Writing is “easy”… Student Learning in the First-Year Canadian Survey Course

By Mark Leier

Making a safe space
Writing real life
Making assignments matter
Doing more with less

The assignment made all of us squirm. Some broke into a sweat; others made little nervous jokes. At a workshop on teaching writing, we — professors, graduate students, librarians, deans — were asked to take five minutes to complete a short writing exercise that we would share with others. We were seasoned veterans with countless theses, books, articles, memos, and position papers between us, yet being asked to write something made us uneasy.

The sportswriter Walter “Red” Smith is alleged to have said, “Turning out a column is easy. I just sit at my typewriter until beads of blood form on my forehead.”

I took that lesson to heart as I redesigned my first year survey course, “Canada since Confederation,” as a “writing intensive” course. The aim is not to teach writing skills such as “Our Friend the Comma” or “27 Keys to the Successful Term Paper.” Rather, writing is one of the skills we work on in the class, and writing is emphasized as a way to learn. But if a simple assignment at a voluntary workshop made us nervous, what would writing do to students who know they are about to be weighed and judged?

The problem is particularly acute in “Canada since Confederation.”

Word cloud represents how frequently students gave each word when asked for “one word to describe how you think or feel about Canadian history.”

Word cloud represents how frequently students gave each word when asked for “one word to describe how you think or feel about Canadian history.

For many students, it is a compulsory course in a subject far from their major and interest. The reading and writing load in history is greater than most disciplines, and even among history majors Canadian history is regarded as boring. The lecture has over 200 people, and that can be alienating, especially for first year students unused to university life; the tutorials of 15-19 students bring their own close-up horrors. Most of my students have jobs, some working as many as 30 hours a week; many have family responsibilities ranging from childcare to elder care. Rebekah Nathan, (2006) in My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, outlines some of the issues contemporary students face.

Furthermore, nearly half of SFU students do not speak English as their first language at home. SFU has followed other universities in seeking international students as a source of revenue, and many of these students are ill-prepared for the peculiarities and requirements of the Canadian education system. Elizabeth Redden (2014) has explored this in her article, “Chinese Students in the Classroom,” in the journal Inside Higher Ed.  Some are reluctant to display what they believe is an inability to write in university appropriate language. Many believe they are in a competitive scramble for grades and so are wary of any exercise in which they will be compared with others.  It is, therefore, not surprising that asking students to write can induce in them a paralyzing anxiety.

Making a safe space

Reducing that anxiety so students can write more freely became my starting point for redesigning the course. That started with the way we came together. We have 13-week semesters at SFU, and while that has some advantages — burnout is a function of duration more than intensity — it also means that students don’t get to know each other and instructors don’t get to know students. It is a common lament that tutorials and seminars really come together around week 11, just as people start drifting away to attend to final assignments and exams.

That meant I had to make the classroom and tutorials safe; we had to create what George Lakey, (2010) in Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success for Diverse Adult Learners calls a “safe container,” where people can share, engage, make mistakes, and learn. This safe container is not necessarily comfortable: learning is often uncomfortable. But if people do not feel safe, they will not risk feeling uncomfortable and so will not risk learning in lectures, tutorials, or written assignments.

This may not be news to you. I may well be the last professor on the planet to understand this. But my experience is that most students are unaccustomed to professors taking their concerns seriously. Two quick examples taken from Lakey’s work suggest simple ways to help create that safe container and why it is valuable.

Before our first lecture, I emailed all the students and asked them to check their assigned tutorial number. When they arrived at the lecture hall, I asked them to sit near their teaching assistants, who were holding up signs with their tutorial numbers. Instead of going over the syllabus, which focuses attention on me and the course, I asked students to introduce themselves to five or six of their colleagues and to mention one thing they were looking forward to in the course and one thing they were anxious about. This changed the focus away from me and the rules and regulations of the course. Why do that? It may shock some professors — it shocked me — but most people are more interested in themselves and their colleagues than they are in the carefully planned and lovingly detailed syllabus. Acknowledging their concerns is a useful first step in reducing anxiety, for it demonstrates the professor has some awareness of what students are facing and takes them seriously.

It also meant that when students went to their tutorials, they already knew some of the people in it. Many reported they were surprised and delighted to see a familiar face in the tutorial. That they were surprised they had already met someone in their tutorial after they had been asked to sit together at the lecture suggests that many students experience university as an exercise in isolation rather than collegiality. That it delighted them was some evidence that building a safe container was a novel, and important, goal.

