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9 Posts authored by: Stacey Cochran Expert

In the classroom, how long do you typically wait for students to respond after you ask them a question?


One second, three, ten seconds, twenty?


If a student doesn’t readily know an answer or signals non-verbally they are uncomfortable answering, do you move to another student whose hand shoots up in the awkward silence? How do you as a teacher feel in that moment of silence?


I was recently introduced to the groundbreaking research of Mary Budd Rowe, who recorded classroom interactions during the 1960s, '70s, and '80s for exactly these moments of silence. Through two decades of recording and analysis, Dr. Rowe discovered what the typical response of teachers was to silence… and its consequences on student learning, student perceptions and attitudes about teachers and schools, and a host of other outcomes.


[For more on Dr. Rowe’s research, see: Rowe, Mary Budd. (1986). Wait Times: Slowing Down May Be a Way of Speeding Up. Journal of Teacher Education, 37(1), 43-50.]


Dr. Rowe distinguishes between two types of wait time: Wait Time 1: after a question is asked. Wait Time 2: after a student responds.


Two Critical Moments to Pause at Least 2.7 Seconds


Wait Time 1: After you ask a student a question.


Wait Time 2: After a student pauses in responding and/or seems to be done with their response.


The latter silence is the harder to tolerate, as the student looks at you for non-verbal cues that his/her/their response met your expectations or satisfaction. As that silence fills the classroom, nod to the student, maybe even smile, and count the seconds in your head…


And see how students respond.


Dr. Rowe’s research revealed that waiting three seconds increased students’ verbal fluency by 300-700%, increased linguistic complexity, increased speculative reasoning skills, logic formation, significantly improved students’ perceptions of teachers, increased the number of questions students asked in class, increased the variety of students voluntarily participating in discussions, and improved written measures where items were “cognitively complex.”


Simply by waiting three seconds.


Not surprisingly, improvements were not just found with student performance.


Positive outcomes for teachers included: teachers’ responses exhibited greater flexibility, decreased discourse errors, and improved continuity in the development of ideas. Further, the number and kinds of questions asked by teachers changed, and the expectations teachers held about students who “never talk” changed significantly.


Every semester we hear expressions like: I just can’t get them to talk. I have one class that talks all the time, but another it’s like pulling teeth just to get them to respond. I think it’s the time of day. Students seem tired right after lunch. Etc.


I challenge you to call on a student and just wait. Nod. Make calm eye contact. Maybe smile a bit. But let the silence build (for a minimum of three seconds)!


See what happens.


They will talk. Or others will start talking.


Listen to their responses, and then pause three seconds when they’re done. And ask a follow-up question.


Then repeat the strategy with another student. Ask an open-ended question that genuinely seems interested in learning how they think: How do you feel about this? What are the things you like most here? What was most memorable to you about this experience?


And wait… ten seconds if necessary. Or more.


Other students will pick up on how interested and calm you are in the silence, and they will start to volunteer responses. They will feel safe, confident, and valued.


It will transform your classes and your students’ learning. Students’ perceptions of you as a teacher will go through the roof.


She’s such a great listener. He cares about what I have to say. I learned a lot in her class.


I think the key is to combine the two kinds of wait times with open-ended questions that are focused on students’ perceptions, feelings, and experiences. If you ask only propositional knowledge-based questions of students that, too, can intimidate students and shut them down. However, if you shift toward a classroom practice that prioritizes students’ care and emotional well-being and combine the strategies embedded in Dr. Rowe’s “wait time” research when listening to students, you will see a significant change in student responses.


Classes that “never talk” will come alive!




As always, I am grateful to you for your reading, and I’d be especially grateful when you comment, like, or share this post.


If you do try out this three-second-pause strategy, let us know what happens. I would be grateful to learn from you about your experiences!


Also what tips or strategies do you recommend that have worked for encouraging class participation?


If you are interested in introducing FYW students to primary research methods, An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing provides an overview and general definitions of qualitative and quantitative methods appropriate for students in a first-year writing class. If you are new to teaching qualitative or quantitative methods to students, it can be a bit intimidating to be sure. I’d like to write today about a fun, low-stakes activity I have my students do the first few weeks of the semester to begin a conversation about research methods.



I enjoy having my students interview one another during class early in the semester. Recognizing that most students are more tech savvy than I am, I ask them to practice recording one another using a semi-structured set of interview questions. It’s remarkable to watch a class begin to discuss how they’re going to record the interviews, whether on a laptop or on mobile devices, and then to watch them learn socially from one another about the best way to upload the audio files to our  course shell once their recording is complete (we use D2L at the University of Arizona). If asked, I’ll step in and offer advice and tips about how to do the recording and uploading, but for the most part I give them just enough direction to get them started, provide the questions and activity objective, and then let them learn from one another by just jumping in there and giving a recording a shot.


