The Thesis Statement as The Key to Unlock Essay Writing

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Julia Lewandoski, History

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2018

After several semesters as a GSI and Reader for history classes, it has become clear to me that a concise, clear, and specific thesis statement is essential to a successful student paper. Developing a strong thesis statement enables students to frame the structure of their paper, evaluate relevant and irrelevant evidence, mobilize appropriate secondary sources, and take a position in a larger scholarly conversation. Perhaps because it is so important, yet so short, it is also exceptionally hard to craft. When grading student essays, I frequently find thesis statements to be confusing, overly specific, overly vague, or otherwise poorly matched to the content of the essay. The consequence of a less than fully articulated thesis statement is that the rest of the paper suffers. Without one, it is difficult to assemble body paragraphs of argumentative evidence to prove that thesis, or to reflect on the implications of that thesis in a paper’s conclusion. Yet I have not been able to successfully work with students in a sustained way to improve them.

Teaching an R1B class this spring has provided just that opportunity. Because R1B courses are designed to focus specifically on writing skills and require students to draft and revise papers several times over the course of the semester, they offer an ideal structure to help students hone this crucial skill. I developed two in-class exercises for this purpose, which I have repeated with my students as they develop each of the three major essays they write in the class.

In the first exercise, we critique and re-write a series of eight sample theses together in class. I craft these examples to be similar in structure and content to the potential theses that each paper prompt is likely to generate. In class, students are asked to critique each thesis statement, pointing out its different flaws, and to delete words or clauses, re-organize the sentence, or rewrite the statement entirely. We do this exercise early on in the writing process, before most students have begun to develop their own thesis statement drafts. This exercise not only engages them in the process of critiquing and improving thesis statements, but also introduces them to a realm of varied argument structures that they might make.

The second exercise, done closer to the paper deadline, helps students internalize, articulate, and edit their own thesis statements. Students are asked in class to quickly write down their thesis statements from memory. Next, they turn to a partner and, without looking at what they have just written, articulate their thesis statement. Then they take out another piece of paper and write the thesis statement again, from memory, this time altering something about it. Next, they turn to a different partner and articulate the statement yet again from memory. Finally, they write the thesis statement from memory one last time, altering words, reordering clauses, and otherwise articulating it in a different way. By writing it from memory three times and speaking it out loud twice, students are forced to confront the logic and clarity of their draft statements, and to experiment with varying their methods of articulation.

I use two methods to assess the success of these exercises: 1) have their papers improved? and 2) do they find the exercises useful? I have found that their thesis statements have become markedly clearer over the semester. Moreover, I have also been impressed with the quality of their essays in general. As a consequence, we have been able to work on other aspects of essay writing, such as utilizing quotes or refining transitional sentences. An equally important marker of success is that my students clearly find these exercises useful. Several have requested that we continue or repeat them. This positive feedback signals clearly to me that I have found a useful tool to offer to my students that helps them to improve in my class, and in their writing in general.