Surprisingly, teachers have been known to assign writing tasks without articulating to themselves what the task is supposed to do for students. Good writing assignments always start with a clear goal that the teacher can express, usually on the assignment sheet so that students understand the goal as well.
Good writing assignments also often take shape by thinking backwards. In effect, teachers ask themselves, "What do I want to read at the end of this assignment?" By working from what they anticipate the final product to look like, teachers can give students detailed guidelines about both the writing task and the final written product.
As you think about making up writing assignments, use these five principles:
Asking questions like these about your assignment will help guarantee that writing tasks tie directly to your teaching goals in the class:
Although it might seem awkward at first, working backwards from what you hope the final drafts will look like often produces the best assignment sheets. We recommend jotting down several points that will help you with this step in writing your assignments:
Writing tasks fill many different roles for students, so defining good writing assignments begins with the specific instructional context. For that reason, the first key to writing a good assignment is tying the task to the specific course goals. After taking your class and its goals into account, though, several other principles can improve the writing tasks you assign and the writing you get from students.
Perhaps most important, as noted in the five principles section, is to consider the rhetorical situation. By this, writing experts mean that you should think carefully about the audience you want students to write to as well as the particular genre or format for the final document and the larger context for the document.
Setting up your writing assignment so that the target reader is someone other than you, the teacher, might result in the most improvement in student writing. Students, after all, have had extensive experience writing to teachers, and students know that teachers are a "captive" audience. Your job mandates that you read carefully and respond to their texts. Chinn & Hilgers (2000) explain this role for the teachers as often limited to "corrector." However, instructors can move beyond the corrector role into a "collaborator" role by varying writing tasks, encouraging peer collaboration, and emphasizing professional contexts for writing. So for students, the teacher is not necessarily a reader or audience that will motivate the best possible work on a writing task. Indeed, Hilgers et al. (1999) report that their interview research with 33 upper-division students yielded an intriguing statistic: "56% of the interviewees also described one or more nonteacher audiences" (328) for their academic tasks. In many instances, the assignment called for a hypothetical audience other than the teacher, but even when the assignment didn't prompt students to write for readers other than the teacher, students directed their work toward "an individual they believed has specific content knowledge such as a CEO, coworker, or technician" (328).
Although some experts (Freedman et al., 1994) argue that setting up a fictitious scenario with a specified audience does not motivate students any more highly than simply writing for the teacher, other practitioners across the disciplines have seen improvement in student writing when they use cases with embedded audiences for students' documents. (See, for instance, Brumberger, 2004; Cass & Fernandez, 2008; Stevens, 2005; Sulewski, 2003.)
A further extension of this move toward providing rich writing contexts beyond the teacher involves writing tasks that actually target real readers. Many senior design projects and management projects in engineering and natural resources involve pairing students with actual clients so that students must take into account the particular needs of their readers. Across many disciplines, teachers are investigating alternative methods to connect undergraduate writers with real audiences, including client-based partnerships (Kiefer & Leff, 2008; Kreth, 2005; Planken & Kreps, 2006;) and service-learning opportunities (Addams et al., 2010; Bourelle, 2012), among other options.
But even if your particular class doesn't allow you to pair students with actual clients or other readers, consider ways in which you can create a meaningful context with readers beyond the teacher in the classroom (see, for example, Ward, 2009). Chamely-Wiik et al. (2012), for instance, describe in detail how, drawing on materials from The Council of Writing Program Administrators and The Foundation for Critical Thinking, they developed a case study writing context for first-year general chemistry students. As they explain,
Our initial case-study assignment, used for the first two years of the course, required students to explore the scientific principles involved in the Bhopal disaster where thousands of people died in an industrial chemical accident.... The second assignment, used in the third year, required students to formulate and defend an argument whether research in the field of cold fusion should continue to be supported. (504)
Students write with a local audience of classmates and a larger institutional context of the university community in mind. Students responded positively on affective surveys, a typical reaction to carefully designed writing tasks. More significantly, "students in this chemistry course outperformed the majority of students across all undergraduate levels at the university" (506). (For other examples of science students writing to lay audiences, see Martin, 2010; McDermott& Kuhn, 2011; Moni et al., 2007; Sivey & Lee, 2008).