In the second example, I asked the TAs to do the “mingling” exercise we had done in the lecture among themselves. Even though all the TAs knew each other, each reported that getting up, introducing themselves, and sharing two concerns about the course was still a little uncomfortable, but it helped them appreciate how their students felt. The TAs then did the “mingling” in their tutorials. All the students got up and walked around the classroom themselves to everyone in the tutorial, and again shared two concerns about the course. This proved much more effective as a way for students to learn each other’s names than having them remain seated and introducing themselves to the whole class. It meant that people who were not keen on drawing attention to themselves did not have to announce their names to 20 strangers and rather than, say, share a personal detail, they could talk about the course in ways that mattered to them. Both of these are very small examples. Neither is a magic bullet. Nonetheless, each had a positive effect on the dynamics of the lecture and the tutorial. Simply acknowledging the complexity of group dynamics went some way to reducing anxiety.

Writing real life

The next step was re-designing the assignments. Betting the rent cheque is more stressful than betting the price of a cup of coffee, and a heavily weighted term paper wagers a great deal on a single event. That is the case even if the paper is broken down into components such as bibliography, thesis development, and revising drafts. The research paper is also an artificial, unfamiliar exercise. Everyone writes all kinds of things all the time: articles, poems, letters, blogs, email, tweets, books, memos, lists, diaries, reports, case studies, but one thing we don’t write outside of the first year university class is a first year term paper.

Thus the final paper means mastering several skills in very short order: finding a topic, finding the library, online or on campus, doing research, devising a thesis, learning university-appropriate language, figuring out how and what to cite, putting together a bibliography, editing, time management. Oh, and we tell them to make it interesting to read, too. When we combine a high stakes assignment with several steep learning curves, fear of failure, and the anxiety of writing, it is hardly surprising that students turn in desperation to plagiarism. As the anarchist Emma Goldman noted, a society gets the criminals it deserves.

Even for prepared students, the term paper can resemble the folk tale of teaching monkeys how to swim: throw all the babies into the river, and the ones who make it across know how to swim. Some students, by virtue of natural talent or a high school that stressed such training, do indeed make it across. But most of us learn better in small pieces, building on what we know and moving from step to step. This is especially the case when we are learning new skills and have much invested in the outcome.

Another drawback of the term paper is that it rarely helps student master course content. Too often it requires them to do narrow research on a very specific topic rather than help them integrate lectures, discussions, and readings in the course. In that sense, it stands outside the rest of the course and is a diversion from it. Students may become first year experts on a slice of a question, but at the expense of taking time from pondering the larger questions of the course and course material.

One potential benefit of the term paper is that students can be required to submit and revise drafts. Much of that work, however, can be done with short assignments. Students can, for example, be shown how to revise titles, introductions, arguments, and citations on one paper, and apply that knowledge to the next paper.

Instead of the term paper, I assign four short papers that resemble things students have already written, such as a letter to a friend, something they have read and enjoyed, such as a short story, or something they anticipate doing, such as sketching an advertising campaign for a cause. The aim is to build on what they know so they can concentrate on the essential elements of thinking critically, finding their own voice, and writing with enthusiasm.

Each of the assignments draws explicitly on course materials to help students think more broadly and to help them understand and integrate the ideas in the readings and lectures. In one assignment, students read and discuss in tutorials two academic articles. One writes very favourably of a company that traded with First Nations and settlers on the Canadian prairies in the nineteenth century. The second implicates that same company in the forcible removal of First Nations from the land. Students are then asked to write a letter or an email to a friend who has a job offer from the company and wants advice on whether to take it. The assignment encourages students to write informally, to develop their “ear” for language rather than fret over the difference between their semicolon and a hole in the ground. A quick introduction to this idea may be found in Michelle Navarre Cleary’s article in The Atlantic, “The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar” (2014).

Making assignments matter

The assignments try to take advantage of another characteristic of the students. Many commentators have argued that the current generation of students is uninterested in politics and civic engagement. Paul Howe explores this extensively in Citizens Adrift: The Democratic Disengagement of Young Canadians (2010). In my experience, however, they are profoundly interested in issues such as the abuse of power, the environment, inequality, corporate malfeasance, and employment. They are also keenly engaged in discussions of ethical questions, though they may well prefer to have these discussions with their friends in the pub rather than in the formal setting of a graded tutorial.

