Academic First Year Experiences

  • View of alps from Aiguille du Midi mountain top.

    "Teaching in thin air...."

Writing in Large GE Classes: Resources for Doing the Impossible

Photo of the Alps by Reza (CC 2.0); cropped, resized, and renamed.


"Assigning and Assessing Writing in Large Classes" (2009) (U. Washington at Seattle) 

“Assigning and Assessing Writing in Large Classes.”  Teaching and Learning Bulletin 2009 (12:4). Center for Instructional Development and Research.

Includes a good discussion of  “Responding to Assignments Efficiently and Effectively” and also offers practical tips for returning graded work (obviously a special challenge in a big class: you can’t call out individual student names for this). 

Comics (including some rated R) about how to use punctuation from "The Oatmeal" 

Yes: a series of comics (available in poster form) explaining how to use semicolons.

Also potentially useful from the same authors: how to use apostrophes, available at  

Want more? They also have Who vs. Whom:

Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom

John C. Bean's book (now in its second edition, 2011) provides invaluable advice about ways you can get students to learn by writing.  Here's a sampling from Ch. 7: Informal, Exploratory Writing Activities:

  • "thinking pieces" that ask students to respond to a disciplinary problem that you identify or provide (121).  Think of "an architect's sketchbook of possible designs for a project" (125).  "Exploratory writing is thesis-seeking, whereas exam writing is thesis-supporting" (125).
  • Bean lists "Twenty-Two Ideas for Incorporating Exploratory Writing into a Course" (131ff.) including "Tasks to deepen students' responses to course readings" and "Low-stakes 'shaped exercises' to practice thesis-governed writing.
  • Ask students to write in response to a question, and explain that "Before you can do so, you'll need to read Chapter Ten" (or whatever reading assignment was going to be due that class anyway) (134-5)

Bean also includes a helpful how-to discussion about grading exploratory writing.  "The key question is not 'How well written is this piece?' but 'To what extent does this piece reveal engaged thinking about this topic?'....[R]eward the process of thought rather than the product." (143)

"Four Key Questions About Large Classes" by Maryellen Weimer

Weimer's short piece raises four questions about who benefits from large classes--and who might be hurt:

  1. How many students make it a large class? 
  2. Who should be taking large classes?
  3. What content is best suited for delivery in a big class?
  4. Who should be teaching the large classes? 


Weimer, Maryellen. "Four Key Questions about Large Classes." Faculty Focus. 2 Sep 2015. Online. Accessed 2 Sep 2015.

“Integrating Low-Stakes Writing into Large Classes.” (U. of Michigan, Sweetland)

Very practical suggestions with detailed instructions for various strategies including how to assign each one, how to get students to share their writing, and how to give feedback.  Overview:
"The benefits of assigning low-stakes writing have been well established—students learn more when they are required to articulate their knowledge in writing. Low-stakes writing can also help students keep up with reading, better understand course concepts, or take a more active role in the course. But many instructors of large college classes are hesitant to assign writing because they believe it will be too time consuming, or because they feel that in order to assign writing they must also dedicate significant class time to teaching writing skills. This resource addresses such concerns and provides guidelines and methods for incorporating low-stakes writing into your class without being overwhelmed with work."

The LRC: CSUN's Learning Resource Center

The LRC has a Writing Center with tutors who can "assist student writers by offering individualized feedback on their writing, at any stage of the process, including understanding the assignment, brainstorming, forming a thesis, developing content, organizing ideas, and learning proofreading skills."  They also offer Writing Workshops on various topics each semester.  New in spring 2015: LRC FAQs for Faculty, which explains what happens during a Writing Center conference, how you can encourage your students to visit the Writing Center, what to do if students need long-term help with their writing, and more.

"Marking (Grading) Essays" (2014): how to make grading essays easier and more enjoyable (Tomorrow's Professor blog post) "Marking (Grading) Essays" by Brian Martin [Australian prof so he uses British spelling] : Message #1360 from the Stanford-hosted blog Tomorrow's Professor (19 Oct. 2014):
"It's worthwhile discovering methods to make marking more enjoyable. The same methods can be used to tackle other dreaded tasks.

"Sitting on your desk is a pile of essays that need to be marked. There might be just 10 or 20, or maybe 50, 100 or more. For most teachers, this is not an eagerly awaited task. Is there some way to make marking easier and more enjoyable?"

