The unessay: A contructivist approach to developing student writing (formalisation and dissemination)

This is the original application for the Unessay Grant.

Project Overview

The goal of this project is to formalise and further develop work that Michael Ullyot of the University of Calgary, graduate student Heather Hobma, writing centre tutor Virgil Grandfield, and I have been carrying out on an innovative approach to teaching undergraduate writing: the Unessay.

The unessay is based on the premise that students do not understand formal essays the same way their teachers do: as a powerful and flexible means of exploring intellectual problems. Instead they see them in much the same light figure skaters see “compulsory figures”: as an artificial set piece designed primarily to test their ability to meet arbitrary rules.

The unessay addresses this problem by asking students initially to ignore form and concentrate on developing their own voice and ideas. Through a carefully controlled sequence of exercises and grading, students are gradually taught to see how they can use the essay form to produce powerful, intellectually exciting work that remains true to their own interests and voice.

NOTE: All requested funds are to support researchers at the University of Lethbridge; external researchers will be seeking funds from other sources.

Related: How to pick good research paper writers for hire?

Project Objectives

This project has two major objectives:

1) Anchor the experimental work of the last year (see below) in secondary literature on writing instruction and activist learning

2) Develop generalisable protocols for the assignment, and especially its grading, that can be adopted by other faculty.

We anticipate that this funding period will result directly in a series of formal and informal outputs: blog posts on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker, lectures at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences and departmental seminars, and a scholarly article.

Project Description

Dr. Ullyot at the University of Calgary and I developed and experimented with the Unessay model this past semester: see and We introduced slightly different models in our classes and are now in the process of comparing notes.

Our preliminary conclusion is that, taken together, our approaches to the exercise were in the end complementary: the complete freedom offered in my version of the exercise served as an excellent first exercise, allowing students to discover and gain confidence in their personal voice; Professor Ullyot’s slightly more structured format served as a good way of developing student’s initial critical ability. Taken together, the two exercises we believe represent an excellent, gradual leadup to the final exercise in each class: a formal essay in which students are encouraged to employ the personal voice and analytic ability they developed in the first two exercises in the context of a standard university essay.

The principal goals of this request for funding are to improve our secondary research on this approach to writing and to develop a generalisable programme of instructions and marking protocols that can be used by other instructors. The unessay is rooted in a constructivist approach to teaching and is similar to techniques such as brainstorming, free writing, and journaling. But we have not found anything quite like this approach in the secondary literature in our relatively informal searching. If this model is to succeed, we need to ground the method more firmly in the secondary literature and do a better job of justifying its model. Virgil Grandfield in the Writing Centre is currently working with this aspect of the project.

The second goal is to develop a generalisable programme of instructions and marking protocols for other instructors. Marking the unessay is actually quite difficult: one of the things Graduate Student Heather Hobma and I discovered in marking them last term is that we needed to develop a completely different protocol. In marking formal essays, we discovered, a surprisingly substantial part of the marking process involves grading deviation from the norm: the extent to which the essay agrees with or deviates from the generic standards.

Because there are no formal generic standards for the unessay, we needed to develop protocols that took the student’s work on its own terms, without ignoring the fact that the ultimate goal of the project was producing a formal paper. We could not criticise students for not meeting criteria we had not assigned; but we also needed to highlight areas where their approach would (or would not) transfer well to a formal writing situation.

Generalising this experiment requires us to procude a clear explanation and clear protocols for instructors who wish to implement the exercise. In a non-experimental setting, instructors should not be required to discover how to mark these very different exercises on their own.

Project References

Developing the literature is one of the two main goals of this project. Our initial bibliography involves the description of the exercise used in our classes:

The Unessay


How does this project contribute to the enhancement of teaching and learning effectiveness?

The initial experiment worked better than even we expected (see below). This project will contribute to the enhancement of teaching and learning effectiveness by translating our personal experience into generalisable protocols that are supported by secondary literature in Constructivist learning. Because the approach is very different from how essay writing is usually taught, instructors who adopt this method will want clear instructions and clear evidence of the method’s effectiveness.

How is this project innovative/creative relative to the problem addressed by the project?

This project is innovative because it takes a counter-intuitive approach to writing instruction that appears to actually work. It addresses instructor and student dissatisfaction with the undergraduate essay by radically changing the approach we take to teaching it: by throwing out the formal requirements that students seem so to fear, it paradoxically improves their ability to perform the requirements of the formal essay. Our experiments showed that students who are assigned the unessay end up writing longer papers, using grammatically better sentences, and develop their own innovative topics, even at the first year level.

Describe the potential for enduring benefits to the improvement of teaching, learning, and/or evaluation practices within your teaching and also any benefits to the university teaching community.

This appears to be a new method of teaching writing. We have experimented with it in two classes at two universities and had excellent results. This funding will allow us to formalise the process, justify it pedagogically, and develop protocols that others can use to implement the exercise reliably in other classes.

Measures of Performance

This project will have succeeded if it produces outputs similar to those discussed above: a relevant bibliography, a set of generalisable protocols, and articles, lectures, and blog postings explaining how the exercise can be introduced into the classroom.

Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Dissemination Strategies

How will the outcomes of this project specifically enhance the teaching and learning of others in your department / faculty / university?

See above: the goal of this funding request is specifically to produce protocols, bibliography, and articles that will allow this currently experimental method to be adopted by others.

What format(s) might be utilized in the dissemination of materials emanating from this project?

See above: we intend to disseminate this project through blogs, a scholarly article, lectures, and downloadable protocols.


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