In the Classroom

Using Focused Free Writing to Incite Student Participation

Thoughts on how focused free writing techniques can enhance the classroom experience–particularly on Zoom.

All my activity in Zoom is quietly supervised by Empress Agatha, whom I wish to thank for her support and patience.

Since I first learnt about Focused Free Writing exercises, I have been introducing them in my common in-class activity. At present, I find at least a weekly chance to introduce an FFW exercise in a Zoom class. FFW is gradually replacing the impromptu questions I used to give my students to incite their participation.

When covering the Milgram experiments on obedience to authority in social psychology, I used to show a short video from the original records of those experiments and then invite a round of comments or questions. This would be received by the class as a brief break to stretch legs and let expression free. Yet, in comparison to a FFW exercise, it would be too diffuse and unproductive.

This is the FFW exercise I do now for the Milgram experiments on obedience:

– I give a general description of the Milgram experiments, their context, basic rationale and design.

– I introduce the video: “I will now show you a short video from the original recordings of the experiments. While you watch the video and for a couple of minutes afterwards, I would like you to write two or three lines answering these questions: (1) How and why can the behavior of the ‘teacher’ be considered compliance? And (2) How and why would the ‘teacher’ resist instructions? This is a Focused Free Writing exercise, so please write, either on paper or with a word processor, your proposed answers to these questions”. I give these indications both verbally and in the Zoom chat.

– After watching the video, I leave a couple of minutes for students to write.

– I then open a round for students to orally share with the whole class one of the statements they wrote; these become the basis for a focused discussion.