Modeling Good Writing for Students

Modeling is the practice of using exemplary papers—both good and badto clarify your expectations, communicate your discipline’s conventions and standards, and help students to think through workable strategies for an upcoming writing assignment.

Instructors of Expos classes frequently use models to illustrate various of the “Elements of Academic Argument,” often highlighting similarities and differences across disciplines. As a result, your students have experience readings samples of student writing critically.

You can use modeling after an assignment prompt is handed out but before students draft the paper. Alternatively, you can use modeling after students complete their paper but before the next assignment prompt is handed out, especially if you want to highlight a common problem area you detected in the previous papers. In either case, from the student’s perspective modeling helps answer a persistent question: what does my TF want this paper to look like?







Techniques for Modeling Writing

Using Different Types of Models


When providing models, you can use

    • Past student papers with similar requirements (i.e. a literature review on a different topic )


    • Published articles in your discipline. A course reading can perform two purposes, serving as a source of content as well as a writing model.


    • An entire essay, focusing on a particular “Element” (link to elements) such as use of evidence or structure (link to exercise two)


  • Part of an essay or essays, such as an introduction (link to exercise one), body paragraph, or conclusion.


Using Models Effectively


When using any of these types of models, you will want to

    • Frame: Before you start, clarify the goals of the assignment. Hand out a worksheet that broadly outlines your expectations for each writing element you intend to discuss. This worksheet will help students identify those elements and judge the model essays.


    • Provide the models: Hand out the model essays and/or parts of the essay you want the students to work on. Ask students to read and annotate before class and/or provide specific questions for them to answer after they read.


    • Identify: Make sure your students can properly identify the parts of the paper you plan on discussing that day.


    • Discuss: Generate a discussion that asks the students to judge and rank the papers according to the criteria you handed out.


    • Clarify: Before moving on, make sure your students clearly understand what makes any given model successful or not. It may be helpful at this point to explicitly say what’s successful or not with the models. While discussion is important, you do not want students leaving the class confused about your expectations and standards.


  • Review: At this point, ask students to start articulating what they’ve noticed so far and how they might attack their own papers accordingly.

Download an exercise on modeling introductions as a Microsoft Word document.  

Download an exercise on modeling structure as a Microsoft Word document.

Avoiding Potential Pitfalls

  • Make clear that samples are only one version of a successful paper:  Stress to your students that you are modeling versions of what successful and/or unsuccessful papers may look like. Students can sometimes confuse one way of doing something for “the way.” It’s important for them to understand that there are several ways for a paper to succeed.  One way to avoid this pitfall is to show them samples of similar assignments, not the exact same assignment.  For example, if your assignment is a literature review of topic X,  show them an example of a literature review on topic Y from another course.


  • Help students to discover the strengths and/or weaknesses of models themselves rather than simply telling them how to read the models.  Since modeling is about communicating disciplinary standards and conventions, it can be tempting to simply tell your students your expectations. Students, however, will get more out of the assignment by actively thinking through the models alongside the criteria.

Want Help?

The Harvard Writing Project offers free workshops to all FAS faculty and teaching fellows, with proven strategies to help you work more efficiently and your students learn more effectively.  Contact us.