This guide was created by Cassie Sanchez on March 18, 2020.

Below are some ways to bring writing into your online classroom. These activities can help prepare students for formal, graded writing assignments, provide continuity and engagement with course content and the classroom community, and offer students ways of using writing as a tool for thinking. 

Please contact the Writing Center to discuss how to implement these and other writing activities either synchronously or asynchronously. Associates can also join your class virtually to lead workshops based on these activities.

Writing to think through content

Short, directed writing activities can help students think through what they’re reading, learning about, and hearing in class discussion. These activities can be informal and one-off or more formalized and regularly occurring. They can also occur synchronously (during a class Zoom session, for instance) or asynchronously (students work at their own pace and send via email or post to Moodle).

Consider using writing-to-learn activities as no-stakes or low-stakes assignments. Students can be told that they will receive no or minimal feedback, or they can be asked to give feedback to one another via Moodle, which you can check but not respond to.

Questions for class discussion 

Ask students to pull a quote from one of the readings, then explain, in writing, why it is compelling, and then pose a question to the class about it. 

  1. As an asynchronous activity: Ask students to post and respond to questions in a Moodle forum.
  2. As a synchronous activity: Ask students to lead a discussion based on these questions, and share their written document with the class using Remote Control on Zoom. 

Guided reading

Provide students with questions to answer before or after an assigned reading through fastwriting. These questions can be broad or narrow, depending on your goals, but they should be open-ended. Guided reading questions do not need to be shared; they work well simply to prepare students for class discussion. But, they can also easily be shared in the following ways:

  1. As an asynchronous activity: Students can post responses to reading questions on Moodle and respond to one another’s writing in pairs or small groups. This could be a standalone activity or it could be preparation for a synchronous class discussion. 
  2. As a synchronous activity: Students prepare their responses for class, and then are placed in breakout rooms on Zoom to discuss. Remember that breakout rooms allow you to pop in and out to listen to discussions.

Reading journals 

Ask students to keep a reading journal in which they respond to readings/class discussions. Entries can be general reactions to readings or responses to specific questions that you pose or that students post to Moodle in advance. Journals could be kept in Google docs that can be shared with you. Again, only minimal feedback (e.g., a check mark, one comment on a compelling idea) is needed.

Writing to gauge comprehension

Written check-ins are a great way to quickly gauge students’ thinking. These check-in prompts can be simple and general, such as “what’s one question you have for the class today?” or “what do you still want to know more about?” Or they could be specific to the day’s reading/discussion (e.g., “what’s one idea from today’s discussion that you’d like to explore more or have a question about?”).

  1. As a synchronous activity: You could begin and/or end each class session with a quick, written check-in. This could be done easily through Zoom’s chat feature.
  2. As an asynchronous activity: You could ask these questions before or after class and have students post responses to Moodle or share through Google docs.

Scaffolding writing assignments

Scaffolding writing assignments, especially long papers, allows students to develop one skill at a time, moving from the simple to the more complex; it also provides multiple opportunities for learning (including risk-taking and getting things wrong) and feedback (from you or from peers) before the stakes get high.

Scaffold large writing assignments by sequencing tasks around phases of the writing process (pre-writing, drafting, revising). 

  • Pre-writing activities can be easily done in the virtual classroom. For example, students can write and post to Moodle thinkpieces, sketches/mindmaps (using virtual whiteboards* or Google docs), practice thesis statements, journal entries, one-minute reflections, and statements of confusion. Students could also be asked to keep a writing journal in which they develop their ideas based on self-driven or assigned prompts. These pre-writing activities need not be graded, but they can provide you the opportunity to see where students are in their thinking. You could provide minimal feedback (e.g., a check mark) or use the opportunity to help students develop their thinking by commenting on areas that hold promise or that seem off course. These written pieces could also provide the opportunity for focused conversations during virtual office hours.
  • In terms of drafting and revising, students can be asked to draft via Google docs and share the document with you and/or others in the class. Students can engage in virtual peer review by either providing written comments or audio recorded feedback (if they need to meet asynchronously) or by meeting with one another synchronously online and discussing feedback. They can also make both online (synchronous) and e-tutoring (asynchronous) appointments with the Writing Center to talk through drafts.

*Zoom has sharing capabilities that work well for this kind of work. Students could sketch out ideas on a Google doc, for example, and then share it with a peer. There are other whiteboard applications, though, that students could use, such as AWW Board, Ziteboard, or Whiteboard Fox.