Brian Martin's answers, summarized: 

1. Work in moderation, a little bit each day, rather than procrastinating and bingeing.

2. Remain fresh and alert by taking breaks when needed.

3. Practise going a bit faster while maintaining quality.

4. Aim to do what's good enough, not at perfection.

5. Redesign the task to make it more interesting.

[HTML version of the same newsletter message: 


Notes from the Workshop: "Teaching Writing in Large Upper Division GE Classes in ART" (12/5/14)

There were two handouts:

1. Notes for discussion: Working with writing in large GE classes (Sharon Klein), which focused on types of assignments.

2. University Writing Center (Anne Kellenberger): helping your students get the most out of the LRC, including a draft of the Spring 2015 Writing Workshop Schedule

 And here's a photo of the whiteboard summary of strategies from the session, followed by a list elaborating on those strategies:

Strategies for writing in large classes


  • Assessment meeting of program faculty to note where desired skills are Introduced, Practiced, and Demonstrated. 
  • They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein: a useful book for students that offers templates to scaffold arguments
  • Thinking pieces and microthemes
  • Reconsider whether comments are necessary, and if so, how much commenting will be useful
  • Rubrics: keep them simple to begin with and try just one on a single assignment if you are new to this process
  • Spread out the grading: take breaks
  • Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom by John C. Bean (2nd ed., 2011): available online for CSUN users only; also available for checkout in the Academic First Year Experiences Library in CIELO and at Oviatt Library.  See esp. p. 297 on how to support successful peer reviews.
  • Try this psychological adjustment while grading writing: instead of asking yourself, "How well written is this piece?" try asking, "To what extent does this piece reveal engaged thinking about this topic?"  You will still be able to make distinctions between more and less successful writing--but you won't start each paper depressed by its shortcomings.  (More about this in Engaging Ideas (2nd ed.), p. 143.)

The other materials from this session have already been posted on this webpage.

"Teaching and Learning in Large Lectures": incorporating assignments and providing effective feedback (Cornell U.) 7, “How can you incorporate writing assignments and provide feedback effectively?”  
Also valuable is their discussion of how to use rubrics:
The Cornell site includes the following list of references:
Angelo, T. & Cross, P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Davis, B.G. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Heppner, F. (2007). Teaching large college classes: A guidebook for instructors with multitudes. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass. 

Svinicki, M. & McKeachie, W.J. (2011). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (13th ed). Wadsworth Publishing. 
The Faculty Development library (in CIELO) owns Angelo & Cross, Heppner, McKeachie, and also this resource:
Stanley, Christine A. M., and Erin Porter (2002). Engaging Large Classes: Strategies and Techniques for College Faculty. Anker Publishing.

"Teaching in Thin Air." (Argues that it's "virtually impossible" to teach much about writing in large classes.)

Susan Schorn on "Teaching in Thin Air." Guest post on Blog U's Just Visiting, a blog by John Warner at Inside Higher Education.
Her argument:
Though I've never climbed Everest, I've spent considerable time in academia's version of the death zone: the super-sized writing classroom. I've taught writing-intensive courses in "overflow" sections with 26 students or more; I've worked with instructors who regularly taught sections of 32, 40, or even 60 students. Of course, "teach" is probably the wrong verb—any instructor who has helmed one of these mega-classes knows it's virtually impossible to teach the students much about writing. There simply isn't enough instructional oxygen to sustain learning.
She offers statistics to support her claims.

"Teaching with Writing" by Robin Brown: principles and suggestions (U. of Minnesota) "Teaching with writing in large classes." Robin Brown.  Offers some "principles" and suggestions.  Sample:   

Formality: Consider the distinction between formal and informal pieces of writing. Formal pieces require more time spent teaching and evaluating the writing process; informal assignments give students a chance to use writing to explore the course content without too much emphasis on the writing process.

"Using Writing in Large Classes" (2006) (Colorado State U.)

The gist:
You can use short, informal in-class assignments such as minute-writes, 5-minute microthemes, or group work to evaluate writing. You can encourage out-of-class writing using email, bulletin boards, chat, or other technology tools. You can tie assignments to teamwork and problem-based learning to take advantage of the power of collaborative learning and writing. All of these can add significant amounts of writing efficiently while not imposing a huge burden on you. If you regularly employ frequent, short writing assignments, your students will see that that writing is important and expected, even in large classes.

Videos and podcasts: a collection (various sources)

Some faculty members would rather read 8 handouts than view even one video.  But here are some videos; it's possible you may enjoy viewing them (and so might your students!). Or follow the lead of CSUN colleague Whitney Scott and make your own explanatory video using the app "Explain Everything" (; also available on other platforms).
PLEASE let me know if you find a video you love!
These look pretty good:

"When to Use Whole-Class Feedback" (Faculty Focus 2014)  "When to Use Whole-Class Feedback" by Mary Ellen Weimer.  Faculty Focus, 9.17.2014.
If you haven't ever considered giving whole-class feedback in response to a writing assignment, now you can.
Explanatory excerpt: 
"What’s probably least effective is a teacher 'lecture' (referencing here one of those finger-pointing, sharply worded, negative critiques). If it sounds like something a parent would say to an errant child, what’s the probability of an 18-year old taking the prescribed action and what’s the probability of an adult who is as old as the teacher taking offense?

"More effective are future-focused discussions. Based on their performance, what do they need to do next time? The discussion should identify specifics; things done well that they should continue doing, along with things to stop and start doing." 

See more at:

"Writing in Lectures" from "Large Classes: A Teaching Guide" (U. of Maryland)

U. Maryland. Sloppy but some good suggestions about types of ungraded writing you can assign.