Anatomy of an Essay

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Lynn Huang, English

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2011

Reading and Composition classes often include students who have had little to no experience with college-level academic writing. Many undergraduates have only a vague notion of what constitutes strong analytical writing. I provide an essay rubric that clearly describes expectations for different levels of performance within four main criteria: thesis, textual evidence, structure/organization, and style/mechanics. However, I realized that students did not understand the difference between evidence and analysis in their own writing. They found it challenging to balance the two, and struggled with incorporating evidence into their prose. These issues tended to compromise the overall structure of the paper. Familiarity with a rubric and samples of exemplary undergraduate essays helped, but students did not know what to look for, or what, exactly, makes an excellent essay.

To help students understand the components of a quality essay and how they work together, I created a lesson called “Anatomy of an Essay.” I introduced the idea that we can “dissect” and analytically color-code an essay in order to make its internal structure visible, and to determine what makes it an effective (or ineffective) paper. To achieve this, I used an “I do, we do, you do” method of instruction in which I modeled the activity for students, then practiced with them, and finally gave them opportunities to apply what they had learned on their own. Students began by reading the first page of a sample essay. I then used a digital projector to show them the first paragraph on my computer, which I had already color-coded. All forms of textual evidence are blue, and analysis (the writer’s interpretation of what that evidence means) is green. Major argumentative points are red, and the thesis is circled in red. Black is reserved for correcting style and mechanics. We then color-coded the second paragraph together, and students worked in pairs to code the rest of the essay. After checking their work against the document I had already coded on my computer, students observed the structure of the essay. They then worked with partners to assign a grade according to our rubric. They explained their rationale for their assessments; some grades were quite harsh, and a few students were surprised that this sample was an “A+” paper. Students continued to work in pairs to code and grade a second essay, a “B” paper, after which the class discussed the strengths and weaknesses in both essays. Finally, I revealed that both pieces were written by me as an undergraduate: one at the beginning of my college career and one toward the end of it.

I assessed understanding by asking students what they noticed about the color pattern and how it related to structure. They observed that every sentence had a color (some more than one), and that strong paragraphs featured a balance of colors, often alternating between evidence and analysis. They also noted that major argumentative points tended to be at the beginning of each paragraph, connecting it to the thesis. During peer workshops, students graded and color-coded each other’s drafts as well as their own comments — for example, a comment on analysis would be in green. This prompted students to think critically about the nature of the feedback they provided and to focus on substantive content rather than just mechanics. Subsequent drafts proved the efficacy of this process — “global revisions” became more than a vague catch phrase, and students integrated evidence and analysis with greater ease and persuasiveness. They learned to recognize and eliminate generalizations and filler: if it has no color, it does not belong in the essay. Color-coding demystified the structure of academic writing, and helped students to see that an “A” paper does not have to be technically perfect. Sharing the best and the worst of my own undergraduate writing went a long way toward establishing class community and a sense that it was possible to significantly improve one’s writing with time and effort.