Pandemic Pages: Teaching Writing Virtually to Undergraduate and Graduate Students During COVID-19

Pandemic Pages: Teaching Writing Virtually to Undergraduate and Graduate Students During COVID-19

Wendi K. Zimmer, Tracey S. Hodges
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-6557-5.ch012
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While transforming instruction to online delivery methods, educators cannot ignore the importance of teaching writers and writing skills for student success. In this chapter, two higher education writing instructors use their unique experiences and the challenges they faced during the COVID-19 shift in Spring 2020 to discuss strategies for teaching during a pandemic. The instructors discuss the challenges, opportunities, and creativity they utilized to ensure their students received high-quality, engaging writing instruction during unprecedented times. Specifically, they explore four themes and provide resources that encompass the experiences shifting their courses from face-to-face or hybrid to fully online: (1) re-envisioning courses for the virtual setting, (2) making teaching shifts, (3) assessing how the virtual setting helped or hindered teaching, and (4) reflecting on practices learned from the shift to plan future semesters. These themes and resources may inform higher education's virtual writing instructional practices.
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Writing practices - whether in a face-to-face or virtual environment - increase learning and retention, aid in reflection, provide an outlet for critical thinking, transfer knowledge and practices among contexts, and when fostered and developed, enhance a student's self-agency and networked learning (i.e., using communication through collaboration to support learning). Specifically, writers' capacities for writing, in and beyond the university, constitute a skill that enhances college and career success. Yet, writing is challenging. While most college students experience years of writing instruction and practice exposure, they may not feel confident in their writing abilities or have a clear understanding of how to improve their skills. Collins (2015) notes, “Few…students will tell you that they see no value in becoming better writers; most want to improve but do not know how to do so” (p. 51). People often assume students enter higher education with the writing skills necessary for success (Brooks-Gillies et al., 2015), but the adverse is true (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012), especially when considering writing in virtual settings (Leu et al., 2014). During the current time of transforming instruction to online delivery methods, one cannot ignore the importance of teaching writers and writing skills for student success.

Research indicates students lack the writing development necessary for success in academia and industry (Zimmer et al., 2020a). These results mirror research demonstrating college graduate's writing insufficiencies outside academia (Sacher, 2016). This concern only increases when educators transfer writing instruction to virtual learning platforms (Poniatowski, 2012). By focusing on ongoing self-agency and networked learning (i.e., collaborative online learning), educators can make more significant strides in writing sustainability through virtual practices and conditions conducive to writing success. Furthermore, educators can enhance and even increase the quality and quantity of authentic writing instruction in higher education.

Current world events have caused educators to re-evaluate their teaching and delivery methods (Hodges et al., 2020a). Teachers, at all levels, have found themselves faced with transitioning their classes to online environments. This rapid shift in March 2020 was reactive in nature but a great learning opportunity for all. Discussions began concerning what classes were more suited to online delivery and what platforms were best suited to enhanced learning and student engagement. While unknowns exist in the future of education, evidence confirms that writing instruction must be a part of the conversation regarding best practices and learning methods.

This chapter covers the following objectives:

  • Exploring pedagogical shifts for converting writing instruction from face-to-face or hybrid settings to fully online environments.

  • Providing resources and pedagogical moves that increase student engagement and learning in virtual settings.

  • Acknowledging challenges with solutions and opportunities for creativity to improve writing instruction quality at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

  • Analyzing two instructors' virtual teaching practices during the pandemic as methods for re-envisioning courses, utilizing technology with intentionality, and reflecting on student engagement and writing growth.



Writing is multifaceted and complex, requiring writers to know mechanics, English language conventions, genre, audience, vocabulary, organization, and voice, among many other skills (Graham, 2018). Writing in digital settings adds multimedia considerations such as graphics, illustrations, videos, and additional features such as hyperlinks and structural shifts (i.e., digital literacy: Hodges & Matthews, 2020; Schneider, 2015; Zimmer et al., 2020a). Writing during a global pandemic now adds concerns about safety, health, and offsetting the impacts of isolation (Hodges et al., 2020a). Therefore, teaching writing in digital settings during a pandemic comes with many challenges and obstacles.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Writing: The act of generating and revising text based on rules or conventions to communicate an idea.

Digital Literacy: Forms of and skills pertaining to reading, writing, speaking, and listening with technologically enhanced formats such as websites, videos, and other online texts.

Peer Review: The process of reviewing others' writing within the same class for the purpose of revision and editing.

Virtual Instruction: Instruction that occurs through and with technology predominately and does not engage instructors or students in traditional, in-person settings.

Digital Infographics: An interactive, online graphic that synthesizes or summarizes information on a topic, often including hyperlinks to other resources or digital tools.

Backward Design Model: A pedagogical approach in which teachers plan learning outcomes, develop forms of assessment for those outcomes, and then plan instruction and objectives to meet those outcomes.

Flipped Classroom Model: An approach to instruction in which students learn and review content independently without the instruction and complete application- or discussion-based activities during class sessions with the instructor's assistance.

Hybrid or Hyflex: Hybrid is an approach in which some class sessions are face-to-face while others are conducted virtually or by videoconferencing, whereas Hyflex is an approach in which instruction is delivered in person with students opting into either face-to-face or videoconferencing modes of delivery.

Blending Learning: An approach to online instruction in which instructors include features of technology-rich instruction and supplement with face-to-face or videoconferencing features to provide students choice and flexibility in their learning.

Writing Instruction: The pedagogical approaches and techniques used to teach students how to write.

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