Using Writing Activities to Meet the Broad Goals of the First Year Seminar

[innerindex]Dr. Liz Ahl, WAC Coordinator
Plymouth State University

Two central (linked and overlapping) goals for the FYS (as I see it, anyhow):

  • Develop critical thinking skills by exploring a particular question/subject
  • Develop a sense of community and engagement as a part of the First Year Experience
  1. Use informal writing to help students introduce themselves to the professor and one another; also to reinforce community and connection:
    • Day one freewrite connected to the course question
    • Writing throughout to share ideas and listen to one another
    • Ungraded freewriting used to warm up for discussion
    • Freewriting as a “release valve” for bias, irrationality, etc.
  2. Short papers (a paragraph to two pages, formal and/or informal) to practice specific writing/thinking tasks related to the course’s question and to critical thinking goals; such short pieces might be connected and/or sequenced to result in a final, more formal and lengthier paper or project:
    • Writing to reflect
    • Writing to question
    • Writing to speculate
    • Writing to compare/contrast
    • Writing to summarize
    • Writing to critique
  3. Informal and/or formal writing to assess course goals, student performance, etc.:
    • Use freewrites to take the pulse of the class — ask them what they’re learning
    • Practice essay exam questions to see if students are getting what they need to be getting
    • Ask students to reflect, in short writing, on the course goals
  4. Formal writing to demonstrate learning in the course — breaking down the traditional research paper:
    • Writing about the question/topic (see number 2, above)
    • Research journals/correspondence to document the process of researching and thinking critically
    • First draft and final draft

Expressive and Transactional Writing In The First Year Seminar

“Most people’s relationship to the process of writing is one of helplessness.”

— Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers

WAC theorists, such as Toby Fulwiler, find it useful to draw a distinction between expressive writing and transactional writing. Expressive writing is writing to learn — the writer is exploring thoughts, feelings and ideas, discovering what he or she knows or about a topic. Be cause the purpose of this kind of writing is to discover, the writer doesn’t have to worry as much about writing convent ions (spelling, punctuation, organizational structure, style). Expressive writing is often done quickly and freely. Transactional writing, or more “public” writing, is writing for an audience — it communicates; it persuades — convention becomes important, since rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling exist to add precision to communication. An important goal in learning to write well is gene rally learning to master transactional (public) writing, but expressive writing can be an important step in the process of learning transactional writing, just as it can be in the process of learning other skills and disciplines.

Another way to distinguish these two types of writing is to think about them as “writing to know” versus “writing to show what you know.” In the First Year Seminar, one might use either or both kinds of writing: expressive when the goal is to stimulate student thinking, transactional when the goal is to have students communicate what they have learned in a scholarly, performative context. In assessing student writing, be sure to take into account what kind of writing you are asking students to do and why.

  • Expressive Writing
    write to know
    focus on discovery
    writing as thinking
    writing for yourself
  • Transactional Writing
    write to show what you know
    focus on mastery
    writing as communication
    writing for an audience other than yourself

Possible Types of FYS Writing Assignments

  • Freewriting The basic rule of freewriting is that t he writers keep writing until the instructor tells them to stop. Usually the instructor will ask a question or give a prompt to guide the freewrite and will announce how long the write will be. It is best for the instructor to write, too.A freewrite at the beginning of class is often a good way to stimulate discussion — the freewrite question might be one of the central ones the class meeting is designed to explore, e.g., “Why do we have General Education requirements?” or “What have you learned so far about how to prepare for exams?” or “What made you choose this section of the FYS?”A freewrite at the end of class may bring the whole meeting together and increase the likelihood that students will remember what they learned. An end-of-class freewrite can help students practice t he skills of synthesis and summary.
  • Focused Listing Again everyone writes in response to a question or other prompt, but this time continuous writing is not required. The guiding question is one that has many answers or an answer with many parts — the writer lists as many answers as possible in the time allowed. Usually the group then pools information and makes a composite list.Focused listing is a good way to find out what a group of students remembers about what they have read or what they already know about a new topic.
  • Journals Various instructions or questions might be used to guide the journal. You might ask students to write for ten minutes once a week about what they have learned t hat week about being a critical thinker. You might ask them to write weekly about their perceptions of the University, or their perceptions of how they are developing. You could ask them to reflect on what ever reading has been assigned. Or you could give them a different specific question each week to answer.

Mapping a Belief (Mapping a Self)

“If you simply assert something you are likely to forget that a reader, a worthy reader, needs not just your random speaking out, but an experience of sharing the source of values, the evidence for values, the adventures inherent in the finding and maintaining of values. In short, a direct assertion is a most limited offer of experience for a worthy reader.” (William Stafford, “The Poet as Religious Moralist”)

Objectives: To help students understand how experience shapes belief; in other words, to help them make bias visible and perhaps useful. To get students to think about where their assumptions and beliefs come from, and therefore to get them to start thinking of themselves as socially constructed beings. To allow students to acknowledge biases so it’s a little easier to move past them in later work.

Examples of beliefs:

  • abortion (pro-choice, pro-life)
  • political parties (democrat, republican, etc)
  • the death penalty (pro or con)
  • faith/religion (why are you Catholic?)
  • “values”
  • what you think is important (art, culture)
  • drugs (prohibition/legalization)
  • political beliefs regarding gender, race, class, etc
  • pacifism
  • vegetarianism
[The above examples are the kinds of subjects students often choose to write about when they are working on “argument” in first year composition courses. In the First Year Seminar, this might be a good exercise to do after the question has been “broken down” a bit into different issues or perspectives. I’m curious to see how folks might tailor this exercise.]

Articulate your belief in a sentence.

Put the belief aside for now. We’re going to map out a landscape of self. Where should we start? What makes us who we are, most essentially? First, of course, we are human, but what comes next? Gender? Race? Here are some other categories to consider as we make maps of our constructed selves:

  • Religion
  • Faith
  • Family
  • Neighborhood
  • School
  • Class
  • Ethnicity
  • Nationality


  • Books, Film, Etc.
  • Influence of Friends
  • Trauma/Triumph

Map these out on the board. There will be dissention about what goes in what order, and it’s good to notice how any hierarchy chosen won’t be satisfying to all. People should be taking their own notes about how the map works for them.

Now, return to the belief sentence. Acknowledge that this is a personal belief, one that can be mapped out somehow on the map of self.How did you come to this belief? (talk about the root of option)

Assignment: Write an informal piece, two to three pages, about your belief and how you, in particular, came to it. This should not be a persuasion paper — you don’t need to convince anyone of anything — but rather a “history” of this belief in your life.