To offer a series of questions and considerations that will lead instructors through how to craft a powerful writing assignment.
Writing assignments are often used to assess whether a student has mastered course competencies. One of the most common writing assignments is the research paper as it typically allows for a student to show their knowledge within a particular discipline. While a core product in most disciplines, research papers do not have to be the only writing that students accomplish in a given semester. In fact, it may be more beneficial to think about other ways that students can show what they know through writing. The questions below are synthesized from scholars in writing pedagogy and should help instructors think through the best writing assignment for their particular course (Lindemann & Anderson, 2001; White & Wright, 2016; Bean, 2011).
This is a key phase in constructing the writing assignment as answering this question can lead instructors to craft vastly different assignments. Starting with the learning goals follows the process of backward design and ensures that the writing assignment aligns with course outcomes. Moreover, which thought and learning process do you want to emphasize? Writing assignments can target a series of learning goals such as developing an argument, analyzing and synthesizing information, and mastering style, tone and clarity. However, in the space of one semester, it may be worthwhile to think about a reasonable amount of goals that students can accomplish through writing, focusing on those goals, and then providing other support for the goals that could not be accomplished. For example, if you want to focus on analyzing and synthesizing then you may have to give students a developed database of sources they can draw from instead of having them make those moves themselves.
Writing can come in multiple modes and does not have to be a traditional essay. It could be an infographic, an opinion editorial or podcast. Furthermore, are students simply writing to learn? Contributing to a particular discipline or public knowledge (e.g. writing a research paper vs. writing a popular science piece)? Are they writing to make a point or persuade? You can sometimes assign papers that put students in a predicament, which induces them to think constantly about the problem you have posed. Consider making students ghostwriters, press secretaries, scientists, college deans and then giving them a complex hypothetical situation to respond to. If you are going to place students in a hypothetical writing situation, make every attempt to be as realistic as possible. For example, if a genre is usually the product of co-authorship, have them write collaboratively. Check out Lafayette’s Assignment Repository for writing assignment inspiration.
Before you move ahead to the next question, consider whether or not you are interested in reading the assignment you decided to pursue. If you assign a task that you dread the thought of reading because you think that is the way it is/has been/always will be done, you may want to reconsider assigning it. Go back to question two if it feels as though there may be a different way to engage students in writing that would be more interesting for you to read and grade.
Students may be under the impression that the audience is always their instructor. This may be the case if the student is relaying content information on, for example, an in-class essay exam. However, for many other writing genres the audience is typically bigger than the instructor. Thus, working with students to identify their audience is key to their success. It assists students in understanding the purpose of the writing, their choice of words, the tone of the writing piece and the conventions of different writing forms.
This phase requires instructors to think through how they want students to approach the assignment from a logistical standpoint. Are, for example, students going to work alone, in pairs or in a group? This step is also where instructors should consider when students will engage in pre-writing, drafting, revising and editing. What are the sub-tasks that you want students to do throughout the course? Would it be helpful to provide opportunities for students during class to practice the thought processes the project requires? How will they practice the writing and get formative feedback? Where will they start and where will they end? How will you propose the assignment?
What constitutes exemplary work? Will the instructor use a rubric? When will the instructor give grades or formative feedback? Will there be peer review before the assignment is due? Will the course have a Writing Associate to assist students with formative feedback? What kind of feedback is necessary and how will you manage the workload? Remember that when crafting an assignment, longer is not always better. In fact, short, focused writing may lend itself to students having to prune their arguments in a way that benefits their thinking and will ultimately allow you to assign more writing. Moreover, collaborative writing is also something that you can assign to give students practice at working together while allowing for a reduced workload for the instructor.
Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. John Wiley & Sons.
Lindemann, E., & Anderson, D. (2001). A rhetoric for writing teachers. Oxford University Press.
White, E. M., & Wright, C. A. (2016). Assigning, responding, evaluating. Bedford Books.