Instructors employ active learning principles in our writing classrooms in a number of ways.
Let students teach one another. One of the best ways to master something is to teach it. Students become better writers when you put teaching responsibilities into their hands. Placing your students into peer editing groups in which they diagnose and respond to problems in their classmates' papers not only sharpens their critical skills but also shows them how to talk and think about writing. Students eventually internalize these discussions and draw on them as they write. For a fuller discussion of the benefits and the methods of peer instruction, see Collaborative Learning. For specific advice regarding sharpening students' peer editing skills, see Diagnosing and Responding.
Make student writing a text in the class. Instructors who embrace the student-centered principles of Active Learning understand how important it is to conduct Writing Workshops, in which student papers are read and discussed in class. Making student writing a text in the class signals to students not only that you take their writing seriously, but also that they are now part of the ongoing conversation of scholarship. Making student writing a text in the class also allows you to teach students to diagnose and respond to problems that come up in their writing. For a fuller discussion regarding why and how to make student writing a text in the class, see Conducting Writing Workshops.
Expect students to direct discussion; invite them to teach a class. Writing instructors conduct their classes via discussion rather than lectures. But even in discussion classes, professors exert authority. Too often in discussion students are more concerned with performing to please the professor than they are with genuinely pursuing a line of inquiry. Active Learning instructors expect students to determine the focus of the discussion. Some invite students to co-facilitate discussions. Others assign presentations. In all cases instructors ask students NOT to position their classmates as passive listeners. Like the instructor, student facilitators are expected to teach using Active Learning methods.
Ask students to design their own writing assignments. Developing elaborate, well-articulated prompts has certain pedagogical advantages. But letting students discover their own questions and letting them design their own writing prompts not only gives them the power to approach assignments on their own terms, but also gives them practice in the methods of scholarly inquiry. For more information, see Syllabus and Assignment Design.
Involve students in assessment. Those of us who routinely practice Active Learning principles understand that the act of grading can undo the transfer of power that we've been working so hard to achieve. One way of avoiding this "undo" is to involve students in the assessment process. Devote a class to discussing the qualities of good writing; collaborate with the students to define standards or to design a rubric for grading; invite the students to grade an assignment with you, and let those grades have weight equal to yours. (The last strategy works particularly well when grading class presentations, when effectively engaging the audience is a concern.)
Adopt a descriptive, rather than a prescriptive, attitude toward grammar and style. Presenting grammar and style as a series of rules insures that students will remain in the position of "apprentice" writers. Describing grammar in terms of reader expectations and discourse conventions helps students to figure out how to write for an academic audience. Students are thereby positioned as fully responsible participators in the academic conversation. For fuller discussions, see Addressing Grammar.
Provide students with opportunities to fail and to revise. Active Learning theorist Ken Bain argues in his book, What the Best College Teachers Do, that real teaching requires three steps: 1) Show your students that their models fail/are inadequate; 2) Make them care enough to find new models; 3) Support them while they do. Once you've convinced students their high-school models for thinking and writing won't work, you'll need to give them plenty of time to find new models. This means that you'll have to give them time to draft and redraft their papers, so that they can see where their work is coming up short and will have the time (and the desire) to revise it.