In addition to audience concerns, students also benefit from understanding how and why a particular format or genre helps them communicate with a target audience (especially when we think of genres as those recurring rhetorical reactions to typical communicative situations). From YouTube videos in organic chemistry (Franz, 2012) to position papers in public relations (Powell, 2012) to posters in physiology (Mulnix, 2003), teachers are helping students to write in genres that immediately connect them with the real readers of their future professional settings. (See also Blakeslee, 2001; Guilford, 2001; Jebb, 2005; LeBigot & Rouet, 2007; Mizrahi, 2003; Motavalli et al., 2007; Schwartz et al., 2004; Wald et al., 2009.)
Why does this attention to audience and genre seem to matter so much to student writing? In recent years, several studies (Adam, 2000; Beaufort, 2004; Belfiore et al., 2004; Freedman & Adam, 2000; Spinuzzi, 2010) have explored the reasons why writers attentive to specific contexts are more successful. In particular, workplace literacy and socio-cognitive apprenticeship theory (among related theoretical perspectives) both emphasize the role that knowledgeable mentors within a workplace play as they initiate newcomers to the communicative context. (See especially Beaufort, 2000, and Ding, 2008, for social apprenticeship studies and Paretti, 2008, on situated learning and activity theory.) As Dias et al. (1999) explain, writing is not a fixed set of skills that we learn once and then simply plug into as we need to communicate. Rather,
Written discourse... is regularized but not fixed; fluid, flexible, and dynamic; emerging and evolving in exigency and action; reflecting and incorporating social needs, demands, and structures, and responsive to social interpretations and reinterpretations of necessarily shifting, complex experiences. (23)
And, as a result of the fluidity of discourse in varied workplace settings, writers themselves should be prepared for major development of their communication skills when they enter new workplaces. MacKinnon's qualitative study (2000) of new analysts and economists at the Bank of Canada showed that
Overall, the writing-related changes were considerable, consequential, and a shock for some participants: "It's like going to China," said one. For most of the ten participants, the complex totality of the writing-related changes they experienced added up to a "sea change": a major shift in their understanding of what writing is an does in an organization, a revised understanding of the roles they saw for themselves as writing workers and as working writers, and often major changes in various aspects of the macro writing process. (50)
When students have opportunities as undergraduates or graduate/professional students to anticipate these major shifts, then the transitions to workplaces of all sorts become easier. For the most part, moreover, students recognize that apprenticeship learning in academic settings provides both more structured scaffolding of writing tasks and lower-stakes learning. They thus embrace the learning opportunities when offered to them in academic classes.
The fifth principle noted in the general section on "what makes a good writing assignment?" is to break down the task into manageable steps. Many teachers approach this element of good assignment design by thinking carefully about assignment sequence. One particularly thorough explanation of this process appears in Leydens & Santi (2006). This writing specialist and geoscientist take up the details of designing assignments with an eye to course goals. They also consider the importance of not overwhelming teachers and students (the Less is More approach) as they explain their specific process of questioning their assignments (pp. 493-497). (See also Lord, 2009, and Greasley & Cassidy, 2010.)
Scaffolded assignments, such as the agricultural economics assignment noted in the Additional Resources section, help students reach a larger goal by asking them to collect resources in stages. A final stage requires that students transform each of the earlier stages in a final document. Sequenced assignments, on the other hand, each stand independently, but each task builds on particular skills and challenges to enable students to meet a larger set of goals. Herrington (1997) describes a scaffolded assignment (71-72) with a preliminary plan for a major project followed by an annotated bibliography, early draft (with cover note focused on successes and challenges thus far) and final draft (with cover note). Mulnix & Mulnix (2010) also describe a similar argumentative assignment that uses sequenced tasks to repeat and reinforce critical thinking skills. See also Sin et al. (2007) for a sequence in accounting, Howell (2007) in materials science, Fencl (2010) on a sequence in physics, Zlatic et al. (2000) on pharmaceutical education, and Harding (2005) on freshman mechanical engineering. Coe (2011), on the other hand, describes a series of scaffolded writing tasks to help students build argument skills in philosophy, Alaimo et al. (2009) explain their project for sophomore organic chemistry students, and Lillig (2008) looks at upper-division chemistry.