Leier - 2This does not, however, necessarily translate into an interest in conventional politics. Students often express deep cynicism toward party politics. If we may take Aristotle’s word for it, young adults “prefer honour to profit,” and students are disgusted with the influence corporations and the wealthy wield in our political system. They are also aware that Canada’s first past the post, multi-party system means governments are often elected with a minority of votes. Negative advertising has left many with a distrust of all political parties and the political process. They understand the mainstream parties do not share their own political views. When surveyed through an online site, politicalcompass.org, students cluster considerably further left and less authoritarian than the traditional parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, and most are more left and less authoritarian than the left-looking New Democratic Party. This is not a rigorous study of students and their political views. It does suggest that there is no political party students view as their natural home and that they do not see in parliamentary democracy a way to be heard or to be virtuous. But this cynicism and disengagement from conventional politics does not mean students do not care about ethics and politics. The writing assignments build on their concerns to capture their interest and let them develop their thoughts on issues and the use of history.

For example, students are concerned with the arbitrary exercise of power. This reflects their experience at home, at work, and at university. Ernest Hemingway suggested writers need “a built-in, shock-proof shit-detector,” and to that we may add the observation that shit flows downhill. We must look upstream to discover the source. The writing assignments in this course try to build upon students’ outrage over arbitrary authority to help them write on historical matters. Put more simply, they are encouraged to think and write about the past to determine whence shit flows, who gets to pour, and who does the cleaning up.

War is a particularly vivid example of the exercise of authority and power; as Randolph Bourne put it in 1917, “war is the health of the state.” Thus one assignment asks students to write a letter to their brother who has been conscripted to fight in World War I. The students are asked to demonstrate some knowledge of the course material, their views on war, and the authority of the state to declare war and conscript people to fight in it. Alternatively, they may design a pitch for an ad campaign to recruit men to serve in the army, with particular attention to the tropes and images they think would be most successful, given what they know about Canadian politics, demographics, and myths of nation. In this way, we explore power in history, ranging from the power to compel, using the state’s monopoly of violence, to the power to persuade using techniques of manipulation and propaganda. And students write, if obliquely, on an issue they have a visceral understanding of: the arbitrary exercise of authority.

In a third assignment, students consider World War II, often portrayed as “the good war.” They read material on the Dieppe raid, in which the Canadian military took high casualties. Whether the raid was useful militarily, a cynical political ploy, or a blunder is still debated by historians. Students also read an article on Canada’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan. Students are asked explicitly to consider when they think it is appropriate for a country to go war, when they would consider volunteering to fight, and whether Canada’s reasons for fighting the Boer War, World War I, World War II, and in Afghanistan make sense to them.


Assignments also have students examine the work that historians do; they are invited to apply critical thinking to the past and the material we are using, again building on their experience, this time their experience as history students. Kevin O’Neill in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University has done research on how students think about history, or “metahistory.” To greatly oversimplify, many students come to university believing there is a single “true” version of what happened in the past. If historians differ, one must be wrong. Others concede there may be different versions of the past, but the differences will be resolved as more information comes to light. Few come to the first year course with a strong sense that historians construct the past, not through making up facts but by giving interpretations, and that all historians have, if not biases, certainly perspectives. Each of the above assignments suggests to students they need to consider how and why historians’ interpretations vary and how these differences are displayed in historical writing. They help students appreciate that just as the past was contested and fought over, so too is the history of the past. That appreciation in turn helps them understand that history is not just about names and dates but about ethical and political concerns in the present. Finally, the assignments invite them to make their own decisions, based on their sense of ethics and politics, on practical issues they will face, such as ethical concerns about a company or a government’s decision to go war. That is to say, the assignments demand some critical thinking and supply the context necessary for such thinking.

Finally, instead of a final exam, students are asked to read a science fiction story, “And Then There Were None,” by Eric Frank Russell. Written in the 1950s, the story has an Earth Empire ship landing on a planet colonized by Terran emigrants centuries before. The planet was explicitly founded on Gandhian, anarchist principles, and so is in sharp contrast to the hierarchy of the diplomats, bureaucrats, and military personnel sent out by Earth. Students are then asked to write a short paper imagining a conversation they might have with a “Gand” who lands on Earth and demands not “take me to your leader,” for such a concept is bizarre to Gands, but an explanation of why Canadians take orders from governments and employers — and still claim to live in a democracy. The assignment asks students to pull together historical material and their own analysis of that material in a form that is less alien and more fun than a final exam or research paper. It encourages them to model Russell’s style, in the way an apprenticing artist will redraw the work of masters. Susan B. Blum (2010) makes this analogy in My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture. Fiction is more familiar to students than academic writing and modeling lets students spend less time on the mechanics of academic writing and more on thought and reflection.

