I recently stumbled upon a classroom exercise called the 50 Word Sentence Assignment used by UW-Madison history professor Charles L. Cohen, described at the Madison Writing Across the Curriculum site. Professor Cohen also provides additional explanation and graded examples.
For several years I’ve been assigning questions on reading assignments (more on that in another post). The questions are argumentative and require that students state a position and then defend it. In class I split students into small groups to discuss their answers; each group then reports whatever consensus it has achieved to the rest of the class. Often students descend into ill-formed verbiage when reporting their groups’ answers. In large classes, groups often repeat the general ideas of other groups – not very interesting to students, despite the peer-to-peer reinforcement of concepts.
Telling each group to create a grammatically-correct, one-sentence answer of fifty words or less generated a lot of activity – students’ heightened interest in collaborating on a piece of writing was an unexpected bonus. Even though all groups were working on their sentences for the same amount of time (typically groups can finish within five minutes), students viewed the task as a challenge and groups quickly turned the exercise into a competition to produce the sentence with the fewest words.
In the first few trial runs, students had no problem writing sentences that presented a claim supported by evidence in less than fifty words, so I cut the limit down to forty-five and then forty words. This increases the challenge to students and demonstrates how they can be very concise in their writing.
One caveat: having students come to the computer station to type in their group’s sentences for a class vote and a discussion on each sentence’s merits takes much too much time.