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Writers’ Notebooks and Quizzes: Can They Coexist? Should They?

By Dr. Mary Buckelew

     The colleague who observed my Writing Research 200 course this past spring was “shocked” that students arrived early and were animatedly discussing the class texts and their own writing even before class started. She observed, “students seemed genuinely interested in each other’s perspectives on the assigned chapter from A Whole New Mind, and they were also sharing grammar tips with each other.”

     Before teaching this particular introductory college writing research course, I polled several colleagues regarding methods for encouraging reading and discussion. I was surprised when they told me they gave multiple choice and short answer quizzes in their writing classes.  Their rationale, if they didn’t quiz — students wouldn’t read the materials, and thus miss out on important information. Students would miss strategies and ideas contained in the assigned composition and rhetoric text, the grammar text, and students would miss the close study of mentor texts.

     I did not want to give quizzes, but I did want students to read assignments and improve as writers and thinkers.  If students weren’t reading, writing, and thinking about writing outside of our brief weekly meetings, they would most likely not make any advances during our three months together. I decided that the Writer’s Notebook would be the vehicle that would serve as an alternative to quizzes.  I revisited the gurus for inspiration and ideas. John C. Bean, author of Engaging Ideas writes, “From my more than forty years of college teaching, I have concluded that my single most valuable teaching strategy for promoting critical thinking is to require regular exploratory writing … .” Ralph Fletcher writes that “A writer’s notebook gives you a place to live like a writer, not just in school during writing time, but wherever you are, at any time of day.”

     The writer’s notebook would serve multiple purposes then: it would provide students with the opportunity to make writing a part of their lives outside the classroom door; it would reinforce the image of themselves as writers; it would provide a place to question, respond, react, reflect on our readings, and would serve as a discussion starter during our class time.   I explained (and reinforced in the syllabus) that I would prefer not to give quizzes, but would do so if students were not prepared for class discussions. The clincher: If the first student I called upon was not prepared to share something pertinent from the night’s reading or writing, the entire class would take a quiz on the previous night’s assignment.  I did have to administer one – two quizzes in each class. However, from then on lively discussions ensued before and during class. No more quizzes!  Hoping to reinforce the value of the Writer’s Notebook as more than a quiz avoidance activity and as more of a positive habit to cultivate, I required that students include 4 pages from their notebooks in their final portfolios. They were also required to explain why the 4 pages illuminated some aspect of their growth as writers, readers, and thinkers. I’m sure some of the  pages were written the night before the portfolios were due  … and I’m wondering if those animated discussions witnessed by my colleague were the result of a few students doing the night’s homework …and preparing the rest of the class …

AND … I’m still a little uneasy about the threat of quizzes as a way to encourage reading and writing – what are your thoughts?

Buckelew profile

Mary Buckelew is Director of the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project, Professor of English at West Chester University, and published author. She enjoys taking long walks with her husband Paul, reading, writing, and spending time with friends and family.

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