand it?” Have them hand the paper in. This exercise prompts students to become active learners, and to review what you’ve just said, and to be aware that something like that might happen again. You benefit because you get to see how well your ideas are getting across and lets you make modifications to your teaching methods if need be.