Below you’ll see a set of semi-structured questions I’ve asked students to use in the past as they record themselves interviewing one another:


Usually they pair up with a partner, and I ask them to leave the room and find a quiet space somewhere in the building to conduct the interview. Once they record their interviews, they upload the audio file to our  course shell. This then allows us to listen to the interviews in class. It’s a great conversation starter, and FYW students find the use of technology as well as listening to their audio-recorded voices played back in class fun, funny, and entertaining. There’s usually quite a bit of positive emotions and laughter with this activity.


You may notice that some of the questions in the table above are intended to begin a conversation about Writing in the Disciplines (especially Q. 1 and Q. 2). Q. 3 is intended to draw on their funds of knowledge and to position students as experienced and knowledgeable writers who have succeeded in the past.


By using these recordings in class as conversation starters, I’ve learned a lot about the expectations and support that faculty in other disciplines have provided to students in writing contexts. The recordings also reveal a great deal about students’ perceptions of effective teaching practices as well as their past experiences with writing.


Coding and Interpreting

Once we have these interviews archived digitally, students can access the audio files and listen to them to take notes. I ask students to listen to multiple interviews and note any themes or keywords or phrases that begin to emerge from the data.


A student may end up with a list of words or phrases like “feedback,” “peer review,” “tutoring,” “assignment sheet,” “rubric,” “drafting,” “meet with teacher,” etc.


Typically this is about as far as we’ll take it in a FYW class. I might write some of the keywords that emerge from multiple students’ interpretations of the interviews on an eraser board, and we’ll use that as a bridge to talk about effective writing processes and what the expectations are for our course. Later in the semester, we’ll return to interviewing more formally as a research method they can use in collecting data on a research topic of their choosing. These early recordings thus scaffold toward more formal interviews they may record for a grade later in the semester as part of a research project.


If you have tips or suggestions you’ve used, please feel free to share your ideas in the comments below. As always, I’m grateful for your time and interest, and if you found this blog helpful or informative, please comment, like, and share it!


Thanks so much, all.

Positive or negative writing feedback… what’s the optimal balance?



Recently I asked my students what they considered to be a healthy ratio of positive-to-negative feedback on their writing. The general consensus emerged from four sections of FYC that a 1:1 ratio seemed fair and healthy, the “norm” or even ideal. Then I introduced them to the Losada ratio and research by Gottman, which suggests that a 1:1 ratio is a recipe for traumatic experience.


To be clear, “negative” feedback is a broad term. We often hear phrases like “constructive criticism,” “critical thinking,” “critical examination,” or suggestions that we frame critical responses as questions like: “Maybe add more description here to improve this sentence?” Those of us who have built our careers within a context of critical discourse have created a lexicon to soften the blow of criticism and what is often perceived by students summarily as “your writing needs improvement” and “this sentence needs work.” That is too often what they hear when we write in the margins or in the comments window: “Maybe reword this sentence to bring in more evidence to support your claim?”


When we operate from a system that prioritizes critical examination, we are starting from an assumption of “this needs improvement”  – a deficits model for viewing students – rather than “this has outstanding strengths and virtues” (i.e., a positive, strengths-based model). And it permeates so much of what we do in K-12 and postsecondary education.


No wonder so many students find schoolwork drudgery (or worse). We have inherited a model that emphasizes – hell, it assumes as common sense (the most oppressive of forces) – a need for improvement disproportionate to that of highlighting students’ strengths and virtues.


Gottman’s research was centered on marital stability, and he discovered through a career of data collection that a ratio of 5:1 (positive-to-negative comments) was optimal for a healthy, strong, and loving relationship. Barbara Frederickson at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has spent more than a decade furthering research centered on the Losada ratio in many contexts, including education.


What her data suggests is that those of us who adopt a positive-to-negative range in our daily lives between 3:1 and 7:1 tend to flourish. If we fall below that, we tend to suffer and fall into toxic patterns. Interestingly, if we are too positive, the benefits begin to fall off as well. There is an optimal window within which humans tend to flourish.


So how does this apply to the writing classroom?


I am moving toward a positive, strengths-based model for FYC, a model of teaching writing that improves student well-being (and my own quite frankly), and I’m beginning to consider if this is a direction the field of writing studies itself might explore through practice, discourse, and research.


How to Emphasize Positive Emotions and Well-Being in a Writing Class

This semester I asked students to write a gratitude letter, and then to plan a surprise visit to read their gratitude letter aloud to its recipient. The level of heartfelt, authentic, and mature positive emotions I’ve seen is profound. Tears have been shed. Good tears.


One student read his letter to his grandmother who parented him the last seven years after his mother died, and he asked his grandmother to be at his mom’s gravesite as he read his letter to her. Another wrote a gratitude letter to her dad who completed substance abuse treatment three years ago. One student wrote hers to her mom with never-before-expressed gratitude about the experience of riding along with her mom while she went from one business to the next trying to find work, persisting and loving her and her sisters while on the verge of homelessness.


