In this article: Creating Community | Facilitating Collaboration | Building Motivation | Scaffolding Assignments | Addressing Different Learning Preferences | Facilitating Peer Review | Providing Feedback | Integrating with Canvas | Final Tips | Additional Resources

If you’re new to teaching writing online, you may feel apprehensive about online learning. While an online class will require you to do some things differently, your teaching experience up to this point is important for helping you determine learning goals and outcomes. You can then tailor these goals for an online setting, using tools to enhance your pedagogy, not determine it.

 Below you’ll find answers to commonly asked questions about teaching writing online. The tips and tools are by no means an exhaustive list. If you’re interested in exploring additional pedagogical approaches or tools for your online writing course, please see the additional resources at the end of this post or request a consultation with a member of the DLINQ staff

How do I create a writing community online? 

  • Discussion forums are a great way to allow students to share more informal writing and respond to each other asynchronously. Posting “icebreaker” style questions at the beginning of the semester allows students to share and connect over mutual interests or experiences. You might integrate discussion forum prompts throughout the semester to allow students to practice their writing for a wider range of audiences and purposes. Canvas, Middlebury’s learning management system, has a useful discussion forum feature. Check out this short video for tips on facilitating online discussion forums. 
  • Synchronous, live  interactions are also useful for co-creating  a sense of community in your class. Zoom, Middlebury’s video conferencing software, has multiple options for students to engage with each other. Your class might meet all at once for a synchronous class session. If you meet synchronously, Zoom allows students to “raise their hands” and participate in polls, which can help facilitate online discussion. You might also utilize breakout rooms to divide students into smaller groups, a useful feature for workshopping writing in a small group format. You can then circulate among the groups, much as you would walk around your classroom during group work. 
  • Recording feedback on student work provides a more conversational approach to your feedback and allows students to intuit things like your inflection and facial expression, which can help facilitate connections with your students.  Panopto, Middlebury’s video and audio storage service, allows you to upload, edit, store and share video and audio files. You can use Panopto to record your feedback on student work. You can also record very brief audio and video feedback right within Canvas. Check out this short blog post for advice on creating successful screencasts
  • Even with these tools and approaches, it can still be difficult to assess how individual students are doing in a class since you’re not interacting with them in person. For this reason, it’s important to build in time for students to meet with you one-on-one. This can be as simple as using a Google Spreadsheet for students to sign up to meet via Zoom. These individual meetings can help you better determine if a student is overwhelmed or struggling with the class. 

How can I facilitate collaboration remotely?

  • If students are able to meet synchronously, you might have them meet with partners or groups via Zoom. They can use this real time interaction to plan different stages of a project or provide feedback on their peers’ writing. Keep in mind that synchronous meetings may not work for all students due to time zone differences or personal circumstances, so it’s important to provide asynchronous opportunities for collaboration as well
  • Creating a discussion forum in Canvas can allow students to work together and share ideas in a designated space. You can also split students into groups within Canvas and allow each group to have their own internal discussion forum. Doing so can help facilitate small group discussions and collaboration.
  • Students can use Google Docs to share and comment on each others’ writing. Google Docs is a popular option for peer review, as students can provide suggestions and feedback asynchronously. There is also a live chat feature, however, where students can discuss their comments with each other in real time.
  • Hypothesis is another tool that can help students collaborate asynchronously on external readings. Hypothesis is a free, open source social annotation tool that allows you to write notes in the margin of an online text you’re reading. Once activated, Hypothesis allows you to open a web browser and annotate web pages as well as PDFs. Students can then provide shareable links to their comments. You can also create a group for your class, and ask students to read and comment and discuss together in the margins of a text, as an alternative to the discussion forum. Check out these examples of Hypothesis being used in the classroom.

How can I build students’ motivation and confidence as writers? 

