What makes a good writing assignment?

Surprisingly teachers can assign writing tasks to students without explaining to them what the task is. Writing assignments that are good will always have a clear goal. This is usually written on the assignment sheet to help students understand it.

Sometimes, good writing assignments can be shaped by looking backwards. Teachers ask themselves this question: “What am I looking forward to reading at the end? Teachers can provide detailed guidance to students by letting them know what the final product will look like.

Five Principles

These five principles will help you when writing assignments.

  • You should tie the writing task to specific goals in pedagogy, especially those outlined in the overall course goals.
  • Take note of rhetorical aspects such as audience, purpose, and writing situation.
  • Reduce the task into manageable steps.
  • Clear all aspects of the task.
  • In the assignment sheet, include the grading criteria.

Principle 1. Principle 1. Writing should meet teaching goals

Asking these questions about your assignment will ensure that your writing assignments are directly related to your class’ teaching goals.

  • What course objectives does the assignment have to meet?
  • Is formal or informal writing more effective in meeting teaching goals?
  • Students will be writing to learn course material, writing conventions in the discipline, or both.
  • Is the assignment logical?

Be a backward-looking person and work towards your goals

It may seem difficult at first but it is a great way to create the best assignment sheets. This step is crucial in order to write your assignments.

  • Why should students write in your class Clearly and concisely state your final goals.
  • These goals should be met and the writing products that best suit your teaching style/preferences.
  • Take note of the skills that will be required to produce the final product.
  • To build towards the final product, sequence activities (reading and researching, writing).

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Beyond the Basics

Students have many roles in writing tasks. Therefore, it is important to identify the context of each assignment. To write a great assignment, tie the task to your course goals. Taking into consideration the goals of your class, there are several principles that can help you improve the writing tasks and the writing you receive from students.

Principle 2. Principle 2.

The most important thing, as mentioned in the five principles section is to think about the rhetorical situation. Writing experts say that this means you need to think about who your students are writing to, as well as what genre or format they will use for their final documents and the context in which they will be used.

Writing assignments that are not written by you, the teacher, can result in significant improvement in student writing. Teachers are often viewed as a captive audience by students, who have a lot of experience in writing to them. You must read and respond to the texts of teachers as part of your job. Chinn & Hilgers (2000) describe this role as “corrector” for teachers. Instructors can go beyond their role as “corrector” and become “collaborator”, by encouraging peer collaboration, varying writing tasks, and emphasizing professional contexts. Students should remember that the teacher does not have to be a reader or audience in order to motivate them to do their best work. Indeed, Hilgers et al. Their 1999 interview with 33 students in upper division yielded an interesting statistic: “56% also described one-or more nonteacher audiences.” (328). Many times, the assignment required students to describe a hypothetical audience. However, even though the assignment did not require students to address a teacher as the audience, students chose to target “an individual with specific content knowledge, such as a CEO or coworker or technician” (328).

Some experts (Freedman and others. 1994) claim that creating a fictional scenario with a specific audience doesn’t motivate students more than writing for teachers. However, other practitioners from different disciplines have noticed an improvement in student writing when they use embedded audiences for students’ documents. (See, for instance, Brumberger, 2004; Cass & Fernandez, 2008; Stevens, 2005; Sulewski, 2003.)

Writing tasks that are actually targeted at real readers is another extension of this trend toward rich writing contexts beyond the teacher. Senior design projects, management projects in engineering, and natural resources often involve students paired with real clients. Students must consider the needs of their readers. Teachers in many disciplines are exploring alternative ways to connect students with real audiences. These include client-based partnerships (Kiefer & Leff 2008; Kreth 2005; Planken & Kreps 2006;) as well as service-learning opportunities (Addams et.. 2010, Bourelle 2012).

Even if you are unable to pair students with clients or other readers in your class, you should think about ways you can create meaningful contexts with readers outside of the classroom (see Ward, 2009). Chamely-Wiik and others. For instance, (2012) describes in detail how they used materials from The Council of Writing Program Administrations and The Foundation for Critical Thinking to create a context for case study writing for first-year general Chemistry students. They explain:

The first case study assignment was used in the first two years. It required students to examine the scientific principles that led to the Bhopal tragedy in which thousands died from an industrial chemical accident . In the third year, the second assignment required students to defend and formulate an argument for whether cold fusion research should be continued to be supported. (504)

Students should consider the local context and larger university community when writing. A typical response to well-designed writing tasks, students responded positively to affective surveys. In addition, students in this chemistry course performed better than the majority of undergraduate students at the university (506). Martin, McDermott&Kuhn (2011); Moni et. al., 2007,; Sivey & Lee (2008).

Students benefit from knowing the reasons behind a certain format or genre. This is especially true when we consider genres to be recurring rhetorical responses to common communicative situations. Teachers are helping students write in genres that will connect them to the real readers in their future professional environments. (See also Blakeslee 2001; Guilford 2001; Jebb 2005; LeBigot & Rouet 2007, 2007; Mizrahi 2003; Motavalli et Al..2007; Schwartz et Al..2004; Wald et AL..2009).

