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Designing Discipline-Specific Writing Assignments

Writing can help students learn and think critically about course content. When students are asked to write discipline-specific genres, they learn to think and write like professionals in those disciplines. Two approaches to integrating writing in courses include write to learn (WTL) and learn to write (LTW) activities; for more about WTL activities, see our Principles page. LTW activities are high-stakes writing in which students learn to think like and communicate as professionals in discipline-specific genres. 

Objectives for Learn to Write Activities

  • Learn course content
  • Practice disciplinary ways of thinking
  • Learn about discipline-specific genres
  • Practice writing discipline-specific genres
  • Adapt one’s writing to a variety of audiences 

Which Genres Matter Most in Your Discipline?
Genres often vary by discipline and reflect what, how, and to whom the discipline communicates. Here are just some of the genres that we’ve seen in JYW courses at UMass: personal narratives about students’ disciplinary interests; critical responses to scholarship; analyses of images, texts, or other cultural artifacts; literature reviews; research proposals; research articles; lab reports; op-eds; oral presentations; informational videos on YouTube or other media; blog posts for public audiences; and more.

When thinking about the select disciplinary genres that you assign, consider the form, habits of mind, or audiences that professionals in your discipline recognize. By form, how is this particular genre often structured? When considering the habits of mind, ask what ways of thinking, kind of evidence and logic, and skills students might need to write successfully in disciplinary genres. Lastly, you’ll want to consider the intended audiences for the genre and assignment. 

It’s worth noting that some assignments may require similar content skills, but in terms of writing, they require different audiences and habits of mind. A lab notebook might be more about the detail and process, including some personal observations of the process, for an audience of the writer and perhaps few others. On the other hand, a lab report is more contained, focused on the findings, and the audience might be just the professor or possibly a lab group. Lastly, an article is a polished, finalized product of this research. The emphasis is on persuasive and strong evidence, with a much far-reaching audience. 

Sequence the Assignments
It’s important to consider in what order students should work through assignments. How can you require multiple occasions for writing? What might students need to practice in order to be successful on future writing assignments?  For example, the curriculum may sequence assignments along one or more of the following tracks:

  • Audience: first, specialists; then, non-specialist scientists (e.g.: NSF); last, popular audience
  • Inquiry Process: literature review, methodology, analysis of teacher-provided or new data; conclusions; new research proposal based on findings 
  • Disciplinary Genres: literature review; lab report with teacher-provided methodology and data; research proposal to specialist audience; research proposal to funding agency

Designing Effective Assignments 

  • Learning Goals. Identify and communicate 3-4 learning goals for the assignment. 
  • Communicative Task. Make the prompt meaningful by helping students identify their purpose and intended readers.
  • Scaffolding. Create scaffolded activities to help students meet those learning goals. 
  • Expectations for the Writing Process. Set a plan with clear expectations and deadlines. Be sure to include multiple opportunities for drafting, feedback (both peer and instructor), and revision throughout. 
  • Some questions you might consider when designing your assignments include: 
    • What are the main units (and associated assignments)  in my course?
    • What are the main learning objectives for each unit? What are the chief concepts or principles you want students to learn? What thinking skills or habits of mind are you trying to develop in your students?
    • How should you write the assignment to convey the learning goals to students? Does the assignment clearly articulate the desired learning outcomes? 

Further Reading

  • Bean, John C. “Designing and Sequencing Assignments to Teach Undergraduate Research.” Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, 2nd Edition, Jossey-Bass, 2011, pp. 224-63. 
  • –. “Part Two: Designing Problem-Based Assignments.” Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, 2nd Edition, Jossey-Bass, 2011, pp. 89-145.
  • Glenn, Cheryl and Melissa A. Goldthwaite. “Successful Writing Assignments.” The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing, 7th Edition, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014, pp. 95-124. 
  • UMass Amherst University Writing Program. “Sourcebook for Junior Year Writing Courses.” 2007-2008.