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 :
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.
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.
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.
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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The resources below offer many additional ideas for using informal writing in content courses:
For more tips on writing from ITLAL, see these pages: