“Challenge Statements”: One Sentence Writing Assignments

Years ago, I came across a syllabus on the internet that changed how I teach writing.  It was by Rudy Koshar, the distinguished historian of German History at the University of Wisconsin.  I was looking around for examples of how to structure a course in modern German history, but what I found instead was an elegant, simple assignment that I added to nearly every class that I teach: the challenge statement.

The idea is straightforward.  Challenge statements are short, 50-word, single-sentence statements on course texts.  I give students a prompt on the day’s reading, and they must answer it in one sentence, 50 words or less.  They bring their sentence—typed out on a piece of paper—to class.  The prompts often ask them to summarize the main point of the text we are reading for that day.  In my modern Germany class, for example, I give the students prompts like these:

  • In a single-sentence statement of 50 words or less, explain the differences between the intentionalist and functionalist positions in Holocaust historiography.
  • In a single-sentence statement of 50 words or less, explain Uta Poiger’s main argument in “Rock ‘n’ Roll, Female Sexuality, and the Cold War Battle over German identities.”

We often use the challenge statements as a basis for discussion that day.  I collect them at the end of class and return them by the next session, marked with either a 1 (good), a ½ (sufficient but flawed) or a 0 (insufficient).  Students accumulate points toward their final grade, with many extra opportunities, so that the assignments remain low pressure.

Koshar was onto something.  Challenge statements are short, even modest, assignments, but their utility is vast.   First, they do something critical that we all hope and pray will happen in our classes: challenge statements encourage students to do the reading.  Going one step further, they require students to read actively and look for arguments, rather than just passively scrolling.  Moreover, when students come to class with their statements, they’ve not only read the text, but also written something about it. They have some skin in the game as we begin to discuss it.  They wonder: did I get the main idea?  Is there another way to see the author’s thesis?  They get better at articulating arguments, and our class discussions improve as a result.  Challenge statements are also easy to grade and return to students quickly.  But I’ve found that their main utility comes in teaching students how to write.

Challenge statements allow us to talk about writing at the sentence level, an area where students admit they need work.  They tell me that they are not used to thinking intensively about individual sentences.  Instead, they often see their task as accumulating sentences, extending them, piling them up on top of one another until they reach the page limit for the assignment.  They often talk about “fluff” in their writing, things they’ve added just to extend the length.  With challenge statements, students must “de-fluff.” They must consider every clause, every word. They must ask: does this phrase add something, or can I do without it?  They groan with the difficulty of fitting their answer into 50 words, to which I always have a ready response: “That’s why they’re called challenge statements.” 

For five minutes at the beginning of each class, we talk about how to write better sentences.  How can we, in the immortal phrase of Strunk and White, “omit needless words”?  “Due to the fact that,” for example, can be changed to “because,” a savings of four words!  I usually show them one or two outstanding examples from the last batch.  We discuss the pitfalls: the dreaded comma splice, the run-on, passive voice, the fragment, the misplaced semi-colon.  Rather than just scrawling “avoid passive voice” in the margin of an essay, for example, I show them examples of passive voice constructions in class and explain how to avoid them.  One student in my World War II course this semester thanked me for finally explaining the comma splice, something that she had been penalized for on previous papers but never understood. 

The final advantage of challenge statements is that I can see student improvement over the course of one semester.  Teaching writing in other formats, I often found myself wondering if the students were getting any better.  Not so with challenge statements.  Students often struggle with the first three or four, but then they begin to write better sentences.  One student told me that he drafts his sentence three or four times before he turns it in.  This is precisely the intensive work of writing that we want students to do.  If students struggle, I tell them to bring their sentences to me before they are due.  Working one on one, we find the problems and correct them.  With challenge statements, students do the reading, learn to summarize arguments, and become better writers.  Plus, meeting with students in office hours to talk about one sentence gives me joy.  Thank you, Rudy Koshar.

Andy Evans, SUNY New Paltz

Editor’s Note: To see Andy’s “challenge statements” assignment, click here.