If you’re an educator who wants to help students become better learners, consider employing quick writes.  Quick writes are brief, timed writing opportunities that require only 3-10 minutes to integrate writing and critical thinking practice into any discipline. This article offers six ways you can use quick writes to help students become fluent, organized, confident, competent academic writers and thinkers.

First, determine how often you would like to use quick writes. The more often you use them, the more regular the practice and the faster you will see improvement in student writing. If possible, begin or end each class session with a quick write. It is unnecessary to collect every quick write or to grade quick writes at all.  Spot checking is all that is needed. Begin with quick write sessions of three to five minutes followed by discussion, if time allows. Increase writing time as the term progresses or as the prompts become more complex.

Of course, not every student responds well to the idea of writing every day – at least during the first few sessions.  Some students claim they don’t have anything to say, or they write a couple of sentences and then stare off into space.  I tell students that if they get stuck, I will be happy to “unstick” them, and if I notice that someone is not writing, I go to them and offer help.  In my experience, as students become habituated to writing, their skills improve and resistance evaporates.

Here are half a dozen suggestions for using quick writes in college classrooms.

1. Promoting personal connections

During their first week of college, students often feel uncomfortable and alone. As a first-week writing prompt, this quick write serves as an excellent small- or large-group discussion starter, helping students get to know their classmates.  After the quick write, put students into small groups for discussion. This quick write is one I always collect because I want to know how students are faring at the end of the first week, and I want to respond to any questions they have.  

First Week Review

Write about your first week of the semester. Think about everything you have done this week – classes you attended, offices you visited, paperwork you completed, and people you met.

  • What went particularly well?
  •  What challenges did you face?
  •  How did you work through any challenges?
  • What surprises were there?
  • What was your overall impression of the first week of the semester?
  • What questions do you have?

2. Assessing student knowledge  

Quick writes are a good way to find out what students know before assigning a reading assignment.  In this case, the reading was an article on bullying, and the goal of the quick write was not only to assess student knowledge but to pique interest in the article, which would be annotated, analyzed, and summarized for other activities in the class.

What’s in a Word?

Look at the word below. [Bully] What are the first images or thoughts that come to your mind?  Write for 5 minutes about this word, the emotions, the feelings, the thoughts, and the stories that occur to you. 

3. Summarizing reading

Quick writes can be used to reinforce reading skills, such as summarizing.  First, I asked students to read an article, “Dirty Laundry: Callous students can cause just as much damage online.”  The author describes examples of abuse and their connection to an online world in which “fair game and privacy are just a Facebook option” (Sultan).   I asked students to highlight unfamiliar words and make notes about passages that made an impression on them. 

Dirty Laundry

Using your own words, write a one-paragraph summary of the article “Dirty Laundry.” What was the thesis, or main point, of the article? What specific details or examples did the author use to support her thesis?  Did you encounter passages or phrases that made a particular impression on you? What were they?  Why did they make such a strong impression? Do you agree or disagree with the author?  Why? 

4. Promoting reflection  

Quick writes can be used to inspire students to reflect and write honestly about themselves.  Self-reflection can increase students’ self-awareness and help them make wiser choices.  This prompt also encourages students to include specific, detailed information in their response, which is a skill they are working on in the writing class. I assigned this prompt after students completed the self-assessment in the On Course text book.

A Bird’s Eye View of Yourself

Write a description of yourself as if you were describing yourself to another person.  Who are you?  Who are you on the outside – when you’re with others?  Who are you on the inside – when you’re by yourself?  What important personality traits do you carry with you wherever you go?  What professional attitudes and behaviors are you working to improve?  Which of the On Course Principles are your strengths?  Your challenges?

5. Encouraging critical thinking  

Students in many disciplines are asked to write speeches, essays, and research papers that require them to take a stand on an issue. Students must be able to make a claim and support their position clearly and logically.  This quick write is one of the first steps in the process of writing a persuasive essay. Because thinking critically requires examining alternative points of view, at one class meeting I ask students to choose a statement with which to agree or disagree, and at the next class meeting I ask them to take the opposite point of view.