Students are saying this is the most meaningful writing project they’ve ever completed. They’re saying things like, “You can’t B.S. a letter expressing gratitude to the one person who knows and loves you better than anyone else.” Some have even suggested they are finding meaning in life by writing and reading these letters.


Throughout this unit, we completed reflective writing activities that asked students to consider their strengths and virtues and the strengths and virtues of the people around them, to practice using those strengths and virtues in new and different ways. I’ve asked students once per week to complete an activity called “Three Good Things,” wherein they are to write down three good things that have happened to them in the past day or two, to consider the causal explanations of the good things, and then to share those with the class as a whole.


As letter writing practice, one day in class I asked students to write a letter to themselves four months from now with self-compassion, complimenting the achievements they will have made by succeeding this semester. They then read their letters aloud in class filled with hope, compassion, and kindness. One students’ letter to herself read: “By the time you read this letter, you will have weathered your parents’ divorce which, as I’m writing this, I just learned about a week ago, and you will be stronger and happier and enjoying summer camp.”


The response has been like nothing I’ve ever seen in twenty years of teaching writing. Students who truly believe they’re not good writers are talking about their strengths and about the people in their lives to whom they would like to express gratitude. They’re finding meaning and purpose in life, and they are authentically questioning what happiness is and how to achieve it through writing, positive emotions, engagement, and building positive relationships with others.




In closing, think about three good things that have happened to you in the past day or so. Maybe even write them down. Then ask yourself, how does it feel to think about those three things? How does it feel to think about what went well?

Consider for a moment the instances in your life when you were lost. Perhaps anxiety heightened your feelings of being lost and originated from events personal, professional, or academic. Perhaps you were faced with a decision to write a memoir, to start a new job, or to stand on your own in front of a class as a teacher for the first time. How did you see your way forward? How did you cross the divide?


Many writers in a first-year composition class find themselves similarly positioned. Financial stress, psychological stress, personal stress, and academic rigor all act as agents challenging persistence in their new academic life. These writers access many tools in order construct the support – or bridges – that facilitate transfer across the divide.


Engagement and a strong self-concept may be two of the most important factors determining resilience and persistence, and self-concept is directly affected by the social support we have around us. One of my goals at the University of Arizona in working with fellow writers is to help them believe that they do belong, that they are supported, and that they can develop agency in accessing support.


Oberg’s Theory of Culture Shock posits that the more unfamiliar a culture is to a newcomer, the more stressful it will be, and Oberg suggests a traveler in a foreign country will pass through stages: 1) the honeymoon stage, 2) adoption of a hostile and aggressive attitude, 3) endurance, then 4) crisis (to leave) or acceptance (to stay) in the new country.


Two points I’d like to make drawing from Oberg:


  1. Writers new to college find themselves similarly positioned.
  2. Writers navigating new genres find themselves similarly positioned.


Genres function in ways not dissimilar to culture. They’re constantly in flux while at the same time possessing conventions and expectations that locals recognize and understand. Further, genres function to stratify locals and non-locals. If you speak the language, the locals more readily accept you (a pathway to social support). If you don’t, those same locals will view you with a skeptical eye (if not outright reject you).


For writers, the closer a new genre is to a familiar genre, the easier it is to transfer knowledge from previous experience toward understanding the new genre. The further apart the new genre is to past genres with which we are familiar, the more difficult it will be to write in the new genre. I consider this the genre divide.




In writing classes, one of my goals is to provide writers with the tools to construct bridges between existing knowledge they have and new forms of knowledge they need. I strive to make them aware of such bridging tools. And there are many.


In An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing, one bridging tool we emphasize is the rhetorical context. An example that came up in class this past week was from our Applied Fields chapter. I asked my fellow writers to draft a nursing discharge plan, a genre of which most were unfamiliar. Many approached this assignment by largely mimicking the conventional organizational structures of the example included in the book. In class, however, I recognized the language many writers used in their discharge plan suggested they thought I was the audience. So I challenged them to think about who the author of a nursing discharge plan was, who the audience was (i.e., patients), what the purpose was, and what the topic was of their discharge plan.


In that moment their metacognitive awareness became heightened toward the agency such bridging tools afford. That is, many recognized, “Oh, snap, there are tools I can use to make sense of this new, foreign genre!” There are tools they can use to construct a bridge across the genre divide of past knowledge and new writing contexts.


As first-year writing teachers, we often scaffold assignments in a sequence to construct such bridges for our fellow writers. And in a university with a strong Writing Across the Curriculum program, considerable institutional resources can be applied to help writers persist beyond the borderlands of FYW as they engage more fully in their second, third, and fourth years. Vygotskian scaffolding is well-established pedagogy. However, I’m less certain composition scholars have connected Vygotsky to institutional theory in making the case for Writing Across the Curriculum in higher education.


In the writing classroom, Genre Bridge Theory aligns Wittgenstein’s concept of language games with Vygotsky’s zones of proximal development. One potential critique in so doing is a tendency toward “performativity” of genre conventions rather than truth. My argument would be that truth arises by accessing bridging tools when writers achieve insight, realize the power of their own agency, and visualize and create something wholly original.


