The continuing series of me reflecting on my teaching experience, for future reference:
This past semester I taught a freshman seminar, to 16 students. Freshmen seminars at Duke are (I have been told) intended to be extensions of the freshmen writing course, but bringing students into closer contact with the subject matter of the department sponsoring the course. Aware of this fact, I decided to assign my students a large number of weekly response papers--8 out of 13 weeks, the first week being excluded. The structure of the class was, in this respect, a success, as everyone showed at least the periodic ability to improve over time (or at least stop making the same mistakes). I would like to credit my interventions in their writing, but realistically the high frequency of assignments did most of the work.
In structuring the individual assignments, I came to realize there were two different, sometimes unrelated, goals I wanted the students to achieve:
1. Mastery of subject matter. The topics for any particular week were intentionally matched, and I had a tendency to ask them to write on those aspects of the week's reading with which they had shown the least facility. The writing assignment becomes then a way of forcing them back into the text until they can emerge with a plausible answer to the question.
1a. The tricky nature of the assignments was this: they were designed and billed as reflections, i.e., writing to be done after the reading had (ostensibly) been completed and class time given over to discussion of the text. Students being what they are, the first reading and the class discussion might have lacked from time to time, but assignments, like death, have a way of focusing the mind, and this almost always meant at least one substantive engagement with the text; in practice it sometimes meant up to three; and since the writing assignments were due before the beginning of the next week's classes, this could mean up to seven days devoting some time to the readings. The papers improved in part because I managed to design the average week so that students were constantly in some form of contact with the reading. (Additional benefit: since the questions were not given out until the afternoon after the last class of the week, they had to read and participate with the expectation that they might want to write the paper that week.)
2. Mastery of writing skills. Those of us who have ascended to the status of adult readers have mastered a wide variety of skills, usually without knowing it: close reading of a text, the ability to summarize, finding logical flaws in an argument, imagining counterfactual cases that might complicate an argument, developing our own independent arguments, comparing multiple explanations of the same incident or phenomena, etc. The writing assignments tended to produce better writing--and force the students to work more consciously--when they had an explicit writing skill they were targeting. It also has the side benefit of teaching them that "writing an essay" is not one skill but a number of different skills.
2a. Subsequent editions of that class, or similar classes, will probably culminate in a term paper rather than an exam. An extended paper would, I think, give them a better sense of the payoff for the writing that they've done and the skills they have developed over the semester.