The Six-Week Personal Essay Challenge: Week Two - The Outline

Hi all! Nhung here. Last week, I put my thoughts out in the open, laid bare for all to see. In response, we received messages from readers who appreciate seeing my “backstage” self and my work in progress. You're curious to see how this turns out - and so are we!


A quick refresher on the Personal Essay Challenge: over six weeks, I'm writing an application essay in response to this question: “Why do you hope to attend a graduate program in Learning, Design and Technology at an American graduate school of education?" Each week, Matt will provide comments on my progress.

Last week, Matt suggested that I start by doing some free-writing. He then asked me to read through my free-write and underline any phrases or sentences that jumped out:

What surprises you? What feels important? Are there any questions that you now find yourself asking? Take these underlined phrases and paste them at the top of a new document. Use them as the starting point for a second 15-minute free-write.


Here are the highlights from my first free-write, as well as a second round of free-writing.

I read through my free-write, and wow! I have such a fervent wish to understand what motivates my students. Much of what I wrote was about finding the sweet spot where students’ ears perk up. (“Working with students challenges me every day to figure out what makes it stick.” “Maybe it’s about the need to find out what motivates my students.”)

I realized that I see my mission as a facilitator of students' work, especially in “understanding themselves a little better by recognizing their habits of thought.” I also want to inspire “a sense of hope” that they can achieve their dreams. These are two big parts of the journey of self-discovery.

These next two sentiments, on the other hand, surprise and confuse me in equal measure.

“I can sense my fear of imposing on them ‘yet another lecture’ to cut into their free time.”

I find myself asking - does teaching always involve some form of imposing? It can come in the form of constraint, (structured classroom activities) or in the form of pressure (exams). These are quite normal practices, so why am I so reluctant, and why do I think I am “imposing” in the first place?

"How can technology aid in students’ motivation to get better at a language?"

From my free-write last week, I sense that technology is not really what I am passionate about; it just feels like a trend that I want to ride. I’ve also started wondering whether technology aids learning best when it’s less intrusive - in other words, whether simpler forms of technology deliver the best learning outcomes. (I remember talking with D, a TOEFL student who spent up to an hour each day watching Stanford physics lectures. The site he used was simple: you enter a URL and click the play button - two seconds that lead to an hour-long lecture. Another student, S, likes flashcards apps (Quizlet, etc.). Straight-up flashcards. No nonsense.)

Reflections on My Second Free-Write

Wow, I certainly took more than 15 minutes to type this second free-write, because my mind was watching itself the whole time. (It was an exhilarating feeling!) I also took a day off to read and watch web-based materials that felt related to these questions. (I think my subconscious was trying to tell me what this essay wants to be, and that following my instincts and looking for new resources would be a very good place to start.)

Over the last few days, I’ve also been reading Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. This book is a cool distillation of recent research on learning, including methods and techniques that we can each apply directly in our own lives.

Feel the intensity!

Feel the intensity!

Notes from My Reading

According to Make It Stick, an 18-month study conducted at a middle school in the US showed that introducing frequent quizzes led to big increases in both student performance AND student enjoyment. This reminds of me of my own language learning back in high school. I loved taking practice exams for the TOEFL and other standardized tests; doing so helped me see what I had already mastered and what I still needed to learn.

Another effective retrieval practice: flashcards. This quote from Make It Stick helped put my teacher’s mind at ease:

For students to be able to evaluate, synthesize, and apply a concept in different settings, they’re going to be much more efficient at getting there when they have the base of knowledge and the retention, so they’re not wasting time trying to go back and figure out what that word might mean or what that concept was about. It allows them to go to a higher level.

Notes from Netflix

In addition to my reading, I also watched an episode of the Netflix show The Art of Design, which features different designers and their approaches to their work.

The interior designer Isle Crawford studies human senses and how they affect our sense of place. Her design process stems from her deep-seated belief that our work is shaped by both constraints and values. She believes in working to increase the wellbeing of the people who experience her design, and in working with clients to understand the pressures they're facing. It’s this interaction between constraints (which she gets through an interrogation of reality) and values (which she gets by empathizing with her clients) that creates results which answer to real needs.

Curriculum designers work in similar ways. By understanding student needs, we're able to design solutions that offer a sense of hope and learning mastery.

We also try to create those solutions with an eye to context. When I sit at a desk, for example, I not only work on my computer; I am also aware of the bed at my back and the bathroom by the door. The smell of the dictionary, the sound of traffic outside the window. A sense of place is integral to the process of learning.

Maybe I digress. Maybe I am going someplace that scares me - but that also potentially caters to some current needs that have not been met. I still don’t know where I am going with this second free-write. And I feel shy about it.

Matt's Comments

Great stuff, babe! I notice several major themes in your free-writing and reflections so far.

Your Values

You’re keen to help students to

  • Become more self-aware.
  • Use self-awareness as a means of understanding themselves as learners. In terms of skills, this might mean their strengths and weaknesses. In terms of their lives, this could include their hopes, fears, dreams, and uncertainties.
  • Build on their strengths and improve on their weaknesses in ways that reflect their individual learning styles.

I also noticed that you don’t want to be too pushy - but you do want to provide the structure and provocation your students need.

Your Questions About the Role of Technology in Education

You’re interested in understanding how technology can meaningfully improve students’ education, but you’re not sold on the idea that it always does.

Does this sound pretty close to what you're saying? If so, I think you've got the ingredients for an effective essay right here.

Of course, there are lots of different ways to express your ideas. You could start with an anecdote from your teaching experience, and then delve into your evolving views and the questions you hope to explore in grad school. Alternatively, you could start with an idea or question. Or you could bring in other voices - say, research on the role of technology in the classroom - and then respond to it with your own experiences and reflections.

Creating an Outline

The key, though, is arranging your ideas in an order that makes sense. This is where outlines come in. An outline is a structured way of sequencing the points you want to make, in the order you want to make them, with all of the necessary connections and transitions.

Think of an outline like a blueprint for a house – a quick way of getting your ideas out of your head and onto the page and seeing if they really support one another. If they do, great – now you’ve got your building plan. If they don’t – well, that’s okay too; now you can fix them before committing your time and energy to something more substantial.

What Should Your Outline Look Like?

If you were writing an academic essay, you could probably start with the typical five-paragraph structure. But you're not writing a purely academic essay. Instead, you're writing something more personal. So don't worry too much about following a template. Instead, play around with different sequences and see what feels good. Just make sure that every idea flows into the next.

For next week, I'd like to see a completed outline of your essay.

I'd also like to see a list of any remaining questions you have. Which ideas require a bit more thought? Which transitions need to be fleshed out more fully? After you've written and reviewed your outline several times, record every open question - every tiny butterfly in your belly - that you haven't been able to address.