The Writing Workshop: Different Models for Different Purposes
Model I: The One-on-One Consultation
This workshop consists of a private consultation between the instructor and the student. When scheduled in advance of a paper due date, students and faculty can brainstorm paper topics, outline the core ideas, and consider various kinds of evidence the student can use to support the essay. When scheduled after a rough draft, students and faculty can go over specific writing challenges the student faced, and establish guidelines and steps for the revision process. These workshops take place around a paper, either prior to, or after, the actual writing process.
Pros: Many students benefit enormously from this highly personalized form of writing instruction. In many cases, this is the first time an instructor has ever sat down with them personally and guided them through the practices of good writing. Such meetings often foster in students a sense of ownership and empowerment with regard to their own writing, leading to better outcomes.
Cons: When done in advance of a paper due date, many students find it difficult, later, when actually writing the paper, to translate into prose the concepts and tips discussed in the meeting. Thus, instructors often receive a paper from a student that seems to bear no resemblance to the project they discussed earlier, despite an invigorating meeting. When done after the first draft, the one-on-one workshop can have the effect of a post-mortem, where students learn all of the things they did wrong, and could have done better, had they been clearer about the specifics.
Model II: The Small Group Workshop
This model involves groups of students in groups of 3 or 4 discussing their paper drafts with the instructor. Students bring multiple copies of their drafts to the meeting, and faculty and students read through the draft, noting strengths and weaknesses in the essay at each stage of development (introduction, thesis, topic sentences, use of evidence, and so forth). This model typically falls after a first draft of a paper.
Pros: this model doubles the learning process of Model I in that students learn not only from their own successes and strengths in writing, but also from the examples of their peers. The instructor, leading through a series of questions, reiterates the principles of good writing as students look for them in the examples at hand. The instructor is not the "bad guy" pointing out all the flaws in the draft, as students share in the critiquing process.
Cons: Some students may feel uncomfortable critiquing the work of a fellow student.
Model III: Peer Editing
This model typically takes place over a single class period. Students bring to class a single hard copy of their papers, and then swap papers, usually with a student who has written on a similar topic. Using a rubric provided by the instructor, the students assess the papers for how well they implement various writing techniques and strategies, producing a short report intended for the author. As students edit, the instructor moves from student to student guiding the editing process and answering questions. (On this website, you will find a helpful rubric for peer editing, field tested and approved by students.)
Pros: Many students gain clarity and direction in their own writing by reading another student's writing. In correcting a classmate's essay, they realize what they must do to improve their own papers. The shift in role from student to "grader" also helps to instill ownership of the writing process.
Cons: The quality of the peer editing session relies in large measure on the quality of the rubric provided by the instructor. The more precise the rubric, the better students perform on this assignment. Some students, even given a concise rubric, fail to provide useful and accurate feedback for a classmate. Also, some students feel less inclined to take seriously the feedback, even of high quality, from a fellow student, and may ignore the guidance for the revision process. One remedy for this involves having the students go through a check off each suggestion for revision as they implement it, or having students write a brief account of how they applied the suggestions in the final draft.
Model IV: "Evening Hours"
This model imitates a studio art session. It consists of a two-hour block of time (or more), in many cases outside of normal class time, in an open classroom or library, where students bring their laptops and work on their papers as the instructor moves from student to student assisting in the writing process. It works best when students have already received clear guidelines on good writing practices (thesis, topic sentences, paragraphing, and so on), and now it's time to actually make the recipe. This model takes place during the writing process, and works best when conducted within a week of a paper due date.
Pros: this model makes expert assistance available to students as they are trying to translate various concepts of good writing into actual practice, into an actual paper. While students are working on their own projects, they invariable listen in on the conversations between faculty and students around them, learning from them, and often finding ways to help one another. The large time block removes time pressure, allowing students to enter into the flow of the project. The in media res aspect of this model facilitates a highly precise back-and-forth between instructor and student, where the instructor can model a step, and students can try it themselves, gaining clarity of the process as they write. While done with a group of students, each student benefits from individualized instruction throughout the session. When conducted in the library, students have the added benefit of having library resources readily available.
Cons: Scheduling a large time block that most students can attend can be a challenge for students and faculty alike. Some instructors may have concerns that such highly specific guidance compromises student independence in the learning process.
So, which workshop should you use?
Here are a few pointers for using different workshop effectively:
- Mix it up: different students respond positively to different workshop models. For the first paper, perhaps meet with each student One-on-One. This is also just a nice way to establish a connection with them individually. For the second paper, try Peer Editing, while also meeting with any students who wish to meet individually. For the final paper, try holding Evening Hours, perhaps in conjunction with a Peer Editing session, again meeting with any students who prefer a one-on-one meeting. By the end of term, most students will have done at least two different writing workshops - awesome!
- Solicit Student Feedback: after each workshop model, ask the students, "did you find this helpful?" "Do you feel more confident in the direction you're going for this paper?" Then, see which workshops seem to translate into the best set of papers. You'll get a good sense for which workshop model works best for your classroom.
- Go non-compulsory: to encourage students to take more responsibility for their own writing, try making some of the workshops optional. For instance, rather than requiring all students to meet with you individually, pass around a sign-up sheet with time slots, saying you would be delighted to meet with any of them individually, but it's not required. Chances are, the sheet will come back full. When students choose to meet with you, and pick a time slot, they take ownership of the process. Those students who do not avail themselves of this resource, often realize the missed opportunity of not consulting with you, and change their approach in subsequent papers. At very least, all students will participate in Peer Editing during class time.
- Respect your own preferences and style: Just as students have their own preferences in workshops, you do as well. Some faculty find they get best results from a series of One-on-One workshops with students. Others see the best results after holding Evening Hours. Still others find that Small-Group workshops work wonders for student writing. Remember, the goal is not to do this or that workshop; the goal is to achieve the best outcomes in student writing. Find what works best for your classroom and do that, and share your experience with others.
You're doing great.