Thinking Critically

Choose one of the statements below, all of which appear in your textbook.  Agree or disagree with the statement. State your position clearly and defend this point of view with specific, detailed information and examples. 

1. People convicted of drunk driving should lose their licenses forever.

2. Recently, a well-respected high-school teacher in Illinois was dismissed from his position because people found out that when he was a high-school student, he had been convicted of marijuana possession (two joints).  The law in the state says that no one convicted of any drug crime may serve as a teacher in a public school, so the principal had to dismiss the teacher despite his superb record. [Argue for or against this law.]

3. A conviction for first-degree murder should carry a mandatory death penalty.

6. Making predictions, inferences, and hypotheses

In a reading or science class, students are often asked to predict what might happen in a piece of literature, for example, or in an experiment.  In a nursing or child development class, students might be asked to make a prediction about the likely outcome of a particular intervention. The quick write below asks students to practice making inferences about human behavior based on their reading of “The Ways We Lie” by Stephanie Ericsson.

Making Inferences

What inferences can you make about human behavior after reading “The Ways We Lie”? How common is lying?  Why do people lie? Do people have to lie? Is lying an effective means of communication? Did the author describe every type of lie possible? Are there others you could add to her list? Please include as much specific detail as possible.

As a writing instructor, I use quick writes to begin every class session.  Students bring a spiral notebook to every class, and they know there will be a quick-write prompt displayed on the screen. Even if they arrive late, they know what to do: Sit down and write. My experience has been that students arrive early for class, ready to write. 

After a few class sessions, students become comfortable with this routine. Within a few weeks, students who began the semester afraid of writing or unsure that they have anything to write about are writing a page or more.  Within four to six weeks, some students are writing two pages, and some do not want to stop writing when time is up. They will continue writing even as volunteers read from their work. As at the beginning of the term, if I notice that someone is not writing for more than a few minutes, I offer assistance.

Daily quick writes provide the opportunity for practice that students need to develop clarity and fluency as thinkers and writers.  Many first-year college students have had little practice with formal writing assignments, and they have not developed the confidence or competence to be successful college writers. Students learn, through practice, that they have ideas to write about, thoughts to ponder, opinions to express, and important stories to tell. 

Not only do students become more confident writers because of daily quick writes, they become confident readers as well.  At the beginning of the semester, typically only a few students volunteer to read from their writing.  But by the middle of the term, there is often insufficient time to hear from everyone who would like to share.

One young male student wrote about how his attitude toward writing had shifted. “When I first attended this class,” he said, “I had a deep hatred for writing.  Fortunately, over the past few weeks, you have shown me that writing is not only a way to communicate with others but a way to be honest with myself.  I have come to realize, in the most shocking of revelations, that I enjoy writing.  It is not the mundane, arduous task I used to believe it was.”

A returning second-language student wrote about her first term in college. “On my first day of class, I was nervous and afraid because I didn’t know what to expect.  Everything has changed since then.  I feel more confident in my writing skills, especially in English.  I thought that I wasn’t good enough to go back to school, and I didn’t have dreams of my own.  I don’t remember the last time I dreamt about doing something with my life, but now I see things in a totally different way.  I feel that I can achieve and do anything that I want.”

Regular quick writes provide structured writing practice in an unhurried and calm learning environment, and students who write regularly gain not only confidence but competence as writers. Today’s time-pressed, multi-tasking students are, often without knowing it, hungry for this type of experience, and most sink into it easily and comfortably.  Commitment to a daily quick write practice requires trust on the part of the instructor – trust that the work students are doing is productive and beneficial and that the time spent on the activity is worthwhile.  Trust me: it works!

Downing, Skip. On Course: Strategies for Creating Success in College and in Life. Cengage Learning.
Ericsson, Stephanie. “The Ways We Lie.” Anker, Susan. Real Writing with Readings: Paragraphs and Essays. 5. Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2009. 667-670.
Sultan, Aisha. “Dirty Laundry: Callous students can cause just as much damage online.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 11 October 2010

–Teresa Ward, Chair, Developmental Writing, Reading, ESL, Butte College, CA

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