Teaching Writing in Half-Semester Modules and a Hybrid Environment

I know many of you are wondering how best to teach writing on the intense timeline of a module structure—and in a hybrid setting, no less! This resource is here to help. Many of these themes and suggestions will sound familiar, as they are the best practices in writing instruction that you have heard before. These best practices become all the more important when you’re working within a condensed time frame and in a hybrid environment.

I’d like to thank Jake Mohan and Ginny Moran who worked with me to compile the resource guide below. As always, I’m available via email, phone, Zoom, Hangouts, etc. Drop me an email (abel@macalester.edu) and we can set up a meeting.

-Britt Abel, Director of Writing

Low-Stakes Writing

Low-stakes writing (such as freewriting, listing, brainstorming, mind-mapping, etc.) builds general writing and critical thinking skills; it also supports student engagement, facilitates communication between faculty and students, and builds equity. Think of it this way: During a module, you’ll have 34 teaching days, meeting for longer periods of time than usual. If your students do a ten-minute freewriting activity for half of those sessions, they will write a cumulative 10-15 pages. Those pages will pay off in terms of preparing for and/or digesting discussions—and they count towards the 20 pages required for writing-designated courses (WA, WC, WP). They can be done synchronously or asynchronously and in multiple formats (on paper, in gdocs, forum posts, etc.—here’s a page from the CST on using Moodle forum posts). While it’s good to engage with the content of low-stakes writing (for example: a write-pair-share format where the writing informs class discussion), this writing needn’t always be graded—you just confirm that they’ve been completed.

For more ideas, see the University of Waterloo’s excellent webpage on Low-Stakes Writing.


Most of us already scaffold our instruction, but we’ll have to be more intentional about it this year. In fact, I would encourage a backward-design approach: determine what you want the students to produce by the end of the semester, and design every writing assignment to somehow contribute to that final product.

In Small Teaching Online, Flower Darby argues that students should start thinking about the final assessment at the very beginning of a course. Not only does this prepare them cognitively for learning; it also improves their awareness of what they’ll need to do and when, which, as Darby points out, is even more crucial during online instruction (and, I will add, on a shortened timeline). That doesn’t mean beginning to write the final paper on the first day, but perhaps you can prompt students to begin reflecting on possible topics and/or thesis statements right from the beginning. This also makes your scaffolding transparent: students have a clear sense of what they are working towards, and why they’re doing each step along the way.

Jumpstart by Skipping Steps

Think about the steps you typically require when scaffolding a longer writing assignment. Perhaps you first ask students to brainstorm several topics; second, to look for secondary literature; next, to formulate the thesis statement, then annotate a bibliography, then write a proposal followed by a first draft, etc. Can you skip (or combine) some of those steps and still achieve your main learning objective? Yes, that might mean providing more individual support than usual, but in our tight timeline, it could make a huge difference.

Two examples (one from a recent consultation and one from my own plans):

  1. Instead of asking students to identify possible topics in step one and identify possible sources in step two of the paper assignment, provide students with several viable topics in advance, along with one or two sources as a starting point. Ask them to select a topic and identify additional sources for the first step, perhaps even briefly annotating those sources. Remember your Research and Instruction Librarian can help you vet research topics in advance and create research guides targeted to your topics.
  2. My FYC students typically write film-sequence analyses. The first step of this process is to identify a sequence, but that can be a long and complicated task. This semester I plan to provide a list of possible sequences from which students can choose, and have small groups brainstorm ideas to accelerate the writing process.

Transparency in Assignment Design

Given the module system’s time constraints, we should minimize student confusion and the amount of in-class time spent clearing it up. Now is the time to err on the side of more rather than less guidance in your assignments. Being absolutely explicit about your expectations for an assignment is key right now (and, really, always). Moreover, clarity and transparency in assignment design fosters equity and accessibility to instruction. You can visit the amazing TILT (Transparency in Learning and Teaching) project website for studies supporting this approach.

TILT encourages faculty members to include clear information about the Purpose, Task, and Criteria for any type of assignment prompt. Check out the TILT templates, examples, and checklists on the TILT Higher Ed Examples and Resources page. I’ve also written my own Checklist for Writing Assignment Prompts, and the ACM Workshop on assignment design (summer 2020) adapted the TILT checklist to include UDL elements (note that this link will prompt you to make a copy of the document that you can then edit).