In conclusion, I should acknowledge my bias toward process. Rationalists view the purpose of writing as production. They would like to see students write a “perfect” sentence or paper that meets their (i.e., faculty) expectations and the expectations other faculty have of writing. I find rationalist views of teaching writing extraordinarily oppressive as they subordinate truth in favor of performance. Instead I focus my emotional labor toward heightening my fellow writers’ awareness of their own processes so that when they write in unfamiliar genres where they may feel lost, they can draw metacognitively from bridging tools to make sense of the new terrain, to navigate, and to find their way—ideally toward originality, insight, and truth.

An Insider's Guide to Academic Writing: A Rhetoric and Reader, 2016  MLA Update EditionI’ve received a few questions from faculty interested in using An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing about recommended assignment sequences, so I would like to discuss two possible plans I believe might work well in First-Year Writing.


Assignment Sequence #1

The assignment sequence I currently use emphasizes a rhetorically-based approach to writing, reading, and research with a central focus on active learning. It asks students to engage in primary resource data collection (quantitative and qualitative) appropriate to their intended academic majors.  

  1. Literacy Narrative
  2. Research Topic Proposal
  3. Primary Research Logbook
  4. Academic Poster
  5. Portfolio Reflection

Assignments 2, 3, 4 scaffold, building from one to the next. That is, in Project 2, students propose a research topic they would like to investigate, and they begin to brainstorm a research design they might use to answer their research question. Project 3 then follows, and students collect primary resource data appropriate to their academic major in order to support or refute their hypotheses based on their proposed research questions. Project 4, the academic poster, then gives students a context for thinking critically about their methods, results, and their results’ meaning from Project 3 in order to represent their findings in a poster.


Assignment Sequence #2

Another possible assignment sequence I’ve begun to draft that might work well for faculty using An Insider’s Guide emphasizes a rhetorically-based approach but doesn’t engage as deeply with primary research methods. As a result, it be more suitable for someone teaching a WID-based curriculum for the very first time.

  1. Literacy Narrative
  2. Project Assignment Sheet Analysis
  3. Faculty Interviews
  4. Comparison/Contrast of Interviews
  5. Portfolio Reflection

This assignment sequence emphasizes reflection in Projects 1 and 5. Project 2 would be an analysis of a project assignment sheet that the students have from a different course. It could be an assignment sheet from a course the student is presently taking or from a course they have previously taken. I would ask the student to perform a rhetorical analysis of the assignment sheet, assessing the sheet’s rhetorical context (specifically focusing on purpose and topic).

Project 3 asks students to engage in qualitative research by interviewing two to three faculty members in their academic majors. These interviews could be written or multimodal (perhaps asking students to use video, audio, or some other technology). I propose asking students to focus their interview questions on the types of writing and research faculty in their academic majors engage in and the expectations faculty have for student writing. Project 4 would then follow up by asking students to perform a content analysis of the interviews and describe the results of their analyses in the form of a comparison and contrast paper assessing the interviewees’ responses from Project 3.

What I like about this assignment sequence is that it asks students to begin to investigate the kinds of writing and research that might be expected of them in their academic majors. The Project 2 Assignment Sheet Analysis paper serves a practical purpose of encouraging students to read closely the sheets they might have for another course. It also serves the purpose of giving the instructor a sense of the kinds of writing students may be required to do for other courses, which has the potential to improve transfer of skills and create a dialogue about disciplinarity and discourse across the university.

Perhaps you have another assignment idea that could work well in asking students to engage in qualitative or quantitative data collection for the very first time. As always, if you have comments, feedback, or suggestions, I would love to hear from you in the comments section below!

Don’t be afraid.


These are the words I’ve been telling myself often this semester. You’d think after twenty years of teaching first-year writing I’d find a way to reduce my anxiety in and out of the classroom, but it still hits me every day. I envy teachers brimming with confidence and enthusiasm. I really do. I marvel at the layers of skill that my colleagues who teach have mastered. I think I’ve gotten okay. Maybe even pretty good. But there is still a deep and nearly omnipresent fear that every lesson plan, every classroom exchange, every attempt to motivate students toward authentic and original thought could go terribly wrong.


I’m beginning this semester with a literacy narrative, a genre I’ve come to appreciate fairly late in the game as first-year writing faculty. I guess I should nod in the context of this blog post to the fact that the literacy narrative is one of the projects we discuss in An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing (p. 14).


I can’t know how many of you have taught this genre, and that frustrates me, so I would just like to talk about how I’ve overcome my fears so far this semester teaching such a beautiful, delicate, vulnerability-inducing genre and how I think it contributes to shaping me as a teacher and the students who teach me every day.


The diversity of students I teach at the University of Arizona are unlike anywhere else I’ve taught: Navajo, Apache, Latino, Black, White, affluent, poor, middle class, West Coast, East Coast, Midwest, Southwest, Southeast, Northwest, International students.


