Write Now! Improving In-Class Engagement Through In-Class Writing

By Peter Connor

In Your Own Words, Please

How often do the same hands go up to answer the questions you ask? How many are there: three, five? How long is the average wait time? How loud is the silence?

Evaluating which students have come to class prepared, which have absorbed the information you've just delivered, and which are having real problems putting things together is made that much more difficult when a majority of students sit by waiting for someone else to volunteer.

In Tomorrow’s Professor—(Msg. #1060)—Lucas (2010) instigates active participation in her her classes by stopping halfway through and posing content-based questions. Depending on how many hands go up, she will circumvent the silence with: "Why don't you all just respond in writing—you have five minutes."

Rather than direct the question at any one student, everyone is put on the hook. She defines the time frame and the number of lines in which to answer. At the very least, a snap quiz like this can provide students with some on-the-spot practice putting their thoughts into words, a skill required in all professions (Lucas, 2010).

The questions that I ask are purposeful, have a definite answer, and can span the full range of Bloom's Taxonomy. Each question constitutes a brief quiz but one that requires that students formulate an answer clearly, succinctly, and correctly in a limited amount of time. This does not mean that the answer should be a verbatim response from the text or class notes. The best questions help students make their own meaning by translating concepts into their own words.

Hint: Keep grading and/or evaluation of these responses simple, something that can be accopmplished quickly, at a glance.  A simple point system is probably best.

Lucas's five most effective questions are:

  1. Give a five-to-ten-line summary of last night's reading. Include two or three main ideas.
  2. What were three of the most important points from yesterday's discussion?
  3. If you were summarizing today's discussion for a friend who was absent, what two ideas do you think are the most essential?
  4. Define, in your own words, the term: ________________.
  5. Tell me three things wrong with this statement: ____________.

Besides the benefit of engaging and pushing your students’ critical thinking skills, retention improves. To read the full article, visit Tomorrow's Professor (Msg. #1060): Awake, Accountable, and Engaged.


Lucas, L. J. (2010). Awake, Accountable, and Engaged. In R. Reis (Ed.), Tomorrow’s Professor. Retrieved from http://cgi.stanford.edu/~dept-ctl/cgi-bin/tomprof/posting.php?ID=1060


Thanks to Dr. Ken Barbarick, Prof. in the Dept. of Soil Sciences and Master Teacher Initiative (MTI) Coordinator for the College of Agricultural Sciences at Colorado State University for this Teaching Tip suggestion.

Peter Connor - TILT Web Content Writer and Editor