This sort of transparency usually requires providing more guidance than you might deem necessary—often, the aspects of the process that you take for granted because they’re so familiar to you won’t be clear to your students. You might show your assignment prompt to a colleague outside your field so they can spot unclear or unfamiliar elements. Spelling things out explicitly not only minimizes friction in your students’ process, but helps you clarify the goal and rationale behind your assignments. 

Transparent criteria for successful assignments (i.e. what an A grade requires) can also include models of successful writing products. Do you have samples you can share with your students to help them progress quickly in their own work? Examples from previous years’ student work, or your own scholarship? Spend time in class pinpointing and discussing what makes these texts “good.” I plan to spend part of my writing workshop having students annotate samples using Perusall, a tool for collaborative annotation of PDFs, which is now included in our Moodle course pages; ask your AIA for more information about Perusall.

Building Community and Student-to-Student Engagement

Because our learning environment will feel scattered during hybrid instruction, anything we can do to build community and engagement among students is welcome. If peer review is not already a component of your writing instruction, I encourage you to consider it. Peer writing workshops often falter without trust-building and structure, so work to create a climate where students feel comfortable giving and receiving constructive criticism (i.e. being vulnerable with each other) and provide clear instructions (check out the peer review sheets at the bottom of this document). I frequently ask students to write a response to the peer feedback they’ve received, outlining what suggestions they intend to integrate and why (you could call it a “revision plan”).

Consider working with our amazing campus support structures to build community and to foster success. Encourage your students to build their skills with peer-to-peer interactions by meeting with the writing tutors in the MAX center as much as possible. Contact MAX Writing Counselors Jake Mohan or Becky Graham to set up a (virtual or in-person) classroom visit from MAX tutors. Encourage students to consult with Research & Instructional Librarians as they work on research projects. Ginny Moran, R&I Librarian, notes: “When we’re partners in designing assignments and we know what faculty goals are, we can provide some of the feedback to students for you when they are building annotated bibliographies, developing arguments, and improving their sources.” And of course your AIAs and/or student staff in the Digital Resource Center can support both you and your students as/if you integrate technology into your courses.

Writing Workshops

With longer blocks of time and more frequent class meetings, it’s the perfect time to explore these Writing Workshops, complete with the lesson plans and materials you might need to run a 20-30 minute writing workshop. You can also use the Write Well videos for a flipped approach to writing workshops.

Self-Grading and Reflection

Self-grading or self-assessment is an excellent cognitive skill that pushes students to reflect on their learning. This doesn’t necessarily mean that students assign themselves their own grade, but you can still provide them with opportunities to assess their own work; for example, you can add a column to the rubric where the student assigns themselves a score in each category, and/or ask them to write a paragraph outlining how they feel about their efforts. This gives you a starting point for your own feedback and a clearer sense of how students feel about writing.

Alternatively, students could write cover letters for their papers, allowing them to reflect on their work, feel some ownership over their writing, and give you insight into their process. In my experience, cover letters also streamline my feedback on drafts: Instead of telling the student, “you need to do this!” and then listing a bunch of tasks, the cover letter frequently allows me to say, “Yes, great job identifying your own revision steps!”

Providing Feedback

Given the shortened timeline of our module system, prompt feedback is essential. While planning your assignments, ask yourself: How can I structure the timing of drafts to ensure a quick turnaround? Save time by using the “Self-Grading and Reflection” strategies mentioned above. Consider various modalities of providing feedback on drafts:

  • Record feedback as an audio or video file, which not only saves time (and gives you a break from writing/typing), but also builds connection and engagement between faculty and students in a hybrid environment. (Here’s some documentation about how to do that.) 
  • You can deliver written feedback more efficiently by using a template containing frequently used comments (e.g. “this data needs to be cited” or “please check APA rules for title capitalization”) that you can paste into documents. 
  • Take advantage of your longer course periods by meeting with students individually or in small groups to discuss and workshop papers, which counts as “contact hours,” of course. Here’s documentation on how to hold writing conferences virtually.

While you should provide ample feedback during the steps leading up to the final draft (formative feedback), don’t waste time writing lots of comments on a final paper (summative feedback): Many students won’t read those comments and, more importantly, won’t be able to integrate that feedback into another draft. Be kind to yourself and your students, and limit your feedback on final drafts to guidance that’s generalizable to future assignments/courses.

Finally, Ginny Moran reports that librarians can partner in providing some feedback related to sources and arguments—for example in small group workshop settings or in a course Moodle forum.

