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We understand that using an inquiry approach to teaching writing may be unfamiliar and we've designed this Teachers' Resource site to provide as much support as possible for using Composing Inquiry. If you have other questions, we're happy to try to answer. Contact us at mmarshall@miami.edu


Frequently Asked Questions

  1. How is teaching inquiry different from other ways of teaching first-year writing?

  2. How do I begin preparing for a course using Composing Inquiry?

  3. What's the difference between Assignment Sequences and Projects?

  4. How can I teach methods I've never used myself?

  5. How much time does it take to teach these methods? Or, how can I possibly fit all this in?

  6. What happens to the writing when the research is badly done?

  7. How do I evaluate the research and writing that students do?

  8. These readings seem too hard for my students. How can I make them easier?


How is teaching inquiry different from other ways of teaching first-year writing?

  •     inquiry projects  teach methods of investigation like observing, interviewing, or designing and administering surveys, and analysis different kinds of material like numbers, texts, music, speech, artifacts or various kinds of visual materials

  •     inquiry projects encourage students to think about the various ways their investigations might be represented in writing and to choose a form for presenting their work that matches their audience, purpose and material

  •     inquiry projects use readings as examples of other scholars' inquiry projects -- students read to see the methods other researchers use, how they present their findings, and as sources of inspiration for similar investigations

  •     inquiry projects teach the elements of writing as students need them in the context of their investigations

  •     inquiry projects position the teacher as an experienced collaborator who helps students pose questions, find evidence, evaluate data, present their findings to an appropriate audience and reflect on what they've learned or still need to learn

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How do I begin preparing for a course using Composing Inquiry?

We suggest beginning by making some key decisions about the assignments you will use in your course and how much reading you will assign. Go to Planning the Course for more suggestions.

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What's the difference between Assignment Sequences and Projects?

Assignment Sequences give you a set of writing assignments that are structured to work together and provide sufficient material for the whole course.

Projects are starting points that teachers and students have to develop on their own.

Both Sequences and Projects are meant to last an entire course, but some teachers do projects in an abbreviated form as one assignment in a sequence.

You'll find a fuller description of the differences and help in deciding whether to organize your course around an Assignment Sequence or a Project in the Planning the Course section of this site.

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How can I teach methods I've never used myself?

In an inquiry-based course teachers function as guides or co-investigators, not transmitters of knowledge, so they don't have to already know everything. Because you have more experience as a learner, reader, writer, you can help students raise questions, see connections, analyze data, and present results. We've designed Composing Inquiry to include the material you need to help students be successful and this site provides specific suggestions for working with each method in the Teaching Inquiry section.

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How much time does it take to teach inquiry methods?

Typically, we spend about 2 to 3 weeks per assignment, and students learn the methods as they work on the assignment, though it is fairly common to spend a bit longer on the first assignment as students adjust to a different kind of writing course. In any case, learning the method doesn't take any more time, but time in class is used differently than in a course where students are writing in response to readings and may spend a lot of time discussing the shared textual material.

A good place to see the rhythm of typical courses is in the Pacing the Work section of this site where we include several schedules, including those that work with multiple methods in a single term.

Some teachers and/or programs choose to focus on only one or two methods in a course and we've provided several sequences that use primarily a single method, or focus on a single kind of material. You can see which methods are used in the different Assignment Sequences by consulting the Overview Chart

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What happens to the writing when the research is badly done?

One answer is that we see all the written work students do as works-in-progress and so not everything will be finished to the level of publication (or grading). Even if the research goes awry, students can still produce a written explanation of what they did and why it didn't work out, or what they would need to do differently for the investigation to be better/more reliable/ etc. To see an example of a student writing a critical assessment of a project that didn't go well, see Kimberly St. Onge's essay.

Another answer is that we think students can learn from failure -- sometimes as much or more than they learn from success. Even if all they learn is that research takes more time and care than they thought, that's a very valuable lesson. We've had students "discover" in the process of working with surveys, for example, that the form of the question makes all the difference and suddenly those opinion polls they are used to seeing on local television stations get evaluated with a much more critical eye. Since most first-year writing courses also aim to teach critical thinking, we think even research gone bad can serve these goals.

A final answer is that we sometimes let students collaborate, using the same data to write their own analysis or co-writing if they wish. They'll learn from these collaborations. In fact, sometimes a student who has failed to frame a workable research question or collect appropriate data can see the flaws and potential in a classmate's work more easily.

We provide additional suggestions for working with specific methods in the Teaching Inquiry section so that you'll have fewer students making big errors.

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How do I evaluate the research and writing students do?

We usually work with students to define the key features of each assignment. Content (the research) and form (the writing) are interconnected and itís important for students to understand this connection. We provide several examples of evaluation rubrics as well as other suggestions for working with finished written products in the Teaching Writing section.

We discuss strategies for reading and commenting on student work in the Teaching Writing but key elements of assessing and evaluating inquiry-based writing include:

  •     make comments on drafts with an eye toward helping students revise and rethink, not just polish the prose.

  •     adjust class activities to teach what initial drafts suggest students don't quite know how to do

  •     use portfolios to delay the evaluation moment until after students have had lots of experiences and time to revise

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These readings seem too hard for my students. How can I make them easier?

One valuable thing we can teach students is how to work with difficult material. If they could already read such material easily and write without effort, why would they need a teacher's help or the experience of a class? Students can learn to work with difficult readings by using peers, discussing what they do understand, taking sentences apart, paying attention to the logical structure that writers use to help signal connections, etc. They still might not understand all the points the author makes, but they will have learned strategies they can take with them into other academic and non-academic situations. If we give students only easy things to read, how will they ever learn to read something that's hard?

Likewise, we don't accept the all-too-common complaint that a particular reading is "boring." Students understand that not everything they need to read is of immediate interest and part of the function of a first-year reading and writing course is to help students develop ways to read things they initially find inaccessible. Once we get students to see how the readings can teach them new approaches to reading, they also discover that what one of them thinks is boring, others in the class find intriguing. So, they begin to learn from each other as well. These seem like worth-while goals to us.

It's also important to remember, though, that students donít have to understand everything in the reading to use it as a model for their own investigations. Instead they need to learn to read as researchers and writers. The section on Teaching Reading provides examples of pre-reading scaffolding that might be useful to students with reading problems as well as suggestions for getting students to shift the ways they read in order to learn from working with the readings.

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If you have other questions or suggestions for how we might expand the materials on this site, please contact us at mmarshall@miami.edu

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Copyright © 2008 Composing Inquiry: Methods and Readings for Investigation and Writing
Last modified: 02/21/08. Contributors to this site include: Margaret Marshall, Andrew Strycharski, April Mann, Isis Artze-Vega, Patty Malloy, John Wafer.