Designing Writing Assignments


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Designing good writing assignments is a challenge as we consider the many audiences, purposes, and genres that our students will encounter. To help you navigate this sea of choices, Troy Hicks begins this module by explaining the differences between "writing-to-learn" as an act of discovery and "writing to demonstrate learning" as longer, more in-depth assignments. He then reviews five questions that can help you articulate your writing assignment goals based on the  National Writing Project's "Writing Assignment Overview and Framework."  As CMU instructors share their favorite writing assignments, Hicks illustrates the flexibility and discretion instructors have to assemble both brief and longer writing assignments into a package that will infuse meaningful writing throughout a WI course. ​​

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Designing Assignments for Disciplinary Learning

As faculty develop and implement master course syllabi that include WI requirements, they can choose from a variety of writing tasks that range from quick, in-class activities to assignments that span multiple class periods. When considering why and how to design and deliver curriculum enhanced by writing, there are a number of ideas to keep in mind. 

First, as you consider when, why, and how to introduce writing into the course, remember that some writing opportunities might not be included in the syllabus as formal assignments. These opportunities – often used as opportunities for writing-to-learn – are discussed in more detail in the Writing Assignments and Feedback guide,

since they are moves that happen in the classroom during teaching.  These can include in-class writing breaks, summary writing, problem-based writing, and meaning-constructing tasks.

Second, assignments that are built into the curriculum should support the learning outcomes for the course, not just be tacked on to fulfill WI requirements. While it may be tempting to simply add more pages or a higher word count to an existing writing assignment, there is a substantial difference between "assigning" writing and teaching it.  Thus, substantive writing assignments used to help students demonstrate learning will require time, modeling, and support. 

Third, we encourage you to consider the ways in which reading, writing, and thinking are represented in your field. With tasks such as grant proposals or public service announcements, Shanahan and Shanahan (2008) describe the ways in which students' progress from basic and intermed​iate literacy development to a sharper understanding of "disciplinary literacy":

The high-level skills and abilities embedded in these disciplinary or technical uses of literacy are probably not particularly easy to learn, since they are not likely to have many parallels in oral language use, and they have to be applied to difficult texts. (The difficulty of texts may arise from high levels of abstraction, ambiguity, and subtlety, or from content that differs from, or even contradicts, students' life experiences. For example, physics texts might explore conceptions of how objects fall that are inconsistent with how most individuals conceptualize such phenomena.) But something else makes these high-level skills very difficult to learn: They are rarely taught. (44)

Therefore, when designing assignments, you will want to create opportunities to explicitly teach the process of writing within your discipline. Think of a writing task as an opportunity for students to be apprenticed into a field of study. This process will take time, and designing effective writing assignments within a specific curriculum can help students become disciplinary experts.
To help students think about audience and purpose, Traci Gardner (2008) offers a series of questions that we can consider when creating an assignment:
  • Who will read the text? Can I choose an alternative audience?
  • What stance will students take as writers? Can the assignment ask for an unusual tone?
  • When does the topic take place? Can the assignment focus on an alternative time frame?
  • Where will the background information and detail come from? Can the assignment call for alternative research sources?
  • Can students write something other than a traditional essay? Can the assignment call for alternative genres or publication media? (p. 49)
In sum, designing writing assignments is a challenging yet rewarding task. When instructors create rich, authentic experiences, their students will continue to grow as readers, writers, and thinkers.​


A Grid for Thinking About Writing Assignments