A difficulty paper is a written essay in which students reflect on challenging sections of their academic texts and try to work through their difficulty. It gives students a chance to apply various techniques to try to make sense of difficult passages in texts. Assigning a difficulty paper in the context of a class communicates to students: 1) that writing is a tool for learning and not mere documentation of “finalized” learning, 2) that reading is a process of meaning-making to which students can apply various strategies, and 3) that you as the instructor are interested in the process of students’ learning and not just the product.
There are different ways that teachers approach difficulty papers. Here is just one…
1) Locate a challenging or intriguing section of a text and describe the difficulty or questions they have regarding the text. Students can think meta-cognitively and try to articulate what about the text is challenging or why they are struggling with that section of the text.
2) Have students propose some possibilities for the meaning of that particular section of text. What might it mean? What clues surrounding the section help lead the student to their various proposals and hypotheses?
3) Then ask the student to reread both the text and their proposals. Which of their proposals seem most plausible in light of the original text? What does the textual evidence support?
4) Finally, invite the student to make connections both within and beyond the text. How does this understanding of the passage connect with other aspects of the text? How has working through the difficulty in this manner helped them to understand anything differently or see something new?
Students submit the answers to these questions in an informal essay. You can let students know that they do not have to have an argument to begin writing paper, but rather the paper is more exploratory. An essay of about 1 single-spaced page is an appropriate length to start with.