October 6, 2014

How to have ideas

How many times have you sat down for a session with a student, and had this exchange:

Student: “My professor said write about XYZ.”

You: “Ok, so what’s your thesis on XYZ?  What is your opinion?  What position will you take?”

Student: “I don’t know!”

Consider this from the student’s perspective: They have been asked to produce a substantial body of writing for which they will be graded but they may not know anything about the subject. 
You may not like it either but as a professional, you have the advantage of experience and practice.  You know how to think on your feet.  The students are not there yet.

Our task is to guide them to this point.  How can we get them to the place where they are able to generate ideas and positions on given topics?  How can we instill critical-thinking behaviors necessary for academic success?  How can we impart a cogent form for their ideas without dictating content? 

This is the advantage of our education and experience as professionals: we know how to quickly form an educated opinion on a topic and impart it with clarity.   But how do we do that?  It is important to know our process so we can break it down and model it for our students.

We know how to read and listen.  We know how to not only assimilate information but to sieve it for useful artifacts.  We know to discard unnecessary words, how to identify and analyze key concepts.  And we do this all at a speed mystifying to students.  This is why we view our assignments as simple - we can throw ideas out a mile a minute compared to students.

In order to show our students how to have ideas that they can later develop, we have to think ourselves back to their place.  We have to recall what it’s like to not be able to draw on our well-furnished minds and generate writing on just about anything.

This is the essence of teaching writing, and it is not easy.  We’re moving upstream against cultural differences, systemic disadvantages, and the natural shyness of many students when we ask them to expand on their ideas about a text in the requisite five paragraphs.

I’ve tried to boil this process down to a shortlist of habits that encourage idea generation. 

I have asked my own students to develop these habits and I also ask myself to do the same when I stall on writing. Perhaps some of this may be helpful to you as well, in your classrooms and beyond:

I often see students that are stuck on brainstorming, but do not know item one about their topic.  I have learned to quiz them (“what is the income tax?”  “what was the Underground Railroad?” “do you know what hashtags are?”)  Often students simply don’t know certain facts which means I must “pull over” and show them how to find reliable information to address that knowledge gap.

Sometimes, however, students are disinterested in the topic and want me to tell them what to write.  This is impossible and frustrates both of us.  This is the time to try to gain their interest, and help them learn some facts about the topic.  Without basis of facts to work from, no one can generate a cogent opinion and discuss it in a scholarly fashion.  I tell them that they don’t have to agree with the topic, but they have to understand it.

While you cannot force curiosity onto students, it is possible to encourage it:

     Demonstrate your own passion (real or staged!) about readings.  Find something compelling and show them why you find this element interesting. 

     Ask them pointed questions, and encourage them to do the same.  Few are the students that respond well to open ended questions about their thoughts.  And questions about their opinions may elicit a flood of words, but little thought.  Putting the text under a microscope, and having them examine specific characters and situations, and try to imagine themselves in them can be very helpful.  “What would you do it you were in Hamlet’s shoes?  Why?”

     Ask them to relate information to their own lives.  My example of the hashtag earlier was real - this student disliked hashtags, but was unclear on their use. They were confusing various arguments about digital communication and had formed a position they could not defend in an essay.  I explained hashtags, but also asked them to tell me how they saw hashtags used in daily life, and guess why.  The student still disliked hashtags, but they were now able to discuss this opposition intelligently and with a thesis.

Summing up

There are many, many different ways to pique student interest.  But the secret is to get them to start working with their initial rough ideas as if they are tools - which they are.  It takes the concerted effort of many people, but seeing that light bulb go off is incredibly rewarding to both student and instructor. 


Liz Reilly is a tutor and adjunct at Passaic County Community College.  She has over 5 years’ experience in blogging, writing, teaching, and tutoring a wide variety of people.

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