  • Many of the strategies you might use to build student motivation and confidence are the same online as they are in person. For instance, you might begin the semester with some low-stakes assignments that allow students to receive feedback without the pressure of being graded. 
  • As you continue to assign projects, it’s important that you scaffold the assignments and provide smaller goals that build up to the final product. Depending on the assignment, students might submit a proposal, an outline, an annotated bibliography, and a first draft before submitting the final paper. Scaffolding allows you to identify early on if a student is struggling or not understanding the assignment. 
  • It’s also critical that you provide feedback early and often as well as allow students time to implement your feedback. If you’re concerned about your own ability to provide feedback in a timely manner, remember that quality is more valuable than quantity. Identifying foci for your feedback saves you time and decreases the chances students will feel overwhelmed.
  • Encouraging students to set goals and reflect on them can also stimulate motivation and confidence. You might ask students to consider how they’ve grown as a writer after each assignment or what they took from peer or instructor feedback. 
  • Finally, remember students at the College can also work with the Middlebury Writing Center. Students at the Institute of International Studies can work with the Graduate Writing Center. Both centers offer online appointments.  

How can I best scaffold assignments? 

  • It might help to think of the assignment like baking a cake. The final project is the cake, but as we all know, there are many steps you have to complete before the cake is ready. What are the “ingredients” of the assignment? What components will students need to assemble and in what order? What steps should they take to achieve the final product? You might consider having students submit the following when scaffolding your assignment: proposal, outline, thesis statement, annotated bibliography, introductory paragraph, or rough draft(s). 
  • Just as you would show students successful examples of the final product, it’s also important to show them successful examples of each scaffolding assignment. They might not know what you expect from a project proposal or might not have done an annotated bibliography before. Showing them examples clarifies your expectations. 
  • You can also use Panopto to record short instructional videos for your students. You can walk them through different components of the assignment and discuss your expectations along the way. Recording a video not only benefits different types of learners, but will give your students a resource to return to throughout the course. Check out this short blog post for advice on creating successful screencasts

How can I differentiate for various writing abilities/learning preferences in my class? 

  • Provide multiple formats to accommodate different learning preferences. For example, you can create both written and video instructions for assignments. You can also give feedback using written or video comments. Panopto is a popular option for recording videos, which you can then upload to Canvas.
  • You can also allow different options for completing an assignment. Think about what skills or knowledge you want students to gain from an assignment. Can students meet those goals through a variety of formats? For instance, could they achieve the learning goals through an oral presentation and through a written essay? If so, consider giving students the option to choose.
  • Show examples of successful assignments. If time permits, you might consider recording a video or providing annotated examples that explain why these were successful. If not, uploading the examples to Canvas so students can view them in their own time is still beneficial. 
  • Use rubrics to highlight your priorities. Because a rubric specifies your priorities for an assignment, the quality of student work is often higher. See here for more information about rubrics and here for sample rubrics from Middlebury colleagues in a range of disciplines.
  • Provide opportunities for collaborative learning. You might ask students to coauthor a paper or work together on a presentation. In assessing group projects, rubrics are helpful as is assessing the process and the product separately.

What are the best strategies for peer review as part of online learning?

  • These tips from Catharine Wright, Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric and Gender, Sexuality, & Feminist Studies, contain strategies for successful peer review, which can be adapted for an online environment. 
  • Whether online or in person, you should identify a focus for the peer review session–a few goals per session–and be transparent about your role in peer review. Will you be facilitating discussions, reading their comments,  or collecting/grading student feedback? 
  • Synchronous workshops can be held via video conferencing tools such as Zoom. You might consider dividing students into small groups using the breakout rooms feature to facilitate small group discussions. Keep in mind that synchronous meetings may not work for all students due to time zone differences or personal circumstances, so you should plan asynchronous peer review opportunities as well.
  • Students can use Google Docs to share and comment on each others’ writing. Google Docs is a popular option for peer review, as students can provide suggestions and feedback asynchronously. There is also a live chat feature, however, where students can discuss their comments with each other in real time.
  • Though you might have access to a student’s Google Doc for peer review, it can be helpful to refrain from commenting on the same draft that students are using for peer review. Your comments might influence or bias the peer reviewer.

