Friday, January 27, 2017

Building a prompt: Types of prompts

I was excited to see that a new journal has gone live, Prompt: A Journal of Academic Writing Assignments. The writing assignment, the prompt, lies at the base of much of the work we do as writing instructors -- and the success of that work.

I think that how you get students started in the conversations they have online, that is, the prompts, is crucial (although, as I'll discuss in my next post, less is often more). Here are several types of prompts that I rely on in OWI.

A primary type is not complicated: It's a prompt designed to help students have a conversation about assigned texts/media. Having such conversations might sound familiar, and it should, because it's what many teachers do in the majority of their onsite courses. You might find in a FYW OWC that many of your prompts are simply designed to help students get talking about a reading.

You can also use writing-to-learn prompts that spur students not only to discuss but learn specific content.

Particularly in persuasive writing-type courses, you can introduce prompts that inspire debate or argument about a topic. These can be straightforward, and the written environment of discussion boards, I think, is particularly well-suited to such student debates.

You can also use prompts to have them work on/explore specific aspects of writing. For instance, they could analyze, using their own texts, all the verbs “to be," and try to replace them (they often find this devilishly difficult) .They can extend this kind of "metawriting" prompt to also discuss texts created by other students

Of course, prompts are often essentially reflective. If you're feeling brave, you can extend this reflection to the course itself -- and maybe even to you, the course's instructor.

You can also use prompts to have students generate ideas for larger project topics in a course. This is a favorite kind of thread of mine, and it builds on the course practice of having them talk about such topics in class: They brainstorm and then propose topics.

Prompts such as icebreakers can develop course community, helping students meet one another and learn about one another's interests and predilections.

Finally (in this hardly exhaustive list), you can use prompts to encourage students to understand/work through course logistics. They can sign up for conferences with you, etc., right through a discussion thread.

These categories have very blurry edges. For instance, many prompts are based in a course text, which then can lead to a dialogue that may focus on metawriting or even debate.

Next time I'm going to offer some specific characteristics of prompts that I think are helpful.

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