Short Writes to Apply Concepts

One way to help students bridge the distance between concept and application is to have them do short writing exercises related to the day’s course content.

College level classes are heavy on conceptual and theoretical material. Sometimes this can leave students floundering for concrete applications of the knowledge and skills they are beginning to learn. Short writing activities are one way to help students make that leap. As James M. Lang points out, “Frequent, low-stakes writing assignments constitute one of the best methods you can use to solicit engagement and thinking in class” (Lang 2016). Indeed, many students appreciate the ‘brainstorming’ opportunities inherent in writing with urgency and timeliness, but without high stakes grades.

Short write activities can include:

Question Type Purpose Example
Summary Elicit Syntheses Summarize last lecture/reading
Exploratory Probe facts and basic knowledge What research evidence supports _______?
Relational Comparison of ideas, themes, issues How does ___ compare to____?
Interpretation Uncover underlying meanings From whose viewpoint or perspective?
Cause and Effect Causal relationships between events If____ occurred, what would happen?
Diagnostic Probe motives or causes Relate idea/concept to your own experience
Problem Find a solution to a problem What if? Support your position on ____
Application Connect theory with practice Knowing this, how would you_____?
Action Question Call for a conclusion or action In response to____what should____do?
Priority Seek to identify the most important issue In our discussion, what is most important?
Extension Expand the discussion How do you feel about ___?
Evaluative Assess and make judgments Which of these are better?
Critical Examine the validity of statements How do we know?

Any of these can be included, even in a lecture-based course, with minimal disruption to the flow of the class. The pay-off of allowing students time and space to process new material, especially if the instructor folds their thoughts into the next segment of the class, can be huge.

If you’d like to talk to an instructional consultant about how you might include such short writing activities in your course, and what tools are available to let you see what your students come up with, contact the Learning and Teaching Technology Consultants at



Lang, James M. 2016. Small Changes in Teaching: The First 5 Minutes of Class. Chronicle of Higher Education,

E.F. Barkley, K P. Cross, and C.H. Major, Collaborative Learning Techniques (San Francisco,:Jossy-Bass, 2005), p. 58.

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