A well-designed assignment will make the elements of the task clear to students. This includes identifying relevant intermediate assignments and activities, such as topic proposals or literature reviews for longer assignments, as well as providing information about relevant writing, research, and collaboration processes. In general, it is also advisable to list grading criteria on the assignment sheet. Making the assignment clear to students will help them better understand the scope and challenge of the assignment. It also is likely to produce better learning and performance.
Good analytical writing is a rigorous and difficult task. It involves a process of editing and rewriting, and it is common to do a half dozen or more drafts. Because of the difficulty of analytical writing and the need for drafting, we will be completing the assignment in four stages. A draft of each of the sections described below is due when we finish the class unit related to that topic (see due dates on syllabus). I will read the drafts of each section and provide comments; these drafts will not be graded but failure to pass in a complete version of a section will result in a deduction in your final assignment grade. Because of the time both you and I are investing in the project, it will constitute one-half of your semester grade.
Content, Concepts and Substance
Papers will focus on the peoples and policies related to population, food, and the environment of your chosen country. As well as exploring each of these subsets, papers need to highlight the interrelations among them. These interrelations should form part of your revision focus for the final draft. Important concepts relevant to the papers will be covered in class; therefore, your research should be focused on the collection of information on your chosen country or region to substantiate your themes. Specifically, the paper needs to address the following questions.
Developing countries have undergone large changes in population. Explain the dynamic nature of this continuing change in your country or region and the forces underlying the changes. Better papers will go beyond description and analyze the situation at hand. That is, go behind the numbers to explain what is happening in your country with respect to the underlying population dynamics: structure of growth, population momentum, rural/urban migration, age structure of population, unanticipated populations shocks, etc. DUE: WEEK 4.
What is the nature of food consumption in your country or region? Is the average daily consumption below recommended levels? Is food consumption increasing with economic growth? What is the income elasticity of demand? Use Engel's law to discuss this behavior. Is production able to stay abreast with demand given these trends? What is the nature of agricultural production: traditional agriculture or green revolution technology? Is the trend in food production towards self-sufficiency? If not, can comparative advantage explain this? Does the country import or export food? Is the politico-economic regime supportive of a progressive agricultural sector? DUE: WEEK 8.
This is the third issue to be covered in class. It is crucial to show in your paper the environmental impact of agricultural production techniques as well as any direct impacts from population changes. This is especially true in countries that have evolved from traditional agriculture to green revolution techniques in the wake of population pressures. While there are private benefits to increased production, the use of petroleum-based inputs leads to environmental and human health related social costs which are exacerbated by poorly defined property rights. Use the concepts of technological externalities, assimilative capacity, property rights, etc., to explain the nature of this situation in your country or region. What other environmental problems are evident? Discuss the problems and methods for economically measuring environmental degradation. DUE: WEEK 12.
4. Final Draft
The final draft of the project should consider the economic situation of agriculture in your specified country or region from the three perspectives outlined above. Key to such an analysis are the interrelationships of the three perspectives. How does each factor contribute to an overall analysis of the successes and problems in agricultural policy and production of your chosen country or region? The paper may conclude with recommendations, but, at the very least, it should provide a clear summary statement about the challenges facing your country or region. DUE: WEEK15.
Adam, C. (2000). "What do we learn from the readers? Factors in determining successful transitions between academic and workplace writing." In P. Dias and A. Paré (Eds.), Transitions: Writing in Academic and Workplace Settings; pp. 167-182. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
Addams, L.H., Woodbury, D., Allred, T., & Addams, J. (2010). Developing Student Communication Skills while Assisting Nonprofit Organizations. Business Communication Quarterly, 73(3), 282-290.
Alaimo, P.J., Bean, J.C., Langenhan, J.M., & Nichols, L. (2009). Eliminating Lab Reports: A Rhetorical Approach for Teaching the Scientific Paper in Sophomore Organic Chemistry. The WAC Journal, 20, 17-32.
Beaufort, A. (2004). Developmental gains of a history major: A case for building a theory of disciplinary writing expertise. Research in the Teaching of English, 39(2), 136-185.
Beaufort, A. (2000). Learning the trade: A social apprenticeship model for gaining writing expertise. Written Communication, 17(2), 185-224.
Belfiore, M.E., Defoe, T.A., Folinsbee, S., Hunter, J., & Jackson, N.S. (2004). Reading Work: Literacies in the New Workplace. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Blakeslee, A.M. (2001). Bridging the workplace and the academy: Teaching professional genres through classroom-workplace collaborations. Technical Communication Quarterly, 10(2), 169-192.