Building relationships and trust in order to create a safe space wherein students can reflect on and articulate the experiences that shape their identities in front of total strangers who look only alike in age has proven awkward and at times shocking.


But reflect and articulate they have. Stories of abandonment. Stories of having a paper torn in half by a high school teacher and thrown in a trashcan. Stories of drive-by shootings and murder. Of parents and families on the brink of collapse. Drug addiction. Abuse. Neglect. Previous teachers who don’t really care seems to be a common theme in FYW literacy narratives.


It’s a lot to process.


There’s a tendency to see students as “students.” Like some generic group of automatons who write papers for us to grade and correct and believe we somehow improve with our degrees and experience and comments in the one-inch margins surrounding their text. But it’s too bureaucratic, if you see it that way.


Students learn best when the agency of knowledge comes from within. I’ve always mistrusted “authority” figures and mistrusted even more systems where authority is rigidly structured.


I suspect, if you’re reading this blog post, you likely believe that writing has the power to improve your life. In the classroom, this only works if students believe you care about them, are sensitive to their experiences and identities, and are willing to embrace the awkward, painful, and uncomfortable moments in a classroom with compassion, openness, professionalism, and enough humility to learn from the very people we are supposedly teaching.


I love the literacy narrative because it sets the stage for the rest of the semester. It reveals character and truth, and if done well, encourages students to be courageous, open, curious, willing to learn, motivated, reflective, metacognitive. It teaches them about who they are, why they are here, and how they can move optimally forward in a complicated world.



What follows is a set of activities I employ to teach the literacy narrative.


We begin the semester by talking about our student learning outcomes. I think it’s good practice that students know 1) we have goals for achievement in this class, 2) what those goals are, and 3) where they come from.


A table in the preface of An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing illustrates how the book aligns with the WPA Outcomes Statement. The FYW course goals at the University of Arizona arise from the WPA Outcomes Statement and the Framework for Success, so I think it’s wise to acknowledge that with my students.


Activity 1 – Generating Ideas for a Literacy Narrative

One process-oriented group activity I use in the class to connect our outcomes to the literacy narrative is cluster mapping.


Students select one of our four outcomes and put it in the center of the cluster map on the white board in our room. They branch out and make a list of subtopics that include activities, genres, processes, or past writing projects that may have contributed to their development with that outcome.


One of our course goals is the development of reflection and revision processes.



The point is to get them thinking about our goals and the kinds of writing they’ve done in the past in order to generate ideas for what they might write about in their literacy narratives.


Activity 2 – Analyzing Sample Literacy Narratives

I usually follow this activity by introducing the project assignment sheet for the literacy narrative. I provide students with at least four samples of a literacy narrative. I prioritize developing group dynamics, and so one activity I’ll use is to ask students to read one of the sample literacy narratives, and then as a group they use a grading rubric to assess the sample. They have to negotiate the point values they would assign to all the criteria, and they present their sample literacy narrative and discuss how they graded it.


Activity 3 – Brainstorming and Drafting a Scene

It’s at this point that I try to highlight the unique features of a literacy narrative and point out how different it is as a genre than a research paper or a thesis-driven argumentative paper. This semester I’ve asked students to develop three scenes using sensory detail that follow a narrative arc representing a beginning, middle, and end to their narratives. We spend a day brainstorming potential scenes from their past experiences as writers and students, and then I ask them to draft one scene using sensory detail.


I give them a prompt I call “When I walked into the room I saw ________” and I ask to make use of at least three different sensory descriptions (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) in writing five to seven sentences that describe their scene.


Generally students love this kind of writing. It’s creative and reflective and often a new genre for them. That said, a good number of students fall back on summarizing too heavily, and so I’ll use the drafts (usually done in an online discussion board) to point out the differences between effective use of sensory detail and summarizing events.


Activity 4 – Developing Dialogue in a Literacy Narrative

We spend a day on dialogue. I point out the unique features of dialogue attribution, paragraph breaks for each new speaker’s line, punctuation around dialogue, and stylistic nuances regarding effective dialogue.


I’ll ask students to draft a dialogue-rich continuation from the sensory detail scene they composed the previous day, and then I’ll ask them to act as directors and choose actors to perform their written dialogue. Some students love to act. Moreover they generally find it exciting to hear their dialogue come to life in a performance by their peers.


Activity 5 – Five Objects, Mood, and the Final Scene

Near the end of the unit, I ask the students to brainstorm a list of potential final scenes with which they might conclude their literacy narratives. Once they have three to choose from, I ask them to select one. For that one scene, I ask them to write down the setting (time and location), characters featured in the scene, and the main idea or insight they want readers to understand about them by reading their literacy narratives.


We discuss these points. I offer feedback. Then I ask them to make a list of five objects that appear in the scene and to describe the mood they want to convey.