Final/Research Papers

Does your final paper have to be 20-30 pages? Could you reduce assignment length without sacrificing your learning objectives? This will help not only your students but you: We’ll have less time than usual to complete our grading, but if you incorporate low-stakes assignments along the way, students will still practice the writing skills you want to emphasize.

You might also consider: How many outside sources are adequate for a research project? Where before you might have required ten sources, you could encourage students to work with fewer sources in greater depth—quality over quantity. Since not all students will have physical access to the library, urge them to prioritize sources available through its online databases. The library also keeps amazing collections of primary sources, so you could jumpstart your assignment by having students look at a specific collection. See this information from the library about using sources in your course planning, and remember you can always meet with your Research and Instruction Librarian for ideas. And don’t forget those amazing course research guides that R&I Librarians can assemble for you and your students!

A reminder from Ginny Moran, your friendly R&I Librarian: scaffolding will be crucial for larger assignments; when students work in advance with the library staff, the librarians are more likely to be able to procure access to important sources.

Quantity of Content

We are all concerned about the quantity of content we can reasonably cover during the compressed module schedule. Our overall instruction time may be roughly equivalent to our old system, but not every component of a course will translate so well; for example, it’s not reasonable to ask students to read two long novels in a single week. Some courses have flexibility in the number of assigned readings—and perhaps even required topics. From a copyright perspective, having students work with selected excerpts of books or media (rather than the entire work) creates stronger cases for fair use if digitization is necessary for remote access. While not everyone may find a way to reduce the amount of content/reading, take this mantra to heart if at all possible: More writing about fewer readings. Assign fewer pages of reading and make them count by fully unpacking and exploring them.

Writing Portfolios

I’ve been fielding questions about writing portfolios, so here are a few ideas. Please skip this section if you don’t plan on using portfolios—this may not be the best time to try something new.

How are portfolios ideal for our abbreviated course timeline? Writing portfolios allow students to develop their writing based on formative feedback from the instructor and peers. Rather than grading individual pieces of writing, you work with your students on how to improve their writing iteratively, then students collect their best pieces of work (or, you determine which pieces of writing should be included) and compile them into a portfolio. You assign one grade to the entire portfolio; then, students can revise pieces of their work if they would like to improve their grade. Typically, this is an iterative process, so students might revise a given piece multiple times.

Clearly, we won’t have time for multiple revisions. But students could assemble portfolios and meet to discuss them during the final week of classes, and still have time to revise during the short study and finals period.

Formative assessment of writing is ideally suited to the mod system—rather than keeping track of a bunch of individual grades, you can truly focus on an iterative, collaborative cycle of feedback and revision that prioritizes student improvement in writing. What’s more, there’s ample research showing how writing portfolios build equity into the assessment of writing (see, for example, Asao B. Inoue’s extensive work on this topic).

At Macalester, writing portfolios are often combined with contract grading, where students agree to complete all the required elements of the course to achieve a certain grade (usually a B), with additional criteria for the portfolio to meet in order to achieve a higher grade.

In the past, I’ve used two methods for collecting and assembling online writing portfolios:

1) Google Documents Folders: Students collect portfolio items in a Documents folder (I urge them to use a clear labeling system, or impose one myself). They can then sort low-stakes writing, shorter essays, the final paper, etc. into subfolders. To encourage the iterative aspect of the drafting process, I remind students to make a copy of their Google document (with my comments) before revising it so that I can easily see the version history of both their draft and my comments. That way they can resolve comments in the new version, and the old version still has those comments easily accessible. (Yes, of course, Google keeps the history, but it’s cumbersome to sift through.)

2) Google Sites: I create a Google Sites template that I copy and share for each of my students, who then add their various documents. This is also pretty easy, both technologically and organizationally, with the advantage that you can propose (or impose) a structure for organizing content. And of course, you can embed a Google document directly into a Google Site (students will have to make the document shareable for it to be viewed through the Site). The other advantage of this is that students (and you!) can easily include audio or video files, if you want to build in that type of flexibility; for example, you could add an audio file as a comment to a document.

Keep in mind that both of these methods use Google products, which can raise some access issues for students in China. Talk with your AIA if you have questions about that aspect.

Final Note

If you only read one thing about teaching in the module system (other than this!), please take a look at Julian Applebaum’s wonderful Mod System Recommendations document. Julian is a sophomore and a writing tutor in the MAX Center, and his high school used the mod system. In 2½ pages, Julian outlines pretty much all the advice I’ve read in the professional literature.


Campus Resources and Writing Support