Composing First Impressions: Assigning a Writing Sample in Literature Courses



I started teaching MxCC’s ENG 102: Literature and Composition class online last fall. Entering the virtual classroom posed new challenges for me, ones that I did not fully anticipate before switching to teaching through this medium. Even as I eagerly wrote my “welcome letter” as the first week’s course announcement with nervous excitement, I knew it would feel strange to start the semester without walking into the classroom and seeing my students’ faces. How was I going to get to know my students as writers?

The first discussion post I assigned, two paragraphs in which the students write about themselves and their writing process, helped me learn about my student’s lives as well as their feelings about writing. I wasn’t, though, getting a full first impression of my students as writers, which is especially important for this course because it focuses on further developing academic writing skills through critically analyzing literature. I could get a sense of my students’ writing style through this assignment, but the discussion post did not provide me with a sense of each student’s ability to write a formal essay. When reflecting on my previous experience teaching traditional literature-based composition courses as an adjunct instructor, I quickly realized a solution: assigning a writing sample. A  writing sample can be used in either online or face2face literature classrooms in order to assess each student’s ability to analyze a source before writing an argumentative essay based on its content. This writing sample provides students with the chance to make a positive first impression as writers to their instructor, who can then use this assignment’s feedback to begin conversations with his or her students about writing.

The Assignment

During the first week of my online class, students are given three assignments: a quiz on the syllabus, the discussion post I mentioned earlier, and the writing sample. The writing sample itself is not graded. Since this assignment is an opportunity for me to see what students have learned in previous classes, I feel that it would be unfair to grade them solely on their past experiences. Instead, the writing assignment becomes an opportunity for students to get feedback on a non-graded, “low stakes” assignment. The writing sample’s prompt is structured in the same way as the reader response essay we assign in English 096: Introduction to College English, which is the class students who place below the college level must take before taking English 101, our college-level composition course. I do this intentionally because I do not want the writing sample to be overwhelming or unmanageable for students.

Students are asked to read a recently published news article and then write at least five paragraphs that answer a question about the article’s main idea. This semester, students were assigned the New York Times article “Teaching Teenagers to Cope with Social Stress” and asked to analyze whether public high schools should be required to teach classes focusing on skills, such as stress reduction, that students could then use in their personal lives. While students have the entire first week of the semester to work on their writing samples before emailing final drafts to me, the writing sample is not designed to take more than an hour or two for students who have remembered and retained the skills they learned in English 101. This assignment, therefore, can easily be modified to become an in-class activity for the first week of a face2face course.

Benefits for the Instructor

The writing sample has been enormously beneficial for me as an instructor because of the opportunity it provides for me to not only see each student’s writing, but also to immediately give students feedback about their writing.  I don’t provide detailed feedback, such as a copy of their essay with track changes and individual comments on each paragraph; instead, each student receives at least a one-paragraph reply to their original email that articulates the observations I made while looking at their writing samples. As I read each submitted sample, I take note of the essay’s strengths and weaknesses. These notes become the foundation for my emails to each student, in which I explain what the essay did well, what areas need to be worked on, and what elements of writing that student should focus on when completing future assignments. For example, one student might know how to effectively summarize a text and use quotations from this text to support her thesis statement, but did not use topic sentences. Another student’s essay may have a clear structure, but lack in development. Personalizing the feedback to each student gives me the opportunity to create a dialogue with them about writing, which makes students feel more comfortable communicating with me and asking questions about their writing throughout the semester.

Not only has the writing sample allowed me to observe the strengths and weaknesses present in each student’s individual writing, but it also gives me insight into each student’s work ethic and, oftentimes, their commitment to the course. During the first week, I take note of which students submit the writing sample early and which students ask questions to make sure that they are completing the assignment successfully. Since there are no consequences for submitting the writing sample, a few students each semester have chosen not to write one. Last semester, three students did not submit the writing sample, and none of those students passed the course. Regardless of what impression a student makes through this assignment, the writing sample gives me the opportunity to address my concerns, assist students in finding support outside of the classroom, and encourage students who are nervous or anxious about taking a writing course.

Benefits for the Students

For my students, I think the biggest benefit is creating this open dialogue about their writing at the very beginning of the semester. One student who took my class last semester wrote in response to my email, “Thank you for the feedback! I will definitely look into making my thesis stronger in future papers and focus more on the first sentence of each paragraph. (And I will add a third body paragraph next time, oops!!) I appreciate the comments though, they got me thinking more about my writing style. I look forward to the rest of the semester!” This student was glad to have this “test run” of writing an essay and immediately started thinking about how she would use this feedback when writing other essays in the course.

The writing sample can be especially helpful for students who have taken time off between English courses. Another student from last semester replied, “Thank you for the feedback. It has been a long time since I have taken an English class or written an essay.” When taking classes at a writing-923882_1920-copycommunity college, as I described in a post last year, students do not always take classes that are designed to be completed in succession one semester after the other. Some students put their education on hold and return one, five, or ten years later. Even students who take ENG102 a year after they completed ENG101 may not remember all the intricacies of academic writing. The writing sample helps students get back into this mode of thinking like a writer.

Extending the Impression

In addition to encouraging conversation between students and their instructor about writing, the writing sample can be combined with future assignments to extend this dialogue. This semester, I wrote a general announcement for students about the three most common areas I gave constructive feedback on: writing clear thesis statements, creating a strong organizational structure through paragraph order, and using topic sentences. Next semester, thanks in part to reading Brianne Jaquette’s strategies for incorporating composition activities in literature classes, I plan on assigning a one paragraph reflection on the writing sample as part of the class’s second discussion post. This will not only allow students to discuss their experiences of writing with each other, but will also provide them with the opportunity to earn credit for completing both the writing sample and the reflection.

In addition to assigning a reflection, I have also, while teaching in person, used a current news article for the writing sample in which the article’s main idea connected to a theme found in the semester’s first assigned reading. In 2010, in the midst of the Great Recession, for instance, I assigned an article that interviewed people who still were being affected by the financial crisis of 2008. During the following class, we discussed how to approach reading a short story with Dorothy Parker’s “The Standard of Living.” In addition to discussing literary terminology that we would use throughout the semester, my students and I talked about how the main characters, Annabel and Midge, related to the people interviewed in the writing sample’s article. We also discussed how to effectively apply the skills used when writing a persuasive essay about a current event to writing an analysis of a short story.

After reflecting on my use of the writing sample and thinking ahead to next semester, I would love to hear more ideas for how to effectively discuss writing in literature courses. What assignments do you use to combine writing instruction with literary analysis? What strategies do you use to teach students who are taking literature courses to write effectively? And, more universally, what other ways can we support students so that they make a good first impression as writers in the future?


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