A student might write: library bookshelves, the table, my notebook, the clock on the wall, and flashcards. The student may write about the mood she wants to communicate. She may say she wants to convey the stress she felt or the anticipation of her final high school exam.


We discuss this stuff. I push them to explain how the mood of their final scene aligns with the main idea or insight they want readers to understand about them by reading their literacy narratives.


Then I ask them to write their final scenes using the setting, the characters, the five objects, and the mood they’re trying to convey.



I would love to hear back from y’all on this one. What activities or strategies have you used to teach the literacy narrative? What has been most helpful in the classroom?


As always, please like and share this post, if you found it meaningful. Thanks so much, everybody! Peace.

Stacey Cochran

Reflective Writing

Posted by Stacey Cochran Expert Feb 12, 2016

If you had to pick one learning goal for students in the writing classes you teach that is most important, which would it be?

  • Rhetorical awareness?
  • Critical thinking and composing?
  • Knowledge of conventions as it relates to genre, purpose, and audience?
  • Something else entirely?
  • All of the above?


Of course any approach to a question like this absolutely hinges on a deeper philosophical question at the core of composition studies. Simply stated: what is the purpose of a writing class?


I’m a novelist. My wife is a scholar. Many of our dinner table conversations (arguments? debates?) can be traced back to this very question.


At its heart, the seven years she and I and Roy Stamper spent co-authoring An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing (or “IGAW,” as I like to call it) was a quest of sorts to answer this question. We asked scholars from across the spectrum of higher education to talk about writing. We searched within our own experiences in the classroom, drew from examples of student work, asked ourselves tough questions regarding our own teaching philosophies. I know Susan constantly thinks about the place of first-year writing in the broader mission of a university and as part of public discourse as a whole.


I’ve come to realize if you don’t process what you’ve studied, if you don’t pause to make meaning from experience and knowledge gained, can you ever truly say you’ve learned anything?


When I’m working on the draft of a novel, I keep a file running with my notes in it. In the earliest stages of my process, this file often takes the form of a section simply titled “Notes” at the end of a working draft. The audience for the “Notes” is me. It’s where I try to make sense of what I’m doing. Sometimes I’ll freewrite for five or ten minutes reflecting on what a character has done previously and what that might suggest about her motivation and the decisions she’ll make later to come in the novel.


It’s a messy bunch of scribbling, but it’s kind of beautiful in its way, too, because it is where logic is pressed, where optimism and pessimism battle, where life and death and who I am and why I am here vie for attention. And no one else will ever read those notes other than me.


So why do I do it? Why do I scribble and sketch and believe that it somehow matters?


Because it does. It makes me better. It contributes to completion and happiness. The act of reflecting on what I’ve written and what I’ve learned and what I should do moving forward is the most important way – I’m inclined to argue the only way – that I can see that I can improve my writing. It’s what I’ve tried to do book after book: examine my life and the choices I’m making and how those choices reflect in the prism that is a novel.


We’ve all heard published novelists espouse the belief that you can only get better by reading and writing a lot. And it’s true. Reading and writing exhaustively is essential.  But the cognitive process that contributes most to improvement during the act of reading and writing is reflection.



In the writing classroom, reflection takes many forms big and small. This semester I’m book-ending my English 101A classes at the University of Arizona with a literacy narrative as the opening project and an end-of-semester reflective essay at the course’s conclusion.


In between, we’ll examine writing in the disciplines via a research topic proposal, a primary research logbook, and an academic poster session. All of these will be supported by rhetorical principles with a keen eye on the WPA Outcomes Statement along the way.



Susan asked me last night for a quotation about writing. It was a Tuesday night, and she was working on something important on her computer. The kids were in bed, and we had a fire burning in the fireplace of our living room.


“I need something fairly famous that is inspiring,” she said.


“Well, I don’t know about famous, but you can quote me on this: Writing is life.”


She snorted. It might’ve been a guffaw. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t overly impressed.  I should have quoted something pithy by Mark Twain, perhaps.


But the reality is, to me at least, writing is life. The two are inextricably linked like the threads and dyes that make a tapestry. To examine and reflect on your writing is to examine your life.



When I began my professional career as a teacher of writing, I used to dread reading student evaluations. It hurt. Students can use those things to vent. Over time my views of student evaluations have changed. I look for consensus. I look for ways to improve. I confess to my students on Day 1 that I will try to learn at least as much from them as they’ll learn from me (and from one another) in the semester to come.


And every semester I do learn. I add an activity or an article I’ve discovered or a lesson plan or, best of all, an unanticipated exchange with a student to the three-pound synaptic storm residing between my ears. I write in discussion forums alongside my students in low-stakes reflective ways throughout the semester. I’m sometimes encouraged to write a blog about it.


And through it all I think I’ve improved. I think my craft and voice as a writer and as a teacher have seasonally aged into something approximating worth and value.



Yesterday in my afternoon English 101A class I asked my students how many of them had ever kept a journal or diary. Only one hand shot up.


