Haikus for learning

Dr Jessica Clare Hancock

Photo of book with quote "I am like a fish in love with a bird wishing I could fly

What is the idea?

Students are asked to do different kinds of writing at university, often with the assumption that they know how to write, for example, an essay or report, even though these kinds of writing vary greatly between disciplines and institutions. This activity asks students to produce haikus as a way into a discussion about producing different types of writing, including working to a word limit, and the elements that may help them develop literacies in different types of writing, such as scaffolding and examples. An extended version of this activity also involves students producing sonnets as an alternative to haiku.

Why this idea?

Many students find writing for university assessments difficult for a myriad of reasons, not least because the purposes or kinds of writing expected are not explicitly analysed, but also because many assessment instructions and criteria remain unclear (Hancock, 2019). Despite great strides being made in an academic literacies approach (Lea & Street, 1998; Wingate, 2006), particularly in the gradual professionalisation of learning development (ALDinHE: https://aldinhe.ac.uk/), too often writing itself, as opposed to the content, is not addressed during teaching sessions which leaves students confused and frustrated.

This activity uses poetry. This is a form of writing not regularly used by most students, but one which is relatively easy to get to grips with in terms of the rules and expectations for particular poetic forms, such as haiku and sonnets. These kinds of poems also have the benefit of being fairly short so are something that can be composed during the course of a teaching session. Alternatively, this activity can be undertaken as a group task to be done between sessions, bringing the results to share and discuss with the whole class.

If used with teaching staff who are involved with assessing students, this activity is an effective way of enabling them to see writing from a student’s perspective (for the lecturer or tutor, it often feels ‘obvious’ to them what might be required if they set their students a particular type of written task). If used with students, it can be a way into reflecting on the emotions and practicalities involved in tackling academic writing – but using a low stakes task that is not as difficult to discuss as a real example of a written assessment that they might have struggled with.

How could others implement this idea?

I have used this for students on an MA course about learning and teaching in HE, as a starting point for reflection on their own support for the writing of their students. Participants work in groups to compose a haiku about a particular topic – such as ‘the university experience’. The haiku is intended to be a new kind of writing for them. At first this is the only instruction – after five minutes I provide some more information about haiku, and after another five I provide them with some examples. This enables them to appreciate the importance of scaffolding tasks and working with exemplars (Lavelle, 2009). Each group shares their haiku, and then we discuss their experiences. Participants are prompted to consider how these might relate to the emotions of students who are asked to write an ‘essay’ with an assumption made that they would know what this was – and how much more difficult it might be to gain information on what an ‘essay’ might be, as this differs considerably between disciplines, institutions, and countries, as opposed to a set format like a haiku. When I have also given groups the option of a sonnet (usually if it is a ‘between class’ activity), we also discuss the differences between these two formats, and how these might relate to assessments for their students – for example, the sonnet has more complex rules but a higher word count.

We discuss how participants might scaffold writing and assessment for their students, and explicit links are made to assessment examples they provide for their own students. The concept of providing examples occasionally proves controversial, with some concerned that it might encourage students to cheat by copying the example verbatim. If this happens, we explore ways in which this could be avoided (by designing it out of the assessment, perhaps through student creation of topics, or by using writing from a similar but non-identical assessment, perhaps from the WRASSE bank of HE writing examples in a variety of disciplines: https://wrasse.plymouth.ac.uk/), but we also discuss the difficulty of being asked to produce something without an exemplar.

During one iteration of the task, several participants commented that it had been eye-opening to be put in the student position and that it would change their approach to assessment preparation. The activity involves group work so participants benefit from peer learning, which is important in writing development (Wagner, 2016), and can share their feelings about the task. Learners leave the session with a sense of how an academic-literacies approach has benefited them, and how it might assist their students.

Transferability to different contexts

This could also be adapted to be used directly with students themselves – they would undertake the same composition activity, with varied instructions, and then would reflect on the value of utilising the different kinds of support made available to them, and also the emotions engendered by trying out a new form of writing, and what might help counter negative feelings. Participants of the activity often discuss the benefits of approaching this new type of writing in a group, so students could be encouraged to set up their own peer support to give feedback on their assessments during the course of their degree.

If used directly with students themselves, they could be asked to work in groups to compose a poem (haiku or sonnet) on the topic of their actual module assessment. They would then share these with the rest of the class, and discuss how they felt approaching writing about their subject in this particular format, and how this compares to their confidence in producing the actual module assessment (for example, an essay or report).

Links to tools and resources

Writing for assignments e-library: https://wrasse.plymouth.ac.uk/


Hancock, J. C. (2019). ‘It can’t be found in books’: how a flipped-classroom approach using online videos can engage postgraduate students in dissertation writing”. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, 16. https://doi.org/10.47408/jldhe.v0i16.485

Lavelle, E. (2009). Writing through college: Self-efficacy and instruction. In R. Beard, D. Myhill, M. Nystrand & J. Riley (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of writing development (pp. 415-422). Sage.

Lea, M. R., & Street, B.V. (1998). Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach. Studies in Higher Education, 23(2), 157-172. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079812331380364

Wagner, S. (2016). Peer feedback: Moving from assessment of learning to assessment for learning. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education (Special Edition: Academic Peer Learning, Part Two). https://doi.org/10.47408/jldhe.v0i0.335

Wingate, U. (2006). Doing away with ‘study skills’. Teaching in Higher Education, 11(4), 457-469. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562510600874268

Image Attributions

Like a fish quote photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

About the Author

Dr Jessica Hancock is Head of Learning and Teaching at the University of Winchester, where she is programme lead for the MA in Learning and Teaching in HE, and CASTLE (Celebration and Recognition Scheme for Teaching and Learning Expertise – supporting HEA fellowship applications). She has published on academic writing, and compassionate and identity-focused approaches to developing teaching in HE.


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100 Ideas for Active Learning by Dr Jessica Clare Hancock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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