This attention to genre and audience seems to be so important for student writing. Recent studies (Adam 2000, Beaufort 2004; Belfiore et. al. 2004; Freedman & Adam 2000; Spinuzzi 2010, 2010) have examined the reasons why writers who are attentive to particular contexts are more successful. Both workplace literacy and sociocognitive apprenticeship theory, among other related theoretical perspectives, emphasize the importance of mentors in introducing newcomers into the communicative environment. Beaufort, 2000 and Ding (2008), respectively, discuss social apprenticeship studies. Paretti, 2008 discusses situated learning and activity theory. As Dias et al. (1999) explain that writing is not something you learn once and then just plug in as needed. Rather,

Written discourse…is regularized, but not fixed; fluid and flexible; evolving and changing in exigency, action; reflecting and incorporating society’s demands and structures; and responsive to social interpretations of complex, shifting experiences and reinterpretations. (23)

Because of the fluidity in discourse across workplace settings, writers should be ready to improve their communication skills as they move into new environments. MacKinnon’s 2000 qualitative study of new economists and analysts at the Bank of Canada revealed that

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The writing-related changes made were significant, profound, and shocking for some participants. One participant said, “It’s almost like going to China.” The complex combination of all the writing-related changes that they experienced was a “sea shift” for most participants. It involved a significant shift in their understanding of writing in organizations, a new understanding of their roles as writers and writing workers, as well as major changes in the various aspects of macro writing. (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. Students recognize that academic apprenticeships offer both structured scaffolding for writing tasks and low-stakes learning. When offered learning opportunities in academic classes, they embrace them.

Principle 3. Principle 3.

In the section “What makes a good writing assignment?” we have mentioned fifth principle. Breaking down the task into manageable steps is key. This element of good assignment design is often approached by teachers who carefully consider the sequence of assignments. Leydens & Santi (2006) provides a thorough explanation of the process. These writing specialists and geoscientists discuss the details of designing assignments keeping in mind course goals. As they discuss their process for questioning assignments, they also mention the importance of not overwhelming students and teachers (the Less is More approach). 493-497). (See also Lord 2009 and Greasley & Cassidy 2010, respectively).

Students can use scaffolded assignments such as the one in the Additional Resources section that asks them to collect resources in stages. Students must transform all previous stages into a final document. Sequenced assignments on the other side, however, can be viewed as a series of separate tasks. Each task requires students to use their particular skills and challenge to help them reach broader goals. Herrington (1997) describes a scaffolded assignment (71-72) that includes a preliminary plan for major projects, followed by an annotation bibliography, an early draft (with cover notes focusing on successes and challenges so far), and a final draft (with a cover note). Mulnix & Mulnix (2010) describe a similar argumentative assignment using sequenced tasks to reinforce and repeat critical thinking skills. Sin and et al. Fencl (2010) for a sequence of physics, Zlatic and al. Harding (2005) for freshman mechanical engineering, and (2000) on pharmaceutical education. Coe (2011) describes a series scaffolded writing tasks that help students develop argument skills in philosophy, Alaimo , and other disciplines. Coe (2009) explains their project for sophomores in organic chemistry, while Lillig (2008) focuses on upper-division Chemistry.

Principles 4 & 5. Give the assignment to students.

Students will be able to see the components of the assignment if it is well-designed. This includes providing information on writing, research, collaboration, and topic proposals for longer assignments. It is also recommended to include the grading criteria in the assignment sheet. Students will be able to better understand the scope of the assignment by being clear about it. This will also help students learn and perform better.

Resource: A sample assignment from the Advanced Undergraduate Agricultural Economics Seminar

It is difficult and rigorous to write good analytical writing. Editing and rewriting are necessary. It is not uncommon to make several drafts. We will complete the assignment in four stages due to the complexity of analytical writing and the need to rewrite. Each section below must be completed by the end of the unit. See the due dates on the syllabus. I will review the sections and make comments. These drafts will not count towards your final assignment grade. It will make up one-half your semester grade due to the amount of time you and I have invested in it.

Substance , Concepts and Content

Your paper will be focused on the policies and peoples of the country you choose. Papers should not only focus on each subset, but also highlight the interrelationships between them. These interrelations should be part of your final draft revision focus. The class will cover important concepts that are relevant to papers. Therefore, your research should focus on collecting information about your country or region in order to support your themes. The paper should address the following issues.

1. Population

Large population changes have occurred in developing countries. Discuss the changing nature of the population in your country. Better papers will provide more detail and analysis of the current situation. This means that you should go beyond the numbers and explain the country’s population dynamics, including the structure of growth, migration patterns, age structure, unexpected population shocks, and so on. DUE: WEEK 4.

2. Food

How is food consumed in your country? Is it below the recommended daily intake? Is the economic growth affecting food consumption? What is the income elasticity of demand? Engel’s law can be used to explain this behavior. These trends suggest that production is unable to keep up with demand. Is it traditional agriculture or green revolution technology that is used in agricultural production? Are we moving towards self-sufficiency in food production? Is there a reason for this, if not, what is the comparative advantage? Is the country importing or exporting food? Do you think the political-economic system is supportive of an agricultural sector that is developing? DUE: WEEK 8.

3. Environment

This is the third topic to be discussed in class. It is important to demonstrate in your paper both the environmental impacts of agricultural production techniques and any direct effects from population changes. This is particularly true for countries that have moved from traditional agriculture to green revolution methods in response to population pressures. Although there are some private benefits to increasing production, the use petroleum-based inputs can lead to human and environmental health related social costs that are further exacerbated by poorly defined property right. To explain the situation in your country, use the concepts of technological externalities and assimilative potential, property rights, and others. Are there other environmental problems? Discuss the issues and economic methods of measuring environmental degradation. DUE: WEEK 12.

4. Final Draft

Final drafts of projects should be able to consider the economic position of agriculture in the country or region you have chosen, from each of the three perspectives. The interrelationships between the three perspectives are key to this analysis. What does each factor do to contribute to an overall analysis on the achievements and failures in agriculture policy and production in your country or region? Although the paper might end with some recommendations, it should at least provide a summary of the problems facing your country. DUE: WEEK15.

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