We’d been discussing an article titled “Reflective Writing: a Management Skill” that reported the findings of an empirical study measuring reflective writing against a list of eight outcomes using a statistical model of analysis. The data was pretty clear. Reflective writing contributed to development of students’ skills with the outcomes.


I had one of those moments where I realized reflective writing was not something my students had practiced much. Too often first-year students view academic writing as a singular genre: a five-paragraph essay, a thesis statement, a few citations thrown in for good measure. What else is there to learn?


I said to them, “I think the big take-away for me from reading this article is just how rich and varied reflective writing is. It’s a skill just as much as any other, and the more you practice it, the better you’ll get.”


A few heads nodded.


“So what I want you guys to do for today’s discussion forum writing is take a look at the list of outcomes discussed in the article and choose one you feel you will improve on the most by way of writing your literacy narrative. What does the outcome mean to you? And why is that particular outcome the one you feel you’ll improve on the most?”


It took them a couple of minutes. They had to read over the list closely and really think about what the outcomes meant. Things like critical review, actual self-development, knowledge of one’s own mental functions, decision making, academic learning, empowerment and emancipation.


I could see in a few of their eyes a sort of fixed gaze as their brains considered what the outcomes meant. Some of them froze there for a moment as if reflecting on a spot on the wall ten feet away.


And then they began to write.





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Stacey Cochran is the bestselling author of Eddie & Sunny. He has taught First-Year Writing for nearly twenty years at East Carolina University, Mesa Community College, North Carolina State University, and most recently the University of Arizona. He lives in Tucson with his wife Susan Miller-Cochran and their two kids Sam and Harper. He is currently at work trying futilely to overcome his impostor syndrome.

Ahh, motivation.


Yes, good people, it is that wonderful time of the semester when none of us has any time for anything. We give ourselves over to daydreams of purchasing a one-way ticket to Hawaii with plans to never return to teaching, grading, meetings, or anything related to university life. It’s a beautiful daydream. Filled with the salty taste of the ocean, an ice-cold adult beverage, and the feeling of burying your toes in sugar-white sand. Don’t tell me you haven’t imagined your escape plan, too. Maybe yours involves Cozumel or Aruba.


A few years ago I found myself sitting at my desk in my windowless lecturer’s office that I shared with ten other NTT faculty at NC State University. It was like a large janitor’s closet, that office.


Google, save me, I said to the computer one day.


I began searching phrases like “student motivation.” And “how to get students to talk.” Or perhaps “career choices.” One such search led me to a beautiful area of scholarship and publications like The Journal of Educational Psychology. Therein I found a life raft.


One article led to another, and eventually I discovered Rathunde and Csikszentmihalyi’s “Middle School Students’ Motivation and Quality of Experience: A Comparison of Montessori and Traditional School Environments.


Their research hit me at time when I was beginning to wrap my mind around what it meant to teach a rhetorically-based WID approach to First-Year Writing. Rathunde seemed interested in questions about quality of life, student motivation, and pedagogical approaches to teaching that affect both.


11.27.15_Insider's View Kevin Rathunde.PNG

An Insider's View from Kevin Rathunde, featured in An Insider's Guide to Academic Writing, page 161.


Rightly or wrongly I began to see parallels between a WID-based approach to teaching composition and the philosophy of Montessori. Primarily I noticed that both involved a student-centered approach and that both emphasized students’ intrinsic motivation to learn by encouraging students to develop research from their unique and personalized interests. Intrigued, I began synthesizing Rathunde’s research findings in my day-to-day activities for English 101, and lo and behold, I saw a bump in student motivation.


Here’s one example:


Rathunde’s research suggests that students’ motivation improves when they work in groups with clearly defined goals and clear accountability, and they have a voice in how they are graded.


I organized students into small groups, gave each group a dry erase marker, and asked them to develop criteria for a rubric written on a white board in the classroom. The rubrics, I told them, would be used by me to grade their next written project.


When they realized I was serious, the conversation in their groups took on an energy the likes of which I’d rarely seen in a classroom. They negotiated every criterion. Moreover, each group looked around at what other groups were writing on the white boards, and they drew from group to group.


Once they had a list of seven to ten criteria, we had a discussion. Groups would present things like “organization,” “evidence,” “spelling,” “thesis statement,” “purpose,” “audience,” “grammar.”


Often they would put criteria on their lists that made me uncomfortable. Things like “content” or “clarity.” I would ask them what they meant. Where could I point in a paper to assess “content”? Where is a specific example of “clarity” in your writing?


Show me, I’d ask them.


They would do their best to explain. And in so doing, they often came to realize what was and wasn’t good criteria for assessing writing. More interestingly to me, though, I began to suspect that the most important learning that was taking place was in the negotiation with their peers. If someone was domineering or difficult to work with, everybody else in the group recognized it. They would find subtle ways to communicate approval, disapproval, and develop optimal group dynamics. They had a collective goal.


The hardest part was letting go of my authority as a teacher. It was hard letting students take the lead. It was hard trusting them and their abilities to figure out what constitutes good writing. My hunch is that the essence of authentic learning comes by developing that trust, showing students that they have the ability to recognize, analyze, and produce good writing, and that they can work together toward consensus.



Stacey Cochran is the bestselling author of Eddie & Sunny. He has taught First-Year Writing for nearly twenty years at East Carolina University, Mesa Community College, North Carolina State University, and most recently the University of Arizona. He lives in Tucson with his wife Susan Miller-Cochran and their two kids Sam and Harper. He is currently at work trying futilely to overcome his impostor syndrome.


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To me, one of the most exciting aspects of teaching a WID-based curriculum was student conferencing, which I tailored in a unique way to fit the assignment sequence and objectives for the English 101 courses I taught at NC State.


There are at least two ways to approach teaching a WID-based composition course. First, you can ask students to analyze texts representative of the fields in which they’re majoring. The second approach is to ask students to produce texts native to those disciplines. Of course, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive, and what I learned from other faculty in our program at NC State was that different faculty emphasized different approaches.


Assignment Sequence

My assignment sequence at State went like this:

1) Research Topic Proposal and Presentation

2) Primary Research Logbook and Reflection

3) Literature Review

4) Revised Primary Research Design and Academic Conference Poster.


For the research topic proposal, I asked students to analyze two scholarly articles (preferably empirically-based research studies) as a basis for proposing their own research questions and methodological approaches for the semester. Students had autonomy in selecting their articles, but they were accountable for explaining the methodologies and results reported in the articles when they delivered their proposal.



I conferenced with students immediately after they presented their research topic proposal, and these conferences stand in my mind as some of the most enjoyable moments in my nearly twenty years of teaching First-Year Writing.


Why did I find the student conferences so enjoyable?  We talked ideas. We talked about interests. We talked.


Far too often student conferences break down into a teacher explaining why a particular sentence is “not good” or “could be better written this way.” This kind of conferencing is just painful to me because invariably a student feels talked down to and becomes defensive. Furthermore, it promotes a hierarchy I find counterproductive to authentic learning.


Typically I would start a conference with small talk to get a student chatting and put him/her at ease. I’d get the spotlight off of me by asking them questions. We would talk about their research topic proposal, what they learned, what they liked, what they didn’t like. I would ask students about their background, interests, hobbies, jobs, favorite vacations, what they were thinking about majoring in, and then out of that conversation a beautiful and marvelous thing would happen.


We would begin talking about how to shape their interests, their expertise into legitimate and authentic research for the rest of the semester. Students would come to realize that they were experts in areas that I was not, and that they could teach me something (and others, too) about their interests. I’ll offer one example to keep it concise.


Michael’s Story

A student comes into my office and sits down at the table across from me. We’ll call him “Michael.” Michael is shy but obviously very bright and seems a little fearful of the teacher (me) and how this first conference is going to go. After small talk about the week and how things are going, we discuss his research topic proposal, and he says he has no idea how he’s going to conduct research this semester. He tells me he’s majoring in Materials Science, a field of which I know exactly squadoosh.


Ten minutes go by, and Michael is really stuck. I’m kind of stuck, too, because I don’t know anything about Materials Science. I’m a novelist for crying out loud.


So I ask Michael, “Do you have any hobbies?”


He looks at me with a sheepish sparkle in his blue eyes and says, “Not really. I play the guitar. I don’t really have any hobbies.”


“You play the guitar? That’s cool. How’d you get into that?”


“Oh, I had a buddy in high school who was a luthier.”


I’m thinking, What the heck is a luthier?


Michael breaks out of his shyness for a moment, gets kind of excited, and tells me, “He had a workshop, and we used to build guitars.”


And then like Bam! Pow! his research design landed on that table between us like a finely tuned Martin acoustic.


I said, “Well, there’s your study. You’re majoring in Materials Science. Why don’t you research different types of guitars?”


He thinks about it for a moment. “I could look at different types of woods, densities, strings, timbres? Stuff like that?”


“Uh, yeah. That would be kind of brilliant.”




I have never in twenty years had a kid take off and run with research like Michael did the rest of the semester. Turns out he was an absolute expert on guitars and digital audio equipment far beyond my ken. And most importantly my lack of expertise in both—and in Materials Science—didn’t matter.


In that fifteen-minute conference, I had talked with him. I had let him know that his interests mattered. They were valuable. And that as his English 101 teacher I wanted him to teach me about what he knew and what he would come to know the rest of the semester.





Want to offer feedback, comments, and suggestions on this post? Join the Macmillan Community to get involved (it’s free, quick, and easy)!

Stacey Cochran is the bestselling author of Eddie & Sunny. He has taught First-Year Writing for nearly twenty years at East Carolina University, Mesa Community College, North Carolina State University, and most recently the University of Arizona. He lives in Tucson with his wife Susan Miller-Cochran and their two kids Sam and Harper. He is currently at work trying futilely to overcome his impostor syndrome.