The OWL + Student Essay Writing = Improved Critical Thinking

By Patti Croop

Even if Socrates was correct in his assessment that writing breeds forgetfulness, I would happily forego a little memorization in exchange for the critical thinking inherent in a taut essay.  Unfortunately, student essays rich in analysis, synthesis, and insights are indeed rare. I know this not only from national studies, but first-hand experience.

In my full-time job, I’m a seeker of innovative online ways to improve student writing.  More accurately, I’m the person, behind the seeker, scrambling for funds to develop these innovations.  At night, however, I transform into an online sociology instructor.  I’m passionate about both. However, it wasn’t until I was asked to write this blog that I realized I could merge my two vocations by integrating the Excelsior OWL strategically into each module of my course.

The challenge is to use the very technology that Pat Belanoff points out can be alienating and disruptive to create an environment that is engaging, energizing, and conducive to improving student writing.

I recently revised a general Reflection Area included at the end of each course module.  With no credit assigned to this area, it – not surprisingly – has received little student attention over the years. Now, the area is called Improving Your Writing Skills, with an essay writing focus and some muscle. I received permission to give students fully participating in this area a bonus 5 points on their essays.

My course runs for 15 weeks, requires 3 short essays, and has 4 modules. Each week, I submit a new post on the writing process and essay format. The first post focuses on understanding the assignment and finding a topic.

Week One

First post: Thinking about your essay assignment

The first week of a new module is a perfect time to look at the essay topics offered in the written assignment area.  You’ll see that each one stresses the application of concepts from the required readings to your subject matter.  That is the main purpose of the essay – to demonstrate your understanding of the key concepts listed in the Join the Conversation section of this Reflection Area.

Check out this page of the OWL to start developing your ideas:

If thinking about your assignment leads to a topic more meaningful to you than the ones listed, one where you can still analyze and apply the key concepts, please share it here for peer input and my final approval.

The second post targets prewriting strategies, the third introductions, and the fourth APA style.  Each post requests student participation and peer feedback.

Luckily, having 15 weeks to instruct the course enables me to work on creating a student community through peer feedback and writing supports that build on lessons from prior modules. For example, each succeeding module digs deeper into the essay writing process.

Module 1 - General Prewriting Strategies, Introductions, Overview of APA; Module 2 - Audience, Conclusion, Plagiarism; Module 3 - Annotating a Textbook, Revising & Editing, Evaluating Sources.

The final module focuses on specific essay writing problems identified by students.

Regular course announcements will reinforce the essay writing skills being discussed in the reflection areas, including helpful hints and links to pertinent areas.

I’m still considering ways to evaluate the impact of these writing supports.  One approach is to ask participating students for a personal reflection on their improvement at the end of the course. Another is to closely review each student’s progress in essay writing using the Essay Evaluation Rubric. My intent is to do both and maybe come up with other ideas as the course progresses.

Essay Evaluation Rubric

Very Good Average/Acceptable Poor
Thesis Clear thesis statement of argument for the essay. Shows original thought and analysis. Thesis statement may not be clearly formulated or thought-through. No clear thesis or argument for the essay.
Development of Argument Accurate and appropriate use of evidence to support argument. Some evidence used to support argument, but may be inconsistent. Little or inaccurate information to support argument.
Structure and Organization Logical and coherent structure, smooth transitions. Essay has an introduction and conclusion. Some structure, but paper may lack transitions or logical flow. Essay is disorganized and there is no clear structure. Difficult for reader to follow.
Integration of Sources Makes analytical connections across course materials. Uses sources to critically discuss themes. Engages with course materials, but may only summarize rather than analyze issues. Little or no analytical engagement across course materials.
Grammar, Syntax, Language Choices, Spelling Proper grammar, word usage, varied sentence structure, appropriate tone. Some minor grammatical errors, some issues with word choice and/or tone. Many grammatical and/or spelling errors, problematic word choices, inappropriate tone.
Formatting Title page, page numbers, sections labeled, proper citation format in text & in bibliography. Some formatting, but not consistent or complete. No title page, no page numbers, no section labels, inconsistent or missing citation formatting.

The course started September 11. I would appreciate any suggestions and guidance from instructors attempting similar work.  I can be reached at

Patti Croop considers herself incredibly lucky to be part of the Excelsior Grants Office and to serve as an adjunct faculty at Empire State College. She is also a member of the OWL National Advisory Board.