How to Get Students to Accidentally Write Essays

Very few enjoy writing essays.  For most, it’s a rather daunting task.  Maybe they haven’t quite grasped the requirements of forming a proper essay.  Or maybe they don’t think they’re good at coming up with ideas.  If they’re not a fan of writing, just sitting in front of a pen and paper or in front of a computer can play mind games with them.

Often it’s the composition that throws students off, so perhaps the key is to throw that out the window, at least in the beginning.  An essay is, essentially, the defense of an opinion, belief, or theory.  Students express their opinions all the time.  So just get them to do that, and the rest will follow.

Two quick notes:  First, this will not necessarily work for every student.  But it might be worth a try.  Second, the first part requires one-on-one time with each student, so it might not be feasible to do this with an entire class.

Get Them to Tell You What They Think

The key to breaking through their initial barrier is to audio-record their thoughts.  Many students will tell you what they think; it’s only when they need to write something down that they have difficulty (again, there are plenty of exceptions).  So just prompt them with some questions – some learners will require more prompting than others – and let them speak freely.  They shouldn’t worry about how they communicate their opinions, but rather about simply voicing whatever’s in their head.

Start with open-ended questions and get more specific as you go.  Take what ideas they give you and fold them into later questions.  By default, don’t agree or disagree, but act as if you have either no knowledge or no opinion of the topic at hand, and let them tell you all about it in their own biased fashion.  Here are some questions to consider:

  • What do with think about _____?

  • Why? Can you give me three reasons you feel that way?

  • Tell me more about that first/second/third reason.

    • Can you give me some specifics?

    • If you were talking with someone who agreed with you, what would say to each other?

    • If someone disagreed with you, why might they be wrong?

  • If I forgot everything you said in the last two minutes, how would you tell me again in five seconds?

  • What’s the most important thing you want me to remember?

Consider this task a form of brainstorming: it’s better to have too many ideas than too few, and dumb ideas are allowed.

For certain topics, you may want to ask for three examples instead of three reasons.  And of course, you may be able to come up with better prompts (but try not to ask leading questions).

While I recommend starting by not expressing any opinion of your own, sometimes you might need to do just that, (or fake an opinion, if you don’t share it).  Some people get excited when they find someone who agrees with them.  Others feel the need to speak up to defend their stance or attack the opposing viewpoint (but be careful, because some students will close themselves off if an authority figure openly disagrees with them).  In any case, you’ll need to tailor your responses to each learner.

It’s good to tell your students beforehand that you’re going to record them speaking.  But I know that plenty of people get nervous or overthink things if they are being recorded.  So if you inform them of the recording only after it’s finished, I suggest you offer to delete the recording if they are uncomfortable with it.

Getting It All Down

Some students have trouble thinking while they’re expected to write.  But that’s okay, because they already finished their thinking!  Give them the recording (or a copy) and ask them to transpose it.  It doesn’t have to be word-for-word; if they think of something better for any different point, they can write that instead.  Remember that the focus of the first part was on ideas, not the way in which they were communicated.  But now is the time to say them in a better way than the students did the first time.  Similarly, if any of their earlier points are weak or irrelevant, they can discard them now.

There might be a lot of rewording, restructuring, and rearranging, so writing on a computer will likely save time.  But it’s still very doable on paper.

The students should put their thoughts into groups.  Depending on how you asked the questions and how they responded, this might not take much extra work.  Given the example questions above: the answers to the first two should form the opening paragraph; the middle section is for the body – one paragraph per reason/example; and the answers to the final two questions form the closing paragraph.

Hopefully, you’ll find that people sometimes structure discussions in the same way we structure essays.  It’s simply that the former is done naturally and subconsciously.  If thinking about what you’re supposed to do is throwing students off, then that’s why recording them speaking freely can be a big help.

Adjust the Formatting

The last part is perhaps the trickiest and can get more complex the more advanced your class is.  Here’s where you rearrange sentences to make your paragraphs flow better, substitute certain words with synonyms, figure out what to condense and what to flesh out, and add transitions between your sentences.

I’ll leave that to you for now, as this post is just about getting the ideas down on paper.

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