Bourelle, T. (2012). Bridging the Gap between the Technical Communication Classroom and the Internship: Teaching Social Consciousness and Real-World Writing. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 42(2), 183-197.
Brumberger, E.R. (2004). The "Corporate Correspondence Project": Fostering Audience Awareness and Extended Collaboration. Business Communication Quarterly, 67(3), 349-58.
Cass, A.G., & Fernandes, C.S.T. (2008). Simulated conference submissions: A technique to improve student attitudes about writing. 2008 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, Vols. 1-3; pp. 1535-1540.
Chamely,Wiik, D.M., Kaky, J.E., & Galin, J. (2012). From Bhopal to cold fusion: A case-study approach to writing assignments in honors general chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education, 89(4), 502-508.
Chinn, P.W.U., & Hilgers. T.L. (2000). From corrector to collaborator: The range of instructor roles in writing-based natural and applied science classes. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37(1), 3-25.
Coe, C.D. (2011). Scaffolded writing as a tool for critical thinking: Teaching beginning students how to write arguments. Teaching Philosophy, 34(1), 33-50.
Dias, P., Freedman, A., Medway, P., & Paré. (1999). "Introduction: Researching Writing at School and at Work." Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts; pp. 3-13. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Dias, P., Freedman, A., Medway, P., & Paré. (1999). "Situating Writing." Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts; pp. 17-41. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Ding, H. (2008). The use of cognitive and social apprenticeship to teach a disciplinary genre: Initiation of graduate students into NIH grant writing. Written Communication, 25(1), 3-52.
Fencl, H.S. (2010). Development of Students' Critical-Reasoning Skills through Content-Focused Activities in a General Education Course. Journal of College Science Teaching, 39(5), 56-62.
Franz, A.K. (2012). Organic chemistry YouTube writing assignment for large lecture classes. Journal of Chemical Education, 89(4), 497-501.
Freedman, A., & Adam, C. (2000). "Write where you are: Situating learning to write in university and workplace settings." In P. Dias and A. Paré (Eds.), Transitions: Writing in Academic and Workplace Settings; pp. 31-60. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
Freedman, A., Adam, C., & Smart, G. (1994). Wearing suits to class: Simulating genres and simulations as genre. Written Communication, 11(2), 193-226.
Greasley, P., & Cassidy, A. (2010). When it comes round to marking assignments: how to impress and how to 'distress' lecturers. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(2), 173-189.
Guildford, W.H. (2001). Teaching peer review and the process of scientific writing. Advances in Physiology Education, 25(3), 167-175.
Harding, B.A. (2005). "A simple mechanism to teach a complex practitioner knowledge set." Innovations in Engineering Education 2005; pp. 479-486. ASME.
Herrington, A. (1997). "Developing and responding to major writing projects." In M.D. Sorcinelli & P. Elbow (Eds.), Writing to learn: Strategies for assigning and responding to writing across the disciplines, pp. 67-75. New directions for teaching the learning, No. 69. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Hilgers, T.L., Hussey, E.L., & Stitt-Bergh, M. (1999). "As you're writing, you have these epiphanies": What college students say about writing and learning in their majors. Written Communication, 16(3), 317-353.
Howell, P.R. (2007). "Writing to specification: An approach to teaching scientific literacy, and a prelude to writing 'The World of Materials' essays." In J.E.E. Baglin (Ed.), Proceedings of the Symposium and Forum Education in Materials Science, Engineering and Technology; pp. 247-289.
Kiefer, K., & Leff, A. (2008). "Client-based writing about science: Immersing science students in real writing contexts." Across the Disciplines, vol. 5.
Kreth, M.L. (2005). A Small-Scale Client Project for Business Writing Students: Developing a Guide for First-Time Home Buyers. Business Communication Quarterly, 68(1), 52-59.
LeBigot, L., & Rouet, J.F. (2007). The impact of presentation format, task assignment, and prior knowledge on students' comprehension of multiple online documents. Journal of Literacy Research, 39(4), 445-470.
Leydens, J., & Santi, P. (2006). Optimizing faculty use of writing as a learning tool in geoscience education. Journal of Geoscience Education, 54(4), 491-502.
