First-Year Writing Seminar Program Writing Exercises

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Most materials in the Writing Exercises collection have won the Knight Award for Writing Exercises, an award recognizing excellence in short exercises and/or handouts designed to improve student writing and for use in First-Year Writing Seminars. Award winners address topics from a wide range of writing issues such as development of theses, use of primary sources, organization of evidence, awareness of audience, and attention to sentence patterns. Exercises and handouts may be for in and/or out of class use. Materials include a rationale for future instructors.


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Now showing 1 - 20 of 52
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    Showing and Telling: The Ethnographer's Trade Secrets
    Horner, Rachel (2022)
    This worksheet introduces students to the distinctions between active and passive descriptions, which I describe here as ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ respectively, to demonstrate how writing from observation-based details, rather than conclusions drawn from these details, often makes for more engaging and effective writing. Although the worksheet centers ethnography and thus might be best suited for instructors and students in the social sciences, it can easily be tailored to teach descriptive writing in any discipline.
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    Curating an Exhibit
    Jao, Charline (2022)
    In this activity, the metaphor of a museum exhibit allows students to think more critically about how they incorporate sources into an argument. Rather than simply talking about texts on the surface-level, this exercise encourages them to explore more nuanced critical maneuvers and to think about texts in conversation. By showing students how their choice of texts allows them to expand, criticize, or refine ideas (rather than just stating them), “Curating an Exhibit” encourages a deeper engagement with primary sources and provides practice for thesiswriting.
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    Handout: Undertaking synthesis in your literature review
    Robinson, Ewan (2021)
    Alongside this handout, students worked in groups to analyze two example literature reviews that modeled different structures for conducting synthesis at the paragraph and sentence levels. Students created reverse outlines of the model texts and identified specific writing features (transitions, pointing words, comparison words, etc.) used by the authors to narrate the relationship among their sources (i.e. to accomplish the goal of synthesis). The handout below and the model texts served as references for students as they revised their preparatory writing into draft body paragraphs during the following week. Students reported that having a clear explanation and demonstrations of synthesis helped them to make specific recommendations to one another during subsequent peer review.
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    Using Examples to Illustrate Concepts
    Southgate, Libby (2021)
    This writing exercise helps students develop the ability to develop and deploy examples to illustrate concepts or ideas. The exercise is in three parts. In the first, the whole class reads and then discusses examples of writing where an author has used an example to illustrate a concept/idea (passages taken from texts used in class). In the second, the students work in groups to develop their own example, which is then work-shopped as a whole class. Lastly, the students write their example out in prose. This exercise was completed on zoom using interactive google slides in lieu of a physical worksheet, but it would work just as well as a physical worksheet.
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    Anticipating Counterarguments to Deepen Comprehension
    Estrella, Ariel (2021)
    Students strengthen their argumentative skills by answering the same prompt from two different perspectives. Students are then provided questions for a guided reflection on the process. This activity promotes a deeper reading comprehension by arguing for both sides of a dialectic. In doing so, students unveil a text’s contradictions, wordplay, and ambiguities. This assignment can be used to develop a habit of expecting counterarguments and/or to generate an in-class discussion about craft.
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    Reverse Outlining a Published Article
    Post, Ryan (2018)
    With the goal of improving the organization of students' writing, this exercise asks students to create a reverse outline of the introductory section of a published article. For each paragraph, students must a) give the paragraph a "title" conveying its main point; b) in bullet points, summarize key information the paragraph describes; and c) determine what purpose this paragraph serves for the piece as a whole. For homework, students write a reverse outline of their essay.
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    Sentence Structure Variation
    Armstrong, Kacie (2018)
    This exercise was designed to help students understand the importance of sentence structure variation. A model passage was used to dissect and evaluate sentence structure variety, and then students practiced this skill in their own writing. Ultimately, students learned to vary sentence structure in order to achieve the quick pacing and rhythmic structure that is characteristic of editorial writing.
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    Writing to Read
    Gunhan, Aslihan (2019)
    This assignment is tailored to function as a "Writing to Read" exercise that was conducted in the classroom. By giving the students short prompts, I asked them to consider themselves in different positions (like a journal editor, an author in the same field, a writing tutor) and give feedback to one specific essay which they collectively found unsuccessful.
