How Do I Effectively Incorporate Writing Assignments in My Course?

How Do I Effectively Incorporate Writing Assignments in My Course?

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[Photo: PEAKPX, CC0]

Writing assignments, no matter the course level or discipline, offer students the opportunity to think deeply about the content they are learning and display their thinking more fully (Hughes, n.d.). Writing assignments also help students develop and practice valuable communication skills within their discipline or profession. On this page, you will find a range of strategies for incorporating writing assignments in your class, no matter the context.

 

STRATEGIES & EXAMPLES

Clarify Expectations, Clarify Expectations, and Don’t Forget to Clarify Expectations

Redundancy is your friend. As the Conference on College Composition & Communication (CCCC) states in their position statement on Online Writing Instruction, “Teachers should incorporate redundancy (e.g., reminders and repeated information) in the course’s organization. Such repetition acts like oral reminders in class or online announcements in Moodle or Blackboard.” (2013). Find ways to fold expectations conveyed in your assignment description into other venues. Have students reflect on key expectations in discussion forums. Create short video segments on assignments. Highlight assignment details in weekly emails.

Break down complex writing in stages. Sequence your assignments so students can work toward more complexity. Give clear criteria for what demonstrates proficient work. Give students opportunities to discuss and ask questions about the assignment, as well as plan their approach if the task is complex. For a full list of considerations in assignment design, see Writing Program Director Rebecca Lorimer Leonard’s “Best Practices in Designing Writing Assignments.”

Be explicit when providing feedback on assignments. Strategies recommended by the CCCC from Beth Hewett’s “The Online Writing Conference: A Guide for Teachers and Tutors” (2010) include:

  • “Asking open-ended (e.g., wh- [i.e., what, when, where, why, who] and how) questions
  • Demonstrating how to do something
  • Illustrating by examples, anecdotes, and numbers
  • Modeling by writing at the level that is being required of the student
  • Providing doable tasks with instructions to try them out
  • Explaining terms and actions that might be unclear otherwise”

Use technology and rubrics to streamline grading and reinforce assignment criteria. UMass Amherst instructors have implemented these tasks by commenting on student work in Apps at UMass or by using the rubric function in Moodle or Blackboard. For example rubrics, see the UMass Amherst Writing Program resource database. For a variety of examples on how to streamline and clarify the grading of writing in different disciplines, see the University of Wisconsin’s examples for writing rubrics in general, or for teaching in biology, plant pathology, journalism, and engineering.

Set norms for communication. If you incorporate peer feedback in your course – either through sharing drafts of writing or responding to short writing assignments on discussion forums – setting norms for feedback will help students work more productively and avoid tensions. Add a statement to your syllabus explaining the appropriate way for students to contact you for conferences, what sort of language is helpful, and what sort of language they should avoid (sarcasm, acronyms, all caps). For an example of a communication or “nettiquette” statement, see the UMass Amherst Writing Program resource database.

Leverage Online Tools (even in face-to-face courses)

Stockpile examples. Nothing clarifies expectations more than concrete examples of successful work, which help students better understand your assignment criteria and expose them to the rhetorical moves inherent in a particular writing context. Online learning management systems (LMSs) like Moodle and Blackboard make compiling examples easy. Keep a folder of successful student work in a section of your LMS, and encourage students to analyze those examples before beginning their own assignments (Pytash & Morgan, 2014; Aguiar & Pearsall, 2020). Make sure you protect students’ privacy, though, and get permission for all the student work you share.

Take advantage of multimodality. If your students peer review each other’s work, consider allowing them to try audio or video comments. You, too, can offer feedback in a variety of formats. You can also offer assignments that involve hypertext, images, podcasts, or videos (Aguiar & Pearsall, 2020). IDEAS offers support for Voicethread, a tool which facilitates video and audio commenting.

Manage the writing process with online programs. Apps at UMass, a customized version of Google’s Suite of software, gives you and your students the ability to work on shared documents for collaborative writing and peer review. One UMass instructor in the sciences creates Google Documents for groups working on collaborative writing, assigns only himself as the editor so he can lock the documents at the due date/time, and provides his feedback within the document (comments are fine, but don’t add a grade, as Google doesn’t meet FERPA security standards). Other instructors use the Workshop Activity function in Moodle, or the Group Assignment function in Blackboard, to stage the peer review process. Some instructors use discussion forums for posting and receiving feedback on paper drafts, particularly for asynchronous classes. If you use discussion forums, consider providing discussion post guidelines. You can find an example in the UMass Amherst Writing Program resource database.

In large classes, be especially careful how you handle the submission of writing assignments. Avoid having students email attachments to you, as this can quickly prove overwhelming and make tracking student submissions difficult. Use the assignment tool in Moodle or Blackboard, which requires students to click a link and upload their work. With this option, you can grade online and provide feedback through Moodle or Blackboard. If your students send you files directly, be sure to state your preferred format for filenames (e.g., Last Name – Title). Otherwise, you may get many documents named “Doc1.” Also let your students know your preferred document format (e.g., .doc files as opposed to .rtf files). You can also use Turnitin to check for plagiarism, record text or voice comments, and add preset comments during grading.

Highlight academic integrity in Moodle/Blackboard. The UMass Libraries provides access to excellent videos about academic integrity, plagiarism, and copyright. The programming is authenticated by NetID and password, so you can track participation/completion. Videos include:

All videos, including instructions on how to embed (using Learning Tools Interoperability, or LTI) into Blackboard or Moodle, can be found on the Libraries Information Literacy Modules Guide, bundled under Academic Integrity as a topic.

Please contact the CTL with any questions or for more details about the examples shared at ctl@umass.edu.

 

REFERENCES

Aguiar, C. & Pearsall, A. (2020, May 22). Six practical approaches for teaching writing online. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from: https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/six-practical-approaches-for-teaching-writing-online/

CCCC. (2013). A position statement of principles and example effective practices for Online Writing Instruction (OWI). Retrieved from: https://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/owiprinciples

Hewett, B. (2010). The online writing conference: A guide for teachers and tutors. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Hughes, B. (n.d.). Why should you use writing assignments in your teaching. University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Across the Curriculum. Retrieved from: https://dept.writing.wisc.edu/wac/why-should-i-use-writing-assignments-in-my-teaching/

Pytash, K. E., & Morgan, D.N. (2014). Using mentor texts to teach writing in science and social studies. The Reading Teacher 68(2), 93-102. Retrieved from: www.jstor.org/stable/24573708