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Make a Better Writing Assignment by Design
February 18, 2016 - 9:14pm

Travis Grandy is a PhD student in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Find him on Twitter @travisgrandy or at his website.

 

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I work with a lot of instructors who use writing in their teaching. One of the challenges of teaching with writing is that without the right kinds of support, students might struggle to accomplish learning outcomes, and it can take more time in order for you to give feedback and grade their work. A classic example of this is the “term paper”: students are told to collect a certain number of sources, put together an original argument, and yet at the end of the semester, instructors bemoan how their students just can’t seem to write well enough. However, as we academics probably know, writing a well-documented essay is a much more complicated process. Depending on students’ experience in a particular discipline, they probably need more support in order to be successful. One of the places that support can take place is instructional design—in this case, the sequence and ordering of writing assignments.

 

As I mentioned in my January post about making online learning more collaborative, this coming summer I’ll be teaching a class online. One of the challenges I anticipate is ensuring that students get enough practice as we move on to ever more complex writing tasks and skills. This got me thinking about how I can structure and order activities so that I can position students to learn more effectively and be more successful in my class (especially since I won’t be able to have as much real-time contact with them). While my class is explicitly about writing, I think many of these design approaches can apply to other disciplines, or if you want to use writing as part of assessment or active learning. Here are some strategies that can help students refine the skills they already have, as well as hone new skills through practice, exposure and feedback.

 

Scaffolding: A Sequence with Purpose

Scaffolding means structuring a sequence of learning activities so students have enough guidance to build upon their previous skills in order to learn new ones. Although scaffolding has been part of educational theory for a long time, it’s still really useful as a way of thinking about how to link together the different assignments in your course to create a more coherent and structured learning process for students. There are a lot of strategies out there to scaffold learning activities. The basic idea is breaking things down so that you can meet students where they’re at, and provide guidance and support as they reach for the next learning milestone.

 

As you plan assignments, ask yourself:

  • What are your course objectives? What do you want students to be able to learn or do by the end of the assignment/term? This will give you a chance to backwards-plan so students can progress through your course step by step.
  • What might be new or challenging to students? Students aren’t walking into your class knowing as much as you do, so anticipate places where students might struggle or need extra practice.

 

With that said, here are a few ideas for how you can approach designing writing activities. Even if writing isn’t the main event in your class, there are some useful ways it can support active and engaged learning.

 

1. Use strategic repetition: Practice makes perfect. In this approach, students repeat the same kind of writing activity, but vary the content. Repeating the same kind of assignment can give students time to practice and build mastery of a particular kind of skill. Think of it as the rehearsals leading up to a performance. For example, you could assign an analytical essay for weekly course readings, and this is designed to help students practice the kind of analytical writing they’ll need for more complicated assignments (like when they write a literature review or critical essay later in the term). What’s helpful is that students can practice writing analytically, get feedback to help them improve, and make progress before the writing is truly high-stakes. It’s also a great opportunity to get students talking to each other outside the classroom, such as through a class blog.

 

2. Gradually ramp-up complexity: Before asking students to tackle a really difficult writing task, help them practice the fundamentals. This approach means to build the complexity of writing tasks over time so that way students are always expanding their knowledge and skills to things that are just out of reach. For example, when I have students responding to assigned course readings, I’ll start them off by writing summaries, then practice close-reading interpretation, and finally moving toward complex analysis and argumentation. Part of what prepares students to take on complex and cognitively demanding tasks is the chance to develop and practice foundational skills and build confidence. Each step of the way also gives me a chance to check for understanding, and plan things I can reinforce in other parts of the class.

 

3. Break complicated things down into smaller parts: You can take a complex writing activity (such as a research essay), and break it down into smaller steps or assignments that correspond to parts of the larger whole. Doing this with the research process or information literacy is a really good idea, especially if you can involve peers. For example, if you’re wanting students to do a research essay, you break things down into smaller assignments that are spread over multiple weeks: Topic Area Statement; Library Assignment; Paper Prospectus; Paper Outline; First Draft of Paper for Peer Review; Peer Review Comments; Second Draft of Paper; Peer Review Comments; Final Revised Version of Paper. When the writing process is spread out, students will have time to concentrate on the individual stages of the process, helping their overall writing improve. Another plus: this will also prevent students from just writing everything the night before.

 

Recognizing that not everyone has the time in their curriculum to do all the kinds of writing activities I’ve mentioned above, this hopefully gives you some ideas of how you can support your students’ writing and learning. If you have the time in your course to teach writing as a multi-stage process (i.e. drafting, feedback, revision) then this is already its own kind of scaffolding. However, your course learning outcomes should inform the way you sequence assignments and help students build skills incrementally. Don’t forget to explain this sequence to students! By situating writing assignments in a sequence, you can write holistic feedback that helps students reflect on what they’ve done well in one assignment, and how that can help them in the next one.

 

What approaches do you like to use when using writing in your curriculum? Are there activities you like to you use that are effective? Share your thoughts in the comments!

 

[Image by Flickr user James Harrison and used under Creative Commons license]

 

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