Why Your Students Should Be Writing Timed Essays
Students working quickly, striving to gather evidence, formulate their own ideas, and shape them into a coherent essay—this is how I like to end all of my thematic units, with a timed essay.
Students will never really be able to avoid timed writing—from state tests to the SAT to AP and later college exams, they will be required to write intelligent pieces within a limited time frame. Real writing happens in the revision process, and many people believe that that’s the only kind of writing that students should do, but there are still plenty of reasons why students should be writing under pressure with limited time.
These are the reasons why your students should be writing timed essays.
Timed essays task students with coming up with their own ideas on a topic. I always tell my students that a good thesis statement on a text should answer this question: What point does the author make about people or the world in general? If they have been taught to think about ideas and meaning and are encouraged to come up with their own opinions on a regular basis, then this shouldn’t be too hard for them. If they are used to sitting back and letting others give them ideas, then they often struggle with this kind of challenge, and that passivity will show on an in-class essay. Writing on the spot shows what students can do on their own—no parents, no internet summaries, no using their phone to quickly look up some easy answers.
Timed essays task students with giving evidence to support their ideas. In this world of fake news and alternative facts, evidence is more important than ever. Students need to learn that it’s not enough to make a convincing argument—they need to back up their opinions with facts. And this is also a skill that is easily acquired when students are interested and engaged in the material. Students who notice and contemplate evidence as they learn it are usually able to bring it back when they write a timed essay on a subject. So, for example, if they are tasked with writing an essay about the immigrant experience and they truly worked hard to analyze the poem that we read about the struggles of a first-generation mother, then they will remember details and maybe even quotes from that poem when it comes time to write an essay.
Timed essays task students with organizing the evidence in a way that makes sense to a reader. It’s not enough to just have good ideas and evidence, writers also have to convey their knowledge to a reader. Timed essays might not be filled with the kind of polished prose that students will create after multiple revisions, but the essays will need to be sufficiently organized and explained so that a reader can follow the argument.
Timed essays task students with convincing a reader. I purposely put this element last on the list because students can employ all the rhetoric they want, but if they don’t have solid ideas and evidence to back it up, they don’t have much of any essay. Still, what I’m looking for beyond an idea and a list of facts is the explanation. I want to know why you believe what you believe and why I should think the same. I want students to learn how to communicate their ideas, especially to someone who might not already agree with what they are saying.
Ultimately, these utilitarian essays get the job done. They don’t teach students about subtle grabbers or elegant transitions or integrating figurative language to create vivid imagery, but they do teach kids how to think, use evidence, and convey their ideas to a reader. Students will need to be able to think on their feet at many points in their lives, and writing a timed essay is a great way to practice.