Conducting Writing Workshops

The writing workshop is the heart of the successful writing classroom. In these workshops, instructors use student papers (in part or in whole) as the basis of discussion and instruction. Most classrooms at Dartmouth are smart classrooms, where student work can be projected from Blackboard or via a document camera. If you're not in a smart classroom, you can share papers the old fashioned way (i.e., photocopy them).

Talking about student writing in class signals to your students that their writing is important. Treating student writing as one of the many course texts lets them know that they have, indeed, entered into the ongoing conversation of scholarship.

Guiding Principles

To run a successful writing workshop, you'll want to read the materials we've posted regarding Active Learning, Collaborative Learning, and Diagnosing and Responding to Student Writing. The first explains how and why engaging students in writing workshops facilitates learning; the second offers several methods for teaching students how to respond to their peers' writing; the third offers strategies for diagnosis and response that you can model in the writing workshops.

Conducting an engaging and constructive workshop draws on skills you already have as a discussion leader. However, if you've never critiqued student papers in class, you will discover that talking about student writing differs in some important ways from talking about the other readings in your class. First, the writer is in the room. Writing workshops must therefore be sensitively conducted. Second, the aim of the writing workshop is to enhance students' authority and responsibility as readers and writers. The instructor must therefore facilitate rather than direct the discussion. Third, the writing workshop emphasizes the complex role of the reader in a writer's process. Instructors will want to encourage readers to "out" their questions and concerns about a paper so that writers understand the myriad of responses their work has evoked. They will internalize this sense of audience and draw on it as they revise.

While every instructor will discover workshop methods that work for his or her particular classroom, we offer some proven strategies below.

We also have some guidelines for peer review that you might find useful.

Strategies for Success

  1. Ask students to post their papers on the Blackboard discussion board so that you have easy access to them in class. The first time you run a workshop, you may want to review the essays before class and choose those that best illustrate the writing issues you'd like to discuss. As you and your students get more comfortable with workshopping, you can ask for volunteers when you arrive in class. If you've been running your workshops successfully, students will be eager to volunteer—they'll have seen how helpful the process is and will want the "leg up" that an in-class critique can offer.
  2. Model the methods that you want your students to use to diagnose and respond to their classmates' work. If you like the methods that we recommend on the pages we linked to above, model these methods and discuss why you think they work. For instance, if you want students to practice the Common Reader method, take the time to walk them through that method and explain to them what you expect them to gain. Using simple, clearly articulated methods of response like these prevents students from offering unproductive comments like "I liked it!" or "It's really good!" rather than providing solid analysis.
  3. Ensure that this process is student-driven. After reading the paper aloud, ask students to offer their perspectives before you offer your own. If you've modeled diagnosis and response methods for them, you shouldn't encounter any awkward silences. If you do, you can ask students to take a moment and jot down their responses. Or you can instruct them to turn to the classmate next to them and chat about the paper before reconvening the group for discussion. As a last resort, return to the model and walk them through it again. Resist the temptation to take over the critique. Instead, facilitate, asking questions and summing up, as necessary.
  4. Engage students first in a discussion of what's good about the paper. Student writers are more open to criticism of their papers once they've received positive feedback. They also need to know what they're doing right before they tackle what they're doing wrong. Be sure that you offer your praise before moving on to the critique.
  5. Insist that students be respectfully and critically engaged with the paper. Generally, you won't encounter students who are out to hurt one another during peer critiques. Indeed, instructors more often find that they have a hard time getting students to offer comments that are even gently critical. To avoid comments that are too harsh or too soft, show your students that you are both respectfully and critically engaged with student work, and they will respond in kind.
  6. Encourage differences of opinion. Don't get nervous if conversation heats up. It's important for student writers to understand that readers respond differently. You'll want to explore why, exactly, these responses are different. Writers will have to sort from among the readers' opinions and make choices as they revise.
  7. Be sure to give students suggestions for how to improve their papers. Students are not eager to participate in critiques that limit themselves to what's wrong with a paper. They will, however, be eager to hear what, specifically, they can do to make their papers better. If the introduction isn't working, ask the class to come up with other strategies. If the thesis is muddled, suggest alternatives. In other words, offer students a "pay-off" for submitting to the class critique. Students will soon see that having their papers workshopped is a valuable experience.

The Question of Anonymity

Given the sensitive nature of writing workshops, instructors often raise the question of whether or not the writer should remain anonymous during a peer critique. Some instructors feel that students are more comfortable when the author of the paper under scrutiny remains anonymous. But we've found several advantages to "outing" the writer, among them:

  • Student writers publicly "own" their work. Robbed of anonymity, students come to understand that writers are responsible for the things they say.
  • Public ownership encourages students to invest more actively in the revision process. Writers are more likely to do their best work when their names are attached to their work.
  • Readers tend to be harder on a text when they don't know who wrote it. Anonymity doesn't necessarily protect the writer.
  • Writers are able to respond to criticism. In the back and forth that ensues, the entire class will benefit.

Nuts and Bolts

Frequency of Use. Instructors often ask how much class time they should devote to writing workshops. We have no rule about how often writing workshops should be held. Most instructors hold them the day a first draft is due, in order to facilitate the revision process. Some use them more frequently early in the term, when student writers are most in need of instruction, and then taper off as the term goes on.

Supporting Collaborative Learning. Some instructors who use Collaborative Learning methods (like peer editing groups) see the writing workshop as a way of modeling peer critique strategies for their students. Once students understand these strategies, they can work independently. Instructors who use Blackboard can monitor their students' critiques on the discussion board. Others hold conferences with the editing groups, in order to make sure that all students are giving thoughtful, constructive advice to their peers.

Efficient Use of Class Time. If you're concerned about the amount of time it takes to workshop papers in class, consider workshopping parts of papers. You can workshop students' questions, thesis sentences, introductions, body paragraphs, or conclusions. Working with smaller parts allows you to discuss the work of several different students, and to address several different kinds of writing problems.