What are the best and most effective ways of providing feedback to students?

  • Quality and timeliness of feedback is more important than quantity. Students learn most when instructors have foci for their feedback. In fact, students often become overwhelmed when they receive too much feedback on an assignment. A few comments and suggestions per page is plenty. And the sooner you get that feedback to students, the more likely they are to use that feedback in revising their work and/or in completing the next assignment!
  •  Rubrics can clarify expectations and save you time. While it takes time to create a rubric and explain it to students, using such rubrics saves a great deal of time and energy when it comes to grading student work. Moreover, because a rubric specifies your priorities for an assignment, the quality of student work is often higher. See here for more information about rubrics and here for sample rubrics from Middlebury colleagues in a range of disciplines.
  •  Conversations are as important as comments.  Sometimes students do not understand our feedback but are afraid to ask for clarification. When major revision or re-writing is necessary, a short conversation may be more useful than written comments. Using a videoconferencing tool such as Zoom can be effective for talking through comments in real time. 
  •  Feedback can take many forms. Some faculty use audio or video-recording tools such as Panopto so that they can talk through their observations in a more natural (and sometimes efficient) manner. Canvas even allows you to embed audio and video recordings throughout a document!   And of course, students can also receive valuable feedback from Writing Center faculty or peer tutors, as well as through peer review.

What options do I have for integrating tools with Canvas?

  • Many of the tools mentioned here, such as Zoom and Google Apps, can be integrated with Canvas. For more information, and a complete list of Canvas integrated tools, please see here.

Final tips

  • This is ultimately a writing course, so tools should be used in service of the compositional or pedagogical goals. Don’t let the tools drive your teaching.
  • Provide students with resources or people to contact in case of technical issues. It is unlikely that you’ll have the bandwidth or knowledge to answer every technical question students may have.
  • Have a backup plan in case technology fails. This is especially important for any sessions you plan to run synchronously.
  • Make sure your materials are accessible to the broadest range of learners. See this blog post for tips on how to do so.

Additional Resources

Middlebury College Writing Center

The Writing Center provides a number of services to both faculty and students. Faculty may request a course-embedded tutor for writing intensive courses, such as FYSE, CW, and WRPR courses. The Tutor works with the faculty member throughout the semester to provide written, verbal, and other kinds of feedback to writers. Tutors may also work with faculty to make their assignments and feedback clearer for students.

Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) Graduate Writing Center

Students at MIIS can book online appointments with the Graduate Writing Center. The Center aims to provide students with immediate takeaways as well as tools and suggestions to independently improve their writing. 

Group Writing

Composed by the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this resources offers lots of valuable advice about group writing, including an “overview of the collaborative process, strategies for writing successfully together, and tips for avoiding common pitfalls. It will also include links to some other handouts that may be especially helpful as your group moves through the writing process.”

Links for Teaching During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Compiled by the Writing Across the Curriculum Clearinghouse, these resources include advice on connecting with international students, multiple open access books about online teaching, and examples of effective practices for online writing instruction. 

Online Writing Instruction Community 

This website contains information and resources on online writing instruction. The web tools page is particularly helpful in giving instructors a sense of the technology options. 

Foundational Practices of Online Writing Instruction 

This is an entire e-book about online writing instruction. Instructors can select specific chapters based on their interests and needs. 

How to Give Your Students Better Feedback with Technology 

This advice guide from The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the qualities of good feedback, when to use different types of feedback, and solutions to common pitfalls. There is also a list of additional tools and resources at the end of the guide.

Thanks to Shawna Shapiro, Director of the Writing and Rhetoric Program and Associate Professor of Writing & Linguistics, for her guidance and feedback in writing this post.


Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash