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How do I create, support, and grade writing assignments?

Using Short, Informal Writing Assignments (OR Writing and Teaching Content)

Traditionally, writing in college courses has been one-dimensional, focused on essays as a performance by students. While the ability to produce a polished essay is certainly important to a college education, the writing process itself can also serve as a means of learning content. This doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice requiring students to produce finished pieces, but instead suggests that we should think about writing as a broader tool for learning. Writing Across the Curriculum (or WAC) programs in particular have done a great deal of research to back up this assertion. New ways of thinking about writing are leading to changes in the way writing is assigned in college courses.

 Some common, mistaken assumptions about writing in college courses :
  1. Writing assignments should be at least five pages long to be worthwhile.
  2. Rethinking it: While the ability to construct a sustained argument is essential to academic writing, students can practice argumentation effectively in short pieces as well. Because they are still learning, they need to begin with simpler, shorter arguments; as they practice, they will become increasingly able to sustain a more complex argument. Assigning shorter pieces of writing can also have the added benefit of relieving some of the grading burden and allow you to make more careful comments.
  3. All writing must be graded.
    Rethinking it: Feedback is essential, but students also need the opportunity to practice. Too often the only feedback students receive comes in the form of a grade. Ungraded informal writing done in or out of class offers them the opportunity to practice. You may choose to give students credit for completing a task without actually assigning the grade. These assignments allow students to practice writing and grapple with the concepts of the course.
  4. Students arrive in college classes as experienced writers.
    Rethinking it: For a variety of reasons, undergraduate students are largely unprepared for college-level writing, and the essays that they turn in are often first drafts instead of polished pieces. Informal writing tasks that are designed to help students clarify their thinking about key concepts can help lead up to writing lengthier pieces. Students benefit from the opportunities to work through their ideas, and you will benefit by seeing more carefully thought-out essays.
  5. The only point of writing is to express what you already know.

    Rethinking it: While writing is fundamentally a means of communicating one’s ideas about a topic, it can also serve as a means of discovery. Often students will say that the “know” something, but they can’t put it into words. What this really means is that when they thought they knew it until they tried to write it. Short writing assignments that ask them to articulate what they know can help them to assess their own learning; if you collect these assignments periodically, you will get a sense of what they know as well. The very process of writing is an important means of learning material.

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Five ways to use short writing assignments :
  1. At the beginning of class, give students a short writing assignment to give them time to process ideas. This may mean asking them to respond to a question raised in the assigned reading or homework or even asking them a kind of a “survey” question to allow them to collect their thoughts. These can serve as great discussion starters as well as giving students the opportunity to practice
  2. At any point in class (or out of class), have students respond to a writing or your lecture by writing counterarguments. Tell students, “Your textbook argues that the best solution to the problem of racial discrimination is _____. How would you counter that argument?” This is a useful way not only of forcing students to practice putting their ideas in writing, but it also inspires critical thinking.
  3. During the last few minutes of class, ask students to answer general comprehension questions on a half-sheet of paper. These questions may be as simple as “What is the most important point you learned today?” and “What point remains the least clear to you?” The main purpose is to elicit data about students’ comprehension of a particular class, but you also give students the opportunity to practice with the language of your discipline and to articulate their knowledge.
  4. Stop your lecture (or the discussion) and ask students to write through a question or a problem they are having with the material. This works well at a point in the class where students are confused, or at a moment where they are particularly engaged.
  5. Have students write short think pieces that will eventually become a part of longer pieces of writing. If the final assignment for your course is a 10-page essay, assign several 1-page pieces throughout the semester that force students to grapple with the topic of that final essay.

The resources below offer many additional ideas for using informal writing in content courses:

Writing Across the Curriculum at Coe College, In-Class Writing to Learn

Writing Across the Curriculum at Sacramento State University, Designing "Writing to Learn" Assignments

University of Virginia, Better Student Essays through Staging and Scaffolding Assignments

University Writing Program at the University of Denver, Making Writing Assignments, Using Writing to Teach Content

For more tips on writing from ITLAL, see these pages: