Learning & Teaching Topics
Creating Effective Writing Assignments
Communication is a crucial component of all fields and disciplines, and writing is one of the most widely utilized forms of communication in most fields. Writing is a formative process of thought as well as a way to present developed thoughts. Even the most quantitative course can utilize communication and writing exercises, from formative “minute papers” discussing what students learned in a given course period to oral assignments explaining theories to written lab reports. There are ways to get students involved in writing and communication in every discipline.
How to Create Effective Writing Assignments
- Always give writing assignments in written form so that students can have the assignment in front of them when they have any questions. Posting to Moodle allows students who may lose their paper copy to have easy access to the assignment requirements. The more detailed the assignment directions are, the better the completed assignments will often be. An assignment sheet could include everything from length and formatting requirements, citation style, subject matter, deadlines, grading rubrics and any other pertinent information.
- When creating a writing assignment, it is helpful to ask yourself several questions, including: how does this assignment align with student learning outcomes? Is there a “real world” application? What would you like students to demonstrate in their finished paper? This could include critical thinking skills, key concepts, or following the practices and procedures of your field.
- Make sure to explicitly explain the terminology that you use regarding writing. Words such as “academic style”, “well organized”, and “purpose statement” may not be clear to all learners. These words can have many different meanings to different people.
- Define the audience for the assignment or encourage students to develop and explain an audience. When students write only for the professor, they often do not fully explain terminology and concepts. Explaining these concepts to a lay audience can increase understanding.
- Be clear about assignment sequencing and due dates for each part of the assignment. If requiring multiple drafts, peer feedback, and revisions make sure to clearly state when each part of the assignment is due and what is expected at each point, as well as how each component will be graded.
- Sequencing can include everything from requiring drafts and revisions, to peer writing groups to requiring consultations, linking a series of assignments, different audiences, submitting one section at a time, changing perspectives over time, and changing modes of discourse (such as from argumentative to analytic or journal to lab report)
- Sequencing assignments has many benefits including a sense of course cohesion, students see the interrelation of assignments, additional topic depth, and mirroring many professional “real world” writing tasks. Requiring students to turn in rough drafts with feedback and changes along with the final draft of assignments can encourage students to start early, spend time on their writing, and it can also reduce plagiarism.
- Sequence your semester so that assignments transition from informal, less structured, formative critique at the beginning of the semester towards more formal, graded assignments later in the semester. A good way to start is with pair exercises and critiques in order to increase student confidence in a non-threatening way; this can transition into larger group critiques (such as joining two pairs into foursomes)
- Writing can fit into any course, from writing up a list of difficulties and questions during a chemistry lab period to analyzing literature in an English class. If you are unsure what students should write about, they can always write about the metacognitive aspects of learning – their own personal learning process and understanding in the course.
- Assignments do not have to fit in the traditional essay format. There are a wide array of effective ways for students to engage in course material and practice their writing skills that appeal to different learning styles. For example, students could write a chapter in Calculus for Dummies explaining a concept to a lay audience, write a letter to Copernicus explaining why a certain theory of his has been altered and why, writing test questions for upcoming tests, writing letters to the Nobel Prize Committee explaining why a certain individual deserves to be nominated, or assign students to write a resume for a key historical figure, including major accomplishments. Give students practice adapting their ideas to different types of audiences; have students write about a technical article in a format that would be acceptable in a scientific journal and then write about the same article as you would in a children’s newsletter. Editorials, position papers, case studies, and dialogues are other ways students can engage with material.
- Peer evaluation and review is an important component in many professional fields. By allowing students the opportunity to work with writing in their field in a professional format, along with the opportunity for critique and review, you are helping them prepare for their future careers.
- Provide students with guidance and resources regarding grammar. Take a few minutes out of class early in the semester to discuss common grammatical errors. However, do not fall into the trap of correcting every grammatical error on every paper.
- Refer students to the University Writing Center for extra assistance.
Carter, M. (2006). Writing Lab Reports. Retrieved April 20, 2009, from the University of Delaware Writing Center accessed via HSU Web site: http://www.humboldt.edu/academicprograms/downloads/writinglabreports.pdf
Elbow, P. (1994). Writing for learning – not just demonstrating learning. Retrieved April 20, 2009, from HSU Web site: http://www.humboldt.edu/academicprograms/downloads/WritingforLearning.pdf
Purdue OWL. (2009). Avoiding Plagiarism. Retrieved April 20, 2009, from OWL at Purdue University Web site: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/589/01/
Souza, T. (n.d.). Using Informal Writing and Speaking to Enhance Learning: Twenty-One Strategies. Adapted from Anson, C.M., Dannels, D., and Nelms, G.. NCSU Campus Writing and Speaking Program and SIU Communication Across the Curriculum. Retrieved April 28, 2009, from HSU Web site: http://www.humboldt.edu/academicprograms/downloads/integrating_communication.pdf
University of Delaware Writing Center. (2006). Building Oral & Written Communication Into Your Classroom. Retrieved April 20, 2009, from HSU Web site: http://www.humboldt.edu/academicprograms/downloads/integrating_communication.pdf
University of Delaware Writing Center. (2006). Not Your Usual 3- to 5-Page Paper. Retrieved April 20, 2009, from HSU Web site: http://www.humboldt.edu/academicprograms/downloads/alternative_assignments.pdf
University of Delaware Writing Center. (2006). Preventing Plagiarism. Retrieved April 20, 2009, from HSU Web site: http://www.humboldt.edu/academicprograms/downloads/prevent_plagiarism.pdf
University of Delaware Writing Center. (2006). Sequencing Writing Assignments. Retrieved April 28, 2009, from HSU Web site: http://www.humboldt.edu/academicprograms/downloads/sequencing.pdf
University of Delaware Writing Center. (2006). Using Writing in Large Classes. Retrieved April 20, 2009, from HSU Web site: http://www.humboldt.edu/academicprograms/downloads/largeclasses.pdf