If you're a teacher who requires your students to write essays, I highly recommend that you consider implementing a practice that I've been doing in my law course for a number of years. Essentially, I write an essay in front of my students. I call this annual custom the "80-Minute Challenge."
The 80-Minute Challenge is a demonstration that I will do once a year during an essay-writing work period. During this challenge, I attempt to research and write a complete 800 to 1200 word essay within 80 minutes. I do not know the topic going into the challenge. Rather, the students in the class brainstorm a selection of positions on a variety of legal issues. A student volunteer writes the propositions up on the board, and then we number the propositions (Proposition 1, Proposition 2, Proposition 3, etc.). Finally, a random number generator picks one of the topics. The topic being selected, I then begin to write the essay while a timer counts down the eighty minutes. Everything I do during the 80-Minute Challenge is projected onto the screen at the front of the class, so students can turn to observe my progress throughout the class. At the end of class, the students can see how far I've progressed. By that same afternoon or evening, I share the completed essay with the class. Admittedly, over the years I have found that some essays go a little better than others, but most essay topics end up being quite a lot of fun to research and write.
Too often, students put off essay projects out of a sense of fear and dread. Particularly desperate students will even resort to plagiarism in order to avoid facing the task of legitimately writing an original essay. The purpose of the 80-Minute Challenge is to demonstrate that essay writing is not just an academic skill, but a fun, stimulating, and exciting endeavour. Embarking on a good essay is actually very similar to setting out on a treasure hunt or rally. The act of searching for and locating compelling sources that support one's thesis is actually a great deal of fun, but students can only access that sense of fun after they learn their requisite skills associated with essay-writing. For too long, schools have failed to expose students to the shear fun of essay writing. Once we add in that sense of fun, the technical skills associated with essay writing become something that students are little more inspired to learn, and the actual writing of essays becomes something that students start to embrace.
Various points of skill, strategy, and technique are demonstrated and discussed during the 80-Minute Challenge. Students see actual demonstrations of:
Essay writing is one of the most critical skills we demand of our students in both high school and university, yet the fact of the matter is that essay writing is also one skill that we as educators do not actually demonstrate to our students. Contrast how we teach essay writing to almost any other skill. Do we not demonstrate everything else from physics formulas, to financial statements, to jump shots? I would argue that we continue to see both poor essay writing and high rates of plagiarism because essay writing is the one skill that we attempt to teach without actually demonstrating.
Admittedly, writing an essay in front of our students does seem a bit extreme... possibly even eccentric, but I maintain that this is simply because we've never been able to provide such a demonstration until very recently. These days, if a teacher has i) a computer, and ii) an LCD projector in their classroom, then they have the ability to take the 80-Minute Challenge. Having said that, this final point does give rise to what may be the most important point of introspection a teacher could ask themselves on the topic: if they have the tools, and they have the time, then why wouldn't they? This question will be explored more fully in an upcoming article.
The Art of Argument: Exploring the foundations of essay writing. (See link below.)
Some Past 80-Minute Challenge Essays:
The New Learner Lab
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