Structure Isn’t Spoon-Feeding—Providing Students with Models and Support

Susan Pagnac is the assistant dean for learning enrichment and director of writing at Central College in Pella, IA. Her work has appeared in Journal of Business and Technical Writing, Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, WPA: Writing Program Administration, and Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture. She has presented at the Council of Writing Program Administrators Conference, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and the International Writing Center Association Conference, and is currently copresident of the Independent Writing Departments and Programs Affiliate with Jan Rieman.

Susan Pagnac
Susan Pagnac

Whenever instructors ask students to write, they have to “invent the university for the occasion—invent the university, that is, or a branch of it, like history or anthropology or economics or English,” as the late David Bartholomae explains in his famous essay “Inventing the University” (60). When students learn how to write and speak at the college level, we as their instructors, teachers, and mentors help them to do so, and we need to do so with explicit teaching methods. To not assist our students in this way is a great disservice to them.

Explicit teaching methods are more than just “telling students what you want.” They are ways to introduce students to the methods and rhetorical moves they will need to use in early college writing courses and communication courses. As an instructor, they are your opportunity to show students how to try on those methods and moves for themselves. In this post, I will address two of my favorite methods of explicit teaching: templates and models.

I started teaching with templates as a teaching assistant in graduate school. In one writing assignment I used in my first-year writing classes, I asked students to compare versions of a story told in a song with contemporary sources; students could choose from the Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones,” Johnny Horton’s “Sink the Bismarck,” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Students had little difficulty understanding that the three versions of these stories—the song, a newspaper or magazine story from the time of the event, and one additional source of their choice—told the same story in very different ways, but they struggled to distill their rather complex ideas into thesis statements. I spent a class period brainstorming thesis statement templates with my students that they could then use in their essays. The edited results are in this screenshot:

Students appreciated that I listened to their struggles, and we worked together to resolve their concerns. Future iterations of the class also appreciated having a format to hang their ideas on, like a coat hanger. They could try out each option, and they almost always edited the wording to better reflect their ideas.

We as teachers and instructors often forget what it’s like to transition from a high school setting to a college setting. Along with learning how to be on their own, we ask students to learn new ways of juggling classes and homework and activities. We ask them to write in their first year, a task that may seem daunting. Explicit teaching methods can help bridge that gap as they learn how to write in college.

We also ask them to give up on the “rules” of writing they may have learned before college. In April 2018, Susan Schorn (Senior Program Coordinator and Curriculum Specialist at University of Texas, Austin) requested “rules/lore/myths about writing that students bring to college with them, but which don’t necessarily serve them well in college” on the WPA-L (Schorn). She later sent out a compiled list of those “student rules” and included two thesis statement–focused examples:

  • The thesis MUST be the last sentence of the introduction (possibly underlined) and/or should “list” three things (which then correspond to three body paragraphs)
  • Repeat the thesis in the conclusion but use different words, or summarize the essay in the conclusion” (Schorn)

By using templates, we help students loosen their hold on these “rules” that they bring with them to college. And by offering templates in the absence of such rules, we demonstrate that writing in college is different than writing in high school and, more importantly, that students can succeed in their writing classes in college. In fact, I believe so strongly in the power of templates to help students learn that our college has recently adopted Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say / I Say as the textbook for our first- and second-year communication-intensive courses. When the time came to revise the core curriculum, faculty wanted to change how writing is taught at Central College; as the assistant dean for learning enrichment, I wanted the faculty to use the same language and terminology when talking about writing with their students. Because Central College is a small, liberal arts college, many faculty have not had formal training in teaching writing. They needed something that would help them, and our students, navigate those early communication and writing courses.

My other explicit teaching method is the use of models. Whenever I teach a writing class, be it first-year writing, business communication, or developmental writing, I spend a class period or two showing models to students. We spend time discussing those models’ similarities and differences and how a given model could be improved. Before the advent of learning management systems, I would remove student names (with prior student consent, of course) and hand out paper copies of the models and let students read them and write on them, and then I would retrieve them at the end of class. The purpose of this exercise was to allow students to see what was possible for a particular assignment, including some of the more common pitfalls they might encounter. It also put everyone on the same page: students could see how I might grade a given paper, while I showcased my expectations for a given assignment.

As instructors we need to remember that students bring to their early college communication courses what they have learned before college, necessitates the use of templates and models. Once students are comfortable with the transition to college writing classes, they can go forward with more challenging kinds of writing. Using templates and models to show students what your expectations are only strengthens your credibility as an instructor; students may even thank you for it.

Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Writing on the Margins: Essays on Composition and Teaching. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005, pp. 60–85.

Schorn, Susan E. “Compiled ‘Student Rules.’” WPA-L Archives, 12 April 2018,;b632603a.1804&S=. Accessed 21 May 2018.

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