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    Voice, Genre, Style, Diction, Tone: A Musical Guide to Writing Style
    Tyson, Lee (2020)
    This handout explains and clarifies the distinctions among aspects of writing style (voice, genre, style, diction, and tone) through parallel concepts in music. While particularly useful in a writing course on musical topics, this handout offers an accessible introduction to writing style concepts for students who are attuned to music in their daily lives, as listeners or performers. An accompanying writing style analysis peer review activity is included.
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    Mapping a City
    Moynihan, Michael (2020)
    This in-class activity is designed to teach mapping as a tool to develop a research question. It also incorporates a spatial element into the brainstorming process in order to make connections between concepts and terms that could otherwise seem separate or disparate. After the activity, the students will take part in a short writing exercise to begin forming conclusions about the connections and relationships they made.
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    Argument Construction
    Kumar, Sneha (2019)
    This exercise helps students think through the argument construction process. It uses a series of prompts that encourage students to think about the following questions as they develop their arguments: • how does the topic sentence relate to the essay prompt; • what is the premise behind the argument; • how does the evidence relate to the argument; • what is the main opposition to the argument, and how does a rebuttal specifically address the opposition?
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    Sentence Variety Exercise
    Houck, Dan (2019)
    The exercise asks students to take a blank canvas of simple sentences and add variety to make it more interesting and to emphasize whatever they think is important. It is short and easy, but produced a wide array of results that were interesting to discuss.
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    How to Craft an Academic Title?
    Huang, Junting (2018)
    In this exercise, students learn to analyze academic titles of a research essay. It consists of three separate steps. They are designed to help them 1) identify the “academic style,” 2) understand the basic elements (the hook, the crux, and the source), and 3) analyze common strategies.
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    Formal Analysis
    Leraul, Daniel Bret (2015)
    This handout is an advanced lesson that integrates close reading, the use of textual evidence, literary analysis, and revision skills as part of an assignment sequence for writing an argumentative essay. It consists of three parts: an in-class lesson, an out-of-class preparatory writing activity, and an in-class peer review of the writing activity. The learning outcome is for students to analyze texts at the level of their form, a crucial skill in the discipline of literary studies.
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    Writing an Effective Introduction
    Wu, Danielle (2015)
    This handout has two stages: a workshop version for class discussion and a polished version for reference. First, the students put into their own words the common opening gambit for academic writing. We then workshopped an introduction with me as the writer and the class as the tutor (an effective strategy for helping students recognize issues of coherence and cohesion). After prompting me with leading questions to clarify my argument, the class helped me revise each sentence by breaking the paragraph into the stages we had identified. I then gave the class a clean copy of our work as a writing reference that directly reflected their experience.
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    Byland, Hannah (2015)
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    Peer Review / Conclusion Writing Exercise
    Hesselbein, Chris (2014)
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    Thinking through an Essay
    Tamayo, Daniel (2014)
    In this activity, students practice isolating relevant information, and organizing this information into sound arguments that are clearly presented. It is designed to help students who uncritically try to incorporate too much course material into their essays. It is formatted as a hands-on and interactive "jigsaw activity" to help ensure all students are actively engaged.
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    The Argument Pyramid
    Price, Adam (2013)
    This handout is an attempt to explain to students my strategy for thesis creation. Although I have found the "three story thesis" approach—observation, analysis, interpretation—to be a useful model, some of the students still have a problem conceptualizing what they're being asked to do. The argument pyramid provides a visual explanation of what I'm looking for: a broad base of observation that narrows through analysis and culminated in an original "point" of interpretation. This, is , of course, an over-simplification of the dialectic moves that truly exceptional writers make in their essays, but I have found this handout to be worthwhile as a jumping-off point for students who are accustomed to writing superficial high school list papers.
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    Same Body, New Clothes
    Soulstein, Seth (2013)
    "Same Content, New Clothes" is a writing assignment that asks students to focus entirely on style, rather than content, in their writing. By adapting their own assignments to forms of writing the conventions of which students may be more familiar with than academic writing, students may gain greater insight into their own abilities to make clear stylistic choices that reflect the demands of each form. In writing their own fairy tales, letters, and tweets, they might just have fun, too!