Effective Instructional Techniques

Written by Allyson Skene, UTSC

The following teaching strategies have been used successfully by faculty across the disciplines at U of T to give students a chance to improve their confidence and skills in writing, while also learning their subject by writing about it. Many of the instructional activities in the first section can be implemented by course TAs, who will also gain awareness of writing. The assignment design techniques in the second section help ensure writing skills become an integral part of student learning in your course.

Instructional Activity Purpose Challenges
Demonstrate ways to read and analyse the assignment instructions Encourages students to read prompts carefully; gives an opportunity to clarify expectations; models meta-cognitive skills Requires well-designed assignment sheet
Provide samples of student work (with explanations of why they are successful – or not) Gives students a concrete example that demonstrates expectations Unless samples are from a very similar assignment, they may not address key issues
Provide detailed rubrics or discussion of evaluation criteria Ensures a consistent standard; makes the hidden curriculum transparent Poorly designed rubric will be difficult to use and can cause more confusion than clarity
Demonstrate effective strategies for reading sources Gives students insight into typical genres, methods, and evidence used in the disciplines; encourages students to read as writers Can be taken over by content-related questions
Assign in-class (or tutorial) activities such as a one-minute paper outlining the most important (or most confusing) point from the lecture or reading Gives students a low-stakes opportunity to practice relevant skills and develop their assignment ideas Requires some class or tutorial time
Conduct in-class (or out-of-class) workshops on particular writing skills (e.g. research, revision, referencing, etc.) Shows students particular strategies they can employ to improve their writing Connections to assignment must be explicit; also, if out of class, attendance may be poor
Provide one-on-one consultations / office hours Engages students with their own ideas and gives them an opportunity to ensure they are on track Requires significant time and resources, especially in a large class
Hold a peer review session Helps students learn how to assess their own work Needs set-up and coaching – and sometimes students can lead each other astray
Ask students to write a reflective piece outlining their own perceptions of their writing Encourages meta-cognition and self-evaluation, both of which aid in transferability of skills Unless it is worth grades, students may not put much energy into it – or they may be afraid to admit weakness
Provide formative feedback (written or oral), keeping comments focussed on higher-order concerns and your reactions as a reader Students gain a genuine reader and have the opportunity to engage with their specific assignments Some students are reluctant to read comments on their work; office hours or substantial written comments take time
After grading, provide group feedback during class or tutorial on common issues that students struggled with Gives students genuine reader responses and a better sense of the evaluative criteria; can also be used to provide specific writing strategies May not be relevant to all students; takes class and tutorial time


Assignment Design  Purpose  Challenges
Ensure assignments are authentic to the discipline Students tend to find authentic assignments engaging, and put more effort into them It might be easier to plagiarize certain authentic assignment types (e.g., code or fact sheet)
Define purpose and audience Helps students determine the appropriate level of detail and tone required for the assignment Students may still misconstrue audience if they lack requisite experience
Detail expectations for genre, research, argument, and evaluation Helps ensure students are on the right track from the beginning Even clear prompts leave room for confusion because of differences across courses and disciplines
Sequence (or scaffold) larger, more complex assignments Builds skills gradually, giving opportunities for students to improve over the term; reduces plagiarism Needs to be tailored to the individual course, and can require significant resources for grading
Provide writing-to-learn opportunities such as learning journals, problem statements, progress reports Gives students a chance to formulate and work through their ideas in a low-stakes environment Students may not take these seriously if not given grades
Include revision opportunities Helps students appreciate writing as process; gives them an opportunity to re-think and improve their ideas Requires care in articulating higher-order concerns that will most improve the paper, without demoralizing the student