Doing more with less

Incorporating all of this into a 13 week course meant something would have to go. I am a historian, and it is a history course, not a dedicated writing course; content matters. But it might not matter as much as I’ve thought. The Canadian humourist and university professor Stephen Leacock, wrote a short story in 1910 titled “A Manual of Education.” In it Leacock notes that a university education takes about six years to acquire, and “when it is all written out on foolscap, covers nearly ten sheets” (127). His manual pulls together the scraps of education that remain so “everybody may carry his education in his hip pocket.” Under “Remains of History,” Leacock covers historical figures, “Peter the Great, Alfred the Great, Frederick the Great, John the Great, Tom the Great, Jim the Great, Jo the Great, etc., etc.,” with the observation that “it is impossible for a busy man to keep these apart. They sought a living as kings and apostles and pugilists and so on” (129).

Hard though it was to admit, when I reflected on my own undergraduate education, Leacock had a point. In fact, I’m still a little shaky on the four Canadian prime ministers who served in rapid succession between 1891 and 1896. The readings have been reduced, and tutorials spend more time on writing than searching out the thesis statements of academic articles. One can’t do everything in one 13 week course, and helping students find their voice as they think about ethical and political matters seems more important than testing their knowledge of the King-Byng constitutional crisis of 1926 or even the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The lively buzz in the lecture hall and the tutorial classrooms and the invigorated, thoughtful writing students have produced suggests they agree.

Students have stories to tell and insights to share. When they have a safe place and issues that matter to them, the writing begins to take care of itself.

After several years in jobs ranging from bridge tender to busker, Mark Leier received a PhD in history from Memorial University of Newfoundland in 1992. A professor at Simon Fraser University since 1994, he has authored four books on Canadian labour history and Bakunin: The Creative Passion, a biography of the 19th century anarchist. The revised edition of Rebel Life: The Life and Times of Robert Gosden, Revolutionary, Mystic, Labour Spy was published by New Star Books in 2013.


Blum, S. B. (2010) My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University PressCleary, M.N. (2014) “The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar,” The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/02/the-wrong-way-to-teach-grammar/284014/Fawcett, P.D. et al. (2013) “Chinese International Students’ First-Year Learning and Teaching Perceptions,” http://hig.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:706675/FULLTEXT01.pdf

Howe. P. (2010) Citizens Adrift: The Democratic Disengagement of Young Canadians. Vancouver and Toronto:  UBC Press

Lakey, G. (2010) Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Diverse Adult Learners. San Francisco: Jossey Bass

Leacock, S. (1910). “A manual of education,” in Literary Lapses. Toronto: Musson Book Company, n.d.

Nathan, R. (2006) My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. New York: Penguin Books

O’Neill, D. K., Guloy, S., MacKellar, F., & Sensoy, Ö. (2010) “Retooling the teaching of history: Refining a unit targeting conceptions about differing historical accounts,” http://www.sfu.ca/~koneill/Retooling_AERA_2011.pdf

Redden, E. (2014), “Chinese Students in the Classroom,” Inside Higher Ed, 9 April 2014, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/04/09/new-research-examines-how-chinese-students-respond-challenges-classroom#sthash.d5T9cDAv.dpbs

2 thoughts on “Writing is “easy”… Student Learning in the First-Year Canadian Survey Course

  1. Frank Rockland

    I’m both amused and annoyed by the phrase “even among history majors Canadian history is regarded as boring”.

    If you enter the phrase “history is boring” into a search engine you will find American and British history teachers complaining that their students are finding history is boring as well. It is not only a Canadian problem. Yet historical fiction is popular.

    There is no easy solution. History has the same issues as math. How does this apply to my life? How can it help me find a job? When will I ever use it? Many have taken courses and promptly forgot the material once they passed it.

    One thing that history can teach is the research skills which they can use when looking at a problem. History is simply people trying to solve problems to the best of their ability. Is the current problem new or recurring? How did people in the past deal with a similar problem? What were their obstacles and constraints in their attempt to solve the problem? Were they successful? Have circumstances changed? If so, why? If not, why not?

    One important thing, repeating “Canadian history is regarded as boring” simply reinforces it in peoples’ minds.

  2. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of May 1st, 2016 – Unwritten Histories

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