Designing Writing Assignments

Writing assignments help students process concepts and teach them to communicate knowledge for specific communities. As Writing Across the Curriculum programs grow both informally and formally in local contexts, instructors and students are creating an academic culture where writing is valued for learning and professionalization (see Statement on WAC Principles, 2014). However, writing assignments can feel burdensome or even anxiety-producing to students and instructors, especially those with large teaching loads. With that in mind, here are a few general strategies that may help faculty design or revise their writing assignments.

Design assignments for specific learning goals

Keep in mind the learning outcomes that you wish to evaluate at various points in the course. Can that particular learning outcome be served by informal writing? By a project? By a different kind of genre apart from the research essay? CATLR (Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning through Research) has many ideas for teaching strategies that engage students in the learning process.

Some teachers find it helpful to distinguish between writing-to-learn and learning-to-write. When writing-to-learn, students are exploring ideas and forming concepts–informal writing styles may be acceptable, and some faculty evaluate such assignments more holistically. When learning-to-write, students are expected to imitate the communication styles of the genre and discipline in formal assignments. The majority of students will benefit from explicit modeling and instruction when learning-to-write.

Scaffold writing assignments
  • Break down an assignment into stages. For example: (1) ask students to write a low-stakes reflection that provides an opportunity for brainstorming; (2) require an outline, an abstract, or an annotated bibliography a few weeks before the final is due; (3) request a draft at least a few days before the final, which could be for peer review; (4) invite students to submit the final paper. There are many ways to break down the assignment, but time, marination, and the opportunity to assess knowledge and revisit ideas are key to helping students meet your expectations.
  • Show students what you are looking for. Provide published texts that illustrate the structure and tone you are looking for or collect a few anonymized examples (with student permission) to share in future classes.
  • Share your expectations up front. Students know that expectations about writing change from course to course. Assignment instructions and guidance during class time help make the writing task less opaque. Rubrics or checklists help students understand the dimensions that they need to be working on.

Scaffolded assignments also help student writers come to the Writing Center with concrete pieces along the way towards their final drafts. Formal stages give students the opportunity to receive iterative feedback throughout the writing process as they work with our consultants. Note: while we invite faculty to encourage the use of the Writing Center, please do not mandate use of the Writing Center as one of your assignment steps.

Engage writers with their ideas, not just their grammar

The short film “Beyond the Red Ink” shows us how college students perceive instructor feedback. You can also read Nancy Sommers’s research on responding to student writing.

Students are often looking for a reader, not simply an editor. If you are reading an early draft, consider the following strategies:

  • Try limiting your feedback to a single end comment about the student’s ideas and a few revision suggestions.
  • Consider recording an audio message to give feedback (see Bauer, 2010).
  • If you do want to address grammar and word choices in the draft, keep in mind that a student working on global revisions may need to re-write passages anyway. As a result, rather than spend time providing line-by-line edits, highlight a few prominent patterns for the student.
Campus Resources for Faculty
  • Contact our Writing Support Specialist, Alison Stephens (a.stephens@northeastern.edu), to arrange a consultation about assignment design, feedback strategies, resources for students, or possible workshops.
  • Contact CATLR for a teaching consultation, or attend one of their regular workshops.