Handling the Workload

The kind of patient work that goes into devising appropriate assignments and responding to them intelligently does take more time than other kinds of teaching. But it need not pose impossible burdens. And some work that faculty undertake with the best intentions is actually counter-productive to the goals of improving student writing and thinking.

Some faculty may think . . .

That conscientious teaching requires marking all grammar and language errors.

But research shows . . .

Students can catch more than 60% of their own errors if they are taught to proofread and held to appropriate standards of correctness. By marking every error, we are actually training our students to rely on us as copy-editors. Teachers may instead

  • mark errors on the first page only
  • mark representative errors
  • place checks in the margins where errors occur
  • look over a set of papers quickly and return error-laden essays for proofreading and correction
  • use style editors or other software packages to scan student writing for error. (This last strategy requires some awareness of the limitations of these programs)
  • create peer editing groups in their classes (See the Mānoa Writing Program’s Peer Review and Feedback Groups at UH Mānoa - either the brief or full version.)

To see recent research on most effective ways to respond to student writing, see Wingard & Geosits' "Effective Comments and Revisions in Student Writing from WAC Courses."

Some faculty may think . . .

That teachers need to read everything that students write.

But research shows . . .

Students can be asked to write for brief periods at the beginning or end of a class to help them focus or achieve closure. When discussion lags or reaches an impasse, students can be asked to write out a response to share. Students can bring to class written definitions of key terms to debate or questions to stimulate discussion. This kind of informal writing need not even be collected. Its purpose is to stimulate discussion and encourage active engagement with the material. (See the Mānoa Writing Program’s Freewriting and/or Teaching with Journals.)

Some faculty may think . . .

That teachers need to evaluate every piece of writing they collect.

But research shows . . .

Students tend not to read lengthy instructor comments, especially if they will not be allowed to use those comments in composing an additional draft. Non-evaluated assignments can work well and even be the most frequent type of writing used in a writing-intensive class. For example, journals and informal writings, if collected, can be evaluated using a "minimal marking" scheme (i.e., points for completing the assignment plus extra points or a "+" for an insightful response). Or students can be awarded credit for the number of entries submitted, and they can single out a limited number of these for closer scrutiny, grading, and response. For more ideas, see the Writing Activities to Get Students Thinking and Learning.

Some faculty may think . . .

That more is better in terms of how much teachers respond and how thoroughly they address the conceptual problems of the essay.

But research shows . . .

That students are often overwhelmed and paralyzed when they receive essays on which the instructor's comments trail into every margin and leave a depressing map of error and negative response. Even when response is positive, saying too much is often confusing. It is better to choose two or three elements of the essay to focus on, giving highly specific constructive advice or commentary, than to attempt to cover all possible areas of concern. (See the Mānoa Writing Program’s Responding to Student Writing.)

Some faculty may think . . .

That requiring two drafts of an essay doubles the work.

But research shows . . .

That students usually attend to comments only when they are given a chance to revise. Otherwise, they are likely to give a one-minute glance to the remarks you spent twenty minutes writing--or worse still, look at the grade and toss the essay. It makes more sense, then to invest time and energy responding to the first draft and to make these comments truly facilitative. Respond to the final draft only briefly, and let these comments be more evaluative. For more information, see the Mānoa Writing Program’s Writing and Research.

Some faculty may think . . .

That "writing-intensive" means that students should do 3-5 separate, unrelated assignments, each one entailing extensive time commitments in devising assignments and responding to them.

But research shows . . .

That students often benefit most when the work of the semester can be conceived as one project, phased in stages or logical sequences. Moving through a logical sequence of assignments is one way to increase the level of conceptual difficulty gradually, and to ensure that students build on material they have studied in earlier portions of the syllabus. It is more cost-effective for instructors as well, since in some cases they will have seen and responded to smaller components of a project before the cumulative work comes in. (See the Mānoa Writing Program’s Effective Writing Assignments.)

(This page is adapted from Virginia Tech’s University Writing Program, on the Web.) 

[from qt-summer]

Applying the Hallmarks of Writing-Intensive Courses in a 16-week semester can be taxing; applying the Hallmarks during a six-week (or shorter) term can overwhelm both the instructor and the students. We surveyed experienced WI instructors; respondents saw benefits to a six-week WI course, as long as precautions were taken. Our tips below come from their suggestions.

Remind students that the semester is only six weeks long.

If students get behind, catching up will be very difficult. And if they take more than one WI course, the workload may be too much. The Mānoa Writing Program Faculty Board strongly recommends that students take only one WI course per summer session. Ask students to consider changing their schedule if they have registered for more than one WI course.

"Let the students know what they're in for—if they fall behind, they're lost." -Professor

Start writing early in the semester.

Students in WI courses should write at least 16 pages during the semester. By assigning writing during the first week and then regularly, the workload is stretched out over the entire semester. Give short writing assignments or break a research project into manageable steps.  

A series of short writing assignments gives students opportunities to improve from one assignment to the next. When giving feedback, focus your comments on what the student should keep in mind when working on the next writing assignment. Ask students to set goals and self-assess their progress after each assignment.

If you assign a research project, break it into parts and build in opportunities for feedback and discussion after each step. For example, you can ask students to

  • brainstorm or freewrite about a topic;
  • create a research question or write a proposal; 
  • gather information and evaluate sources (some instructors provide materials so students spend less time searching); 
  • write an annotated bibliography or keep a reading log; 
  • write a rough draft; 
  • write a final draft.


Assign different readings to different students.

If you assign a lot of reading material, divide the class into small groups and have each group read some of the texts. During class, students present oral and/or written reports so all students learn about the material in the texts.

"The only drawback of the short summer term was that students had less time for the heavy reading load." -Professor

Don't respond to everything the students write.

You do not need to extensively comment on everything your students write. You can let students know that you will give a full response to assignments that will be revised (or are part of a series). For assignments that will not be revised, tell them that you will use a simple grading system (and will sometimes give a few brief comments). Many instructors use the plus, check, or minus system because they are simply looking to see whether a student has completed the assignment. "Write-to-learn” assignments are usually not revised—they are typically short, informal writing assignments designed to get students thinking about a topic or reading assignment.


"I found that writing every day strengthens the continuity and coherence of the discussion." -Professor


“Write-to-learn” activities:

  • Minute Papers:
    At the end of class, have students summarize a lecture or discussion, identify the key point, or pose a final question on a 3x5 card. 
  • Admit Ticket:
    Require that students drop off a brief summary of a reading, two questions drawn from a reading, etc., to be admitted to class.
  • Student Note-Takers:
    Assign one student each day to be the official note-taker. The note-taker gets practice summarizing and organizing main ideas. This activity also provides feedback to the instructor and review material for the class as a whole. 
  • Reading Log:
    Ask students to keep a reading log. For each reading assignment, students write an entry that contains a brief summary plus the student's questions, observations, etc. A log helps students come to class prepared to discuss the reading assignment. 
  • Freewriting:
    At any point during the class period, ask students to write for five minutes on an issue or question that you pose. The writing gives students time to collect their thoughts or generate new ideas. Freewriting works well to jumpstart discussion because students are better prepared to talk about an issue.


"I recommend keeping daily journals. Students stay focused and there is wonderful carry over from day to day." -Professor