Gone in Sixty Seconds: The One-Minute Paper as a Tool for Evaluation—of Both Instructor and Students


  Steve Tollefson  


The one-minute paper can be done at any time in a class period. You can start the class with a question: "What question do you have from the reading for today?" Or you can interrupt a class in the middle: "OK, we've just talked about the scientific flaws in Jurassic Park III. Write for one minute on which of those you consider to be the most serious."

Writing one-minute papers serves as a way to seal ideas in students' minds, provides you with an idea of where they are, develops their critical thinking skills, and, not least, tells you something about your own teaching.

A Berkeley Compendium of Suggestions for Teaching with Excellence by Barbara Gross Davis, Lynn Wood, and Robert C. Wilson suggests assigning minute papers at the end of class in order to "Know if the class is understanding you or not, know if students are bored or confused, encourage students to listen actively during lectures, [and] give students experience writing short essay answers." The entire compendium can be found online at http://teaching.berkeley.edu/compendium/

It may seem odd that a simple teaching technique could have an "inventor," but so it is with the "minute paper." For the last 10 years or so, controversy and email has flown around the world, trying to get everyone to agree that Berkeley physics professor Charles Schwartz is the father of the "minute paper." There finally seems to be general agreement that he is. So, hats off to Professor Schwartz. His "minute papers" consist of two questions to which students give written responses at the end of each weekly lecture.

"I call them 'minute papers,'" he says, "because I preface them with the request that they take a minute or two to write on these two questions:

(1) What is the most significant thing you learned today? and
(2) What question is uppermost in our mind at the end of today's session?"

"The minute papers started out purely as an attendance device," Professor Schwartz explains. "As I began to read their responses, however, I found them very useful in evaluating how successful I had been in conveying the material that day. In fact, now I often quote one or two of their essay responses at the beginning of the next discussion period to get the discussion started."

As is the case with many educational experiments, this one had an additional unintended benefit. "Because these are mainly science students who are seldom asked to write, I pointed out that these minute papers were good practice for the essay questions which would constitute my final. As the term progressed, I noticed an improvement in the papers: they became longer, better developed, and more carefully phrased." As Schwartz points out, the more students write, in any discipline, the better off they are in terms of comprehension and synthesis of the material.

The minute paper can also tell you something about your own teaching. If most of the students miss your main points, it's probably you, not them. The first thing you do is bring that up in the next lecture and clarify it; the second thing you do is change how you're presenting that material.

The great thing about minute papers, however, is that you can go a little crazy with them and have some fun. Rather than have them remember a point or develop a question, have them deal with a problem. At the end of the lecture, give them a scenario. For instance after my students read the Bretolt Brecht play Galileo, and we discuss it, I often give them the following one-minute paper:

You are going to make a movie of Galileo. Cast the major characters using contemporary actors (no politicians, sports stars, etc.). Provide a two or three sentence rationale for your casting choices.

To my students, this just seems like fun, but they in fact can't make appropriate choices unless they understand the characters. And I do let them yell out during the paper: things like"What's the name of the actor who was in Mrs. Doubtfire?!" (And that's a good call—I think Robin Williams would make a great Galileo.)

Here's another one I've used in class. I give them the following "Dear Abby"-esque letter, and ask them to respond:

Dear Abby: My high school teacher said I could never use "I" in an essay. Now I'm at Berkeley and I'm being told the most horrible things, like I can use "I" if it's appropriate. What should I do? Is that true? And if so, when is it appropriate?

Signed, "I" am confused in Berkeley

Here's a final example from introductory physics:

Suppose you put a big block of ice in a bucket and then fill the bucket with water until the water level is exactly even with the edge of the bucket. The ice of course is now floating in the water. Now we will wait for several hours for the ice to melt. Which of the following will occur? (Neglect evaporation.)

1. The water level in the bucket will remain the same.
2. The water level in the bucket will drop.
3. Some water will overflow the sides of the bucket.

Your task is to explain your answer in writing to a classmate who doesn't understand and who is arguing for what you consider to be the wrong answer. Explain your answer so clearly that it serves as a little textbook that will explain the physics principles involved.1

The "one minute paper," then is really what you make of it. It provides a good test for you and for your students and requires quick thinking, analysis, and synthesis. Oh, by the way, it's fun.



1 Summarized from "Microtheme Strategies for Developing Cognitive Skills," John C. Bean, Dean Drenk, and F.D. Lee, published in Teaching Writing in All Disciplines 12 (December 1982) in the Josey-Bass series New Directions for Teaching and Learning.



Steve Tollefson is a Lecturer in the College Writing Programs and a recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award. He is the author of the books GrammarGrams and GrammarGrams II.




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