Lillig, J.W. (2008). Writing across the semester: A non-standard term paper that encourages critical data analysis in the upper-division chemistry classroom. Journal of Chemical Education, 85(10), 1392-1394.
Lord, S.M. (2009). Integrating effective "writing to communicate" experiences in engineering courses: Guidelines and examples. International Journal of Engineering Education, 25(1), 196-204.
MacKinnon, J. (1993). "Becoming a rhetor: Developing writing ability in a mature, writing-intensive organization." In R. Spilka (Ed.), Writing in the Workplace: New Research Perspectives; pp. 41-55. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP.
Martin, A.M. (2010). "Astronomy and writing: A first-year cosmology course for nonmajors." In J. Barnes, D.A. Smith, M.G. Gibbs, and J.G. Manning (Eds.), Science Education and Outreach: Forging a Path to the Future. Astronomical Society of the Pacific Conference Series, Vol. 431; pp. 368-371. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McDermott, M., & Kuhn, M. (2011). Using writing for alternative audiences in a college integrated science course. Journal of College Science Teaching, 41(1), 40-45.
Mizrahi, J. (2003). Teaching technical writing to university students using the medical report. STC's 50th Annual Conference Proceedings; 190-193.
Moni, R.W., Hryciw, D.H., Poronnik, P., & Moni, K.B. (2007). Using explicit teaching to improve how bioscience students write to the lay public. Advances in Physiology Education, 31(2), 167-75.
Motavalli, P.P., Patton, M.D., & Miles, R.J. (2007). Use of web-based student extension publications to improve undergraduate student writing skills. Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education, 36: 95-102.
Mulnix, A.B. (2003). Investigations of Protein Structure and Function Using the Scientific Literature: An Assignment for an Undergraduate Cell Physiology Course. Cell Biology Education, 2(4), 248-255.
Mulnix, J.W., & Mulnix, M.J. (2010). Using a writing portfolio project to teach critical thinking skills. Teaching Philosophy, 33(1), 27-54.
Paretti, M.C. (2008). Teaching communication in capstone design: The role of the instructor in situated learning. Journal of Engineering Education, 97(4), 491-503.
Planken, B., & Kreps, A.J. Raising Students' Awareness of the Implications of Multimodality for Content Design and Usability: The Web Site Project. Business Communication Quarterly, 69(4), 421-425.
Powell, V. (2012). Revival of the Position Paper: Aligning Curricula and Professional Competencies. Communication Teacher, 26(2), 96-103.
Schwartz, R.S., Lederman, N.G., & Crawford, B.A. (2004). Developing view of nature of science in an authentic context: An explicit approach to bridging the gap between nature of science and scientific inquiry. Science Education, 88(4), 610-645.
Sin, S., Jones, A., & Petocz, P. (2007). Evaluating a method of integrating generic skills with accounting content based on a functional theory of meaning. Accounting and Finance, 47(1), 143-163.
Sivey, J.D., & Lee, C.M. (2008). Using popular magazine articles to teach the art of writing for nontechnical audiences. Journal of Chemical Education, 85(1), 55-58.
Spinuzzi, C. (2010). Secret sauce and snake oil: Writing monthly reports in a highly contingent environment. Written Communication, 27(4), 363-409.
Stevens, B. (2005). The Car Accident: An Exercise in Persuasive Writing. Communication Teacher, 19(2), 62-67.
Sulewski, R. (2003). Integrating communication and technical material int eh first-year engineering curriculum: The role of the laboratory. STC's 50th Annual Conference Proceedings; 176-178.
Wald, H.S., Davis, S.W., Reis, S.P., Monroe, A.D., & Borkan, J.M. (2009). Reflecting on reflections: Enhancement of medical education curriculum with structured field notes and guided feedback. Academic Medicine, 84(7), 830-837.
Ward, M., Sr. (2009). Squaring the learning circle: Cross-classroom collaborations and the impact of audience on student outcomes in professional writing. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 23(1), 61-82.
Zlatic, T.D., Nowak, D.M., & Sylvester, D. (2000). Integrating general and professional education through a study of herbal products: An intercollegiate collaboration. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 64(1), 83-94.
Writing@CSU includes a much more detailed explanation of how and why to design writing assignments at http://writing.colostate.edu/guides/teaching/fys/assignmentwriting.cfm.