Teaching Students How to Organize Essays through Nonlinear Practice

A foggy downtown Pittsburgh, viewed from The Mattress Factory.

This past November, I attended the College Reading and Learning Association’s 50th Annual Conference, which I wrote about here. In addition to being inspired by the sessions I attended, I left Pittsburgh with a signed copy of James M. Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, which was selected for the conference’s “One Book, One Conference” program.

Before the start of this semester, I finally had the opportunity to read Small Teaching. It focuses on “the notion of small teaching, an approach that seeks to spark positive change in higher education through small but powerful modifications in our course design and teaching practices” (5). This idea of “small teaching” has proven to be incredibly useful. It has not only given me many great, very easy to implement, classroom exercises, but it has also enabled me to reflect on effective in-class activities that I have used in the past. Thanks to Lang’s book, I have been able to make clear connections between these successful activities and the science behind their efficacy.  

For this post, I was inspired by Lang to outline an example of “small teaching” that I have used consistently throughout my eight years as a composition instructor. I adapted this in-class activity from a strategy used by a colleague in graduate school, who would bring scissors to class and have his students cut up their rough drafts as a way to think about their essays’ organization. I have used this group activity in composition as well as composition and literature classes, but it could be modified further for a literature course in which students might benefit from a brief activity focused on writing. In order to help students understand and reflect upon the importance of organization in an essay, I have them, as groups during class time, determine a logical structure for a sample student essay*, one that they first encounter as a pile of cut-up paragraphs.


Sample Student Essay
The deconstructed sample student essay.

Once everyone gets settled into their groups, which usually consist of between three and four students, I toss a bunch of paragraphs held together with a paperclip onto each group’s desk. The directions that I give my students are intentionally vague — “These paragraphs make up an essay. Your mission is to put them back together so that they read as an academic essay, containing a logical structure.” I float around the room, listening in on how students go about determining the essay’s organization. In some classes, this activity turns into a race to see who can get the “correct” order first, with me checking and telling groups whether or not their organization matches the original essay’s paragraph order. In other classes, I have one student from each group write the first sentence of each paragraph on the board in linear order, so that we can compare the groups’ final decisions for the essay’s paragraph order. Both versions of this classroom activity allow students to think about thesis statements, transitions, and essay organization in a nonlinear way.

Introducing students to the essay in this way disrupts their normal perception of an essay’s organization. Lang describes the process of learning as one in which “we are making changes to our brains…Neurons form new connections with one another with every new experience we have: new sensations, new thoughts, new actions. As the neurons are connecting to one another in novel ways, growing and strengthening new connections, they are forming networks” (95). These networks connect the new information with what students have previously learned. For this activity, students must recall ideas about writing that they have learned during previous classes in order to make sense of this disorganized essay, which then helps them to make new connections in their brains about essay structure.

Finished Sample Student Essay
The same sample student essay, now organized into its original, linear structure.

To further make these connections, I ask each group to describe their process for completing the task to the rest of the class. It’s always interesting to hear what the students actually did during this activity. They usually try to find a thesis statement first and then almost always look to the first sentence of each paragraph for clues. With one sample student essay I have used in the past, students often confused the order of the same three body paragraphs because the original writer did not include clear signs for how these paragraphs relate to each other. Making this observation has given students the opportunity to talk through revisions, ones that would make the paragraph order more explicit to a reader. When using a different sample student essay, groups would almost always place the original writer’s conclusion as the essay’s introduction. This confusion creates another teaching opportunity, one where we can discuss why this confusion happens as well as the similarities and differences between introductions and conclusions. 

After having students reflect on the activity, I ask each group to read the essay out loud, using the writer’s original paragraph order. We then have a discussion that assesses the essay by identifying its strengths and weaknesses. This discussion is an example of what Lang describes in “Practicing,” a chapter that emphasizes the importance of providing students with class time to work on the cognitive skills that they will be assessed on. Lang writes, “It may seem to you that holding an in-class discussion about a text serves as good preparation for writing an essay about that text. Those are two different things, though.” Because it was written for the same assignment that the current students will be completing, the discussion of this sample student essay allows for students to ask questions about the writing process as well as the assignment’s directions and outcomes, which can be useful for college students who are writing about literature for the first time or for upper-level students who may benefit from a refresher on what makes a strong literary analysis. This practice can be taken a step further by having students then rewrite the parts of the sample essay that they identified as weak or confusing.

Small TeachingThis in-class activity is one example of “small teaching” that doesn’t have to take up a ton of class time, but can have a significant impact on student learning. I want to explore the idea of “small teaching” further, as Lang suggests in Small Teaching’s Introduction: “Use the book to spark new or newly invigorated conversations on your campus about how we can best help our students learn and about how we can best promote positive change in higher education.” I look forward to hearing from the PALS community about other examples of small teaching: the activities, models, and assignments that focus on the process of student learning.


*It is important to note that I almost always use an essay written by one of my previous students for this activity. Almost every semester, I will ask some students if I can have their permission to teach their essay, with the removal of any identifying information, in future classes. Students are often flattered and rarely say no to this request. Using an essay that was crafted with my actual assignment requirements in mind is invaluable for this lesson because it provides my current students with a model for their specific assignment.


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