How to Teach Writing and Research Skills in Fifty Words
The fifty-word sentence is an exercise that can maximize students' opportunities to learn and practice writing and critical skills while minimizing instructors' assessment time.
How to teach writing effectively is a conundrum; the enterprise is labor-intensive, and faculty seldom have time to spare. I would like to share my approach to this challenge, which develops an insight I gained at a workshop led by Brad Hughes, now Director of the Writing Center. Believing that students learn more from assignments that are frequent rather than long, I pose throughout the semester a directive—say, “summarize an author’s argument”—to which students must reply using a single sentence of no more than fifty words.
This exercise maximizes the number of times students have to compose their thoughts and teaches them to Get To The Point. At the same time, it minimizes the instructor’s grading time. In my upper-division courses, where I evaluate all work myself, I can assign two five-page papers (plus optional rewrites) and an essay final examination while still finding time to schedule as many as eight or nine such assessments. Moreover, this format can develop research as well as writing skills; consider what capacities a student must rev up to complete the following task:
Using the census of 1624/25, calculate the ratio of servants to Virginia’s total population and also the ratio of slaves to the total population. In one sentence NOT EXCEEDING 50 words (or else ...) that includes the figures you computed, hypothesize the reason(s) for the magnitude between them.
No other device I know improves students’ writing and critical skills so efficiently…not to mention that it also monitors if they are doing their homework.
For a fuller explanation, see the short article in the Fall 2008 issue of Time to Write, the newsletter of the UW-Madison Writing-Across-the-Curriculum program:http://mendota.english.wisc.edu/~WAC/page.jsp?id=143&c_type=category&c_id=14.
For some outstanding examples, see the link at http://history.wisc.edu/cohen/writing.html, and, for examples of assignments, see my syllabi at http://history.wisc.edu/cohen/courses.html.
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