Teaching Academic Writing: My Plan (Part 1 of 2)

This semester at Tsinghua — which begins this week — I am going to teach Academic Writing in English. The class is in the Psychology Department. It hasn’t met yet; I suppose all of my students will be psychology majors. In this post I am describe my plan for teaching it; future posts will describe what actually happened.

Last year I taught a class called Frontiers of Psychology. I discovered that I could teach the class without grading. I never gave grades (nor tests), yet the students did lots of work (the assignment completion rate was about 99.9%) and apparently learned a lot. Behind my removal of grading was my belief that long ago people learned everything without grading. Maybe I can use those ancient sources of motivation, rather than fear of a bad grade or desire for a good grade. The details of the course centered on three principles: 1. Customization. As much as possible, I tried to allow each student to learn what they wanted to learn. For example, they had a very wide choice of final project. 2. Doing. “The best way to learn is to do” (Paul Halmos) — so students did as much as possible. For example, they did experiments. 3. Telling. Students told the rest of the class about what they had read or done. I gave plenty of feedback but it was always spoken. For example, after each class presentation I pointed out something I liked and something that could have been better.

It was like the discovery of anesthesia. All of sudden, no pain. No difficult grading decisions. No written comments (explaining the grades), which I wondered if the recipient would understand. The class was a pure pleasure to teach. For the students, no longer did they need to worry about getting a bad (or less than perfect) grade.

Can I repeat this with a much different class? At the same time I taught Frontiers of Psychology, I also taught Academic Writing in English for the first time. It was pass/fail, so I didn’t grade there, either, but I wasn’t happy with how it went. (I didn’t want to teach it again . . . but, a month ago, I learned I am teaching it again.) This time I am going to take what I learned from my Frontiers of Psychology experience and try to create a better class.

In the next post I will describe my overall plan. Throughout the semester I will post about how well my plan is working. Supposedly “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy” but my Frontiers of Psychology plan worked fine. I didn’t change it at all. Maybe my Academic Writing plan will work, maybe it won’t.

Movie directing and teaching.




One Reply to “Teaching Academic Writing: My Plan (Part 1 of 2)”

  1. Surely you know that it wasn’t Halmos who invented or even coined the learning-by-doing educational approach!

    Actually, since you’re in China, it’d be interesting to see whether this

    “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”
    or this
    “Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.”

    are actual honest-to-goodness Chinese proverbs in common use.

Comments are closed.