Using Article Reviews to Teach Writing in Large Classes

by Audrey Devine-Eller

One of my great dilemmas teaching large classes at Rutgers has been how to get my students writing. I wanted them, especially the first year students in my Introduction to Sociology class, to practice writing and to get engaged with sociology in a deeper way than filling in scantron bubbles. But none of us get paid extra to grade papers, and in fact, my class sizes were already swelling above 100. And it’s not just the crunch of having 100 papers to grade; it’s the crunch of how to grade all 100 in one week.

In this article, I lay out how I negotiated this problem, describing the writing I assigned and how I managed it in class. I drew on other experienced teachers to develop this system, and I hope it can be of use to other teachers to use or modify. After outlining the nuts and bolts of how I managed this in class, I discuss the instructional side.

I decided to use article reviews as the basic writing assignment for several reasons:

  • I find students generally do a better job on short, focused writing than long, vague assignments like ‘term papers.’
  • Article reviews are an opportunity for Intro students to dive right into current research and find out what sociologists really do, right now—a refreshing break from secondary texts and textbooks, plus it gets them to the library or the library’s website.
  • Students arrive in class with something to contribute to the discussion, because they’ve just digested a current research report on the topic.
  • Article reviews require a considerable amount of critical thinking skills, which I wanted students to develop.
  • The short and relatively standardized format is easy and fast to grade.
  • Reading many reviews of current articles in my discipline but outside my subfield was an extra bonus—I got a nice snapshot of current research, including some key articles I needed to follow up on.

Because I was teaching Intro, I had a lot of freedom in topics and course structure. I decided to go with the common approach of assigning about one topic per week over the semester. Then, I had students make ‘writing groups’ of four students each, and choose their weeks. Students appreciate being able to choose their due dates and their topics. If they know they’re going to be away for a week in February they don’t sign up for a paper that week. Like all writing, article reviews are a learned skill, so I organized the semester to require two reviews from each student. (They did, indeed, get better at them.) Note the added benefit to me—the grader—of having an even stream of about thirty papers per week throughout the semester.

On the first day of class, students got into groups of four and picked their weeks, filling out a form in their syllabus (plus an extra copy for me to keep). Each student signed up for two topics, so that eight of the nine topics were covered by each group:

Due Topic
2/15 Socialization
2/22 Family
3/1 Deviance
3/8 Race
Due Topic
3/26 Class
4/9 Health & Medicine
4/16 Gender
4/23 Education
4/30 Language

Voila. Due dates assigned, workload managed, students happy.

That’s the organizational side, of course. The instructional side involved actually teaching students a) what an article review is, and b) how to go about writing one. Most students have only a vague idea of what a scholarly article is, so the first step was scheduling a library session where they learned to search for articles in the relevant disciplinary databases. And most students had never read an article review, either, so they needed to be exposed to that as well. The library session couldn’t hold all my students at once, so I split the class. Half went to the library for database skills, while the other half stayed with me for a discussion on article reviews, where I could engage with them on an individual level to make sure they understood what they were doing. The next class period, the two halves switched.

To teach what an article review was, I gave out a packet of three or four recent book reviews from a current journal, and asked students to reverse outline those reviews. Reverse outlining means working backwards from the finished text to a one-line summary of the content or purpose of each paragraph. After they puzzled for most of the period, I showed them my reverse-outlines of the texts so they could compare theirs. For example, one book review I reverse-outlined looks like this:

  • 1. Hook: historical and contemporary context
  • 2. overview of book and contributions
  • 3. methods: gov’t data, media reports, case studies
  • 4. main arguments
  • 5. elaboration of main arguments
  • 6. elaboration
  • 7. policy recommendations offered by book, and how this research will help the world

Another looks like this:

  • 1. Hook: People’s naïve expectations, and intro to book with history of first book
  • 2. methods: longitudinal
  • 3. structure of book and main findings
  • 4-7. evidence against 4 main assumptions in field (4 paragraphs)
  • 8. what’s new in this book
  • 9. critiques
  • 10. how this research will help the worldv

Once you do a few of these it’s clear to students how similar in structure each book review is, and now they have a clear template to work with for their own article reviews.

I found it helpful to limit students to well-known peer-reviewed research articles in the past five years, and to give them the grading rubric ahead of time. Below, you can find the assignment directions I gave to students in the syllabus.

Article reviews

Learning about sociology can be facilitated by learning what research actual sociologists are really doing. We’ll spend some time in the Rutgers libraries learning how to find sociological articles.

Your task: to find a sociological article that is of interest to you and aligns (however loosely) with a topic area we will cover in class. Read it, and write an article review. You may select any RESEARCH article (not other reviews or summaries) published in the last two years in any of these peer-reviewed journals (list journals).

Warning: this task is probably harder than you think it’s going to be! I will distribute some sample reviews in class so you can see the format. You should also look in detail at this excellent site:

Your article review should consist of 2 relatively balanced parts:

  • a summary of the article’s main ideas and methodologies (1/2 to 2/3)
  • analysis and evaluation of the article (1/3 to 1/2). This is the hard part. A good critique is not simply your opinion. Appropriate things for a critique might include, for example:
    • possible alternative explanations of the findings
    • alternative ways to study the topic
    • methodological concerns (validity, reliability, bias)
    • research ethics
    • etc.
Points (total possible points = 15)
/1 Hook/intro
/4 Summary of methods
/4 Summary of findings
/3 Critique of article
/1 "How this research helps the world"
/1 Structure: readability; clear, logical outline
/.5 Mechanics: sentence structure, word choice, typos, missing words, spelling, etc.
/.5 Citation included

What are the drawbacks? Well, you’re not going to get literary masterpieces out of article reviews.This method also involves some paperwork, making sure you get the right assignments from the right person each week. In fact, originally I masterminded this assignment with students turning in rough drafts to their writing groups, getting critiques back from their group members, and then turning in a whole packet of rough drafts, critiques, and final drafts to me. Some students found the draft process useful, but others didn’t, and in the end I found I was spending more time checking off which critiques were done for which students than actually grading. I probably won’t require the drafts and critiques next time, even though I do think it was important for students to read each others’ work. That’s the next problem to be solved. (Any suggestions?)