Mini-Timed Writings: Getting Students to Write More Without More Grading

Mini-Timed Writing

We all know that the best way to improve our students’ writing is by having them write more. However, it’s no fun to think about grading all of those extra papers, especially when you already have piles of stuff already to grade. The back log can get pretty unmanageable and frustrating, especially when you have to plan, grade other stuff you’ve collected, and finish watching the first season of Jessica Jones (or is that just me?) Mini-timed writings get your students writing more without adding a whole lot more to your grading. Plus they seem like a test, rather than a quick write or a journal, so students tend to do their best work.

A timed writing is an assessment that typically takes the whole period. Students are given a prompt, such as a personal narrative or a persuasive essay, or they might have to respond to a poem or an article. The have the period to write about it. This not only helps them prepare for the writing they will do on the ACT, SAT, and state tests, but it’s also a good measure of how much they know because they can’t consult outside sources.

A mini-timed writing only takes half the period. The idea for mini-timed writings came out of my AP classes, where timed writings are frequent assessments. I wanted to give them some practice that didn’t require the same amount of time, and then decided it worked well enough to use in my other classes too.

With a mini-timed writing, students have 25 minutes (about half the period) to write on a topic. For instance, we have been studying Emily Dickinson’s poetry for a couple of weeks, and this week I gave my students a mini-timed writing on the Emily Dickinson poem “Faith is the Pierless Bridge”:

Faith—is the Pierless Bridge
Supporting what We see
Unto the Scene that We do not—
Too slender for the eye

It bears the Soul as bold
As it were rocked in Steel
With Arms of Steel at either side—
It joins—behind the Veil

To what, could We presume
The Bridge would cease to be
To Our far, vacillating Feet
A first Necessity.

Their final assessment for the Dickinson unit is a paper, so the mini-timed writing is designed to help them prepare for that.

The prompt was simple: According to Emily Dickinson, how is faith like a bridge? I gave them the poem and the prompt, set 25 minutes on the timer, and let them have at it.

After the 25 minutes was up, I asked them to respond to the following questions at the bottom of the essay:

What did you find difficult about the poem?

What did you find difficult about writing?

What do you need to improve before the essay?

On all three questions I want them to be specific. “I need to get better at reading poetry” is not helpful. “I don’t understand how to write about word choice” is much better.

We use the time remaining in the period to discuss their responses to these three questions. Students share their struggles and I get an immediate idea of what I need to teach or review before the next formal writing assignment. I then collect their papers and read over what they wrote. I want to have a general idea of what skills we need to work on before the next essay, so I pick three things that seem to be common problems to target with mini-lessons. However, I also have good self-reflection from the students to look at that give me even more information of what they find difficult. All of this occurs in one period!

The benefits of mini-timed writings:

  1. You can write one and debrief in one period.
  2. Students are engaged in an authentic writing task.
  3. You get immediate feedback on where your students need help.
  4. You don’t have to grade them thoroughly if you don’t want to.
  5. It’s a good test of what students can do because they can’t cheat.
  6. They are good warm-ups for longer, more formal papers.

Try it out and let me know what you think!

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