How to Teach with Writing Assignments

David Smit (2010) at Kansas State University lists five essential moves teachers must make as they incorporate writing into their courses. These moves assume that the teacher sees writing as a way to improve learning; given the time that good assignments take in design, explanation, and response, teachers will want to use writing because writing will make the learning and teaching experiences better for all parties. Writing as busy work serves little purpose. Please note that Smit advocates reflection on the part of the student writer as well as revision in response to reader feedback. Essential moves:

  • Assignments that provide a rhetorical situation for the writing task: a purpose, a genre, an audience, and a discussion of the contextual factors that may produce effective communication in this particular situation.
  • An emphasis on the process of writing: providing instruction in (and sufficient time for) getting ideas, planning, writing drafts, analyzing their drafts, revising, and editing.
  • Opportunities for students to practice the skills necessary to fulfill the major purpose of the writing task.
  • Focused responses to students' drafts that include comments on how well the draft meets the demands of the assignment, and one or two ways to improve other matters, such as organization or editing.
  • Meta-cognitive reflection on the genre conventions, the audience, and the contextual factors of the rhetorical situation, especially ways in which these factors are similar to and different from other writing that students have done.

In addition, Smit offers these thoughts on the larger effects of good writing experience for students:

Just as important, we must recognize that students cannot get sufficient practice in writing if they only write in English classes. Writing needs to be the responsibility of colleges and universities as a whole. But for us to teach writing effectively across the curriculum, we need smaller classes and teachers who are trained to teach writing effectively in academic disciplines outside of English. Thus, the solution to the "crisis" in writing is not only educational. It is also social and political. We must insist in our departments — and in other departments across our colleges and universities — that writing is important enough to be taught throughout the curriculum.

Some of the best advice on teaching with writing is in John Bean's 1996 book, Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (Jossey-Bass). Fortunately, the second edition is in preparation, which promises to update the already wise and useful advice in the first edition. This book is known as a faculty development "bible," because of its emphases on:

  • connecting thinking and learning (i.e., suiting the writing activity to the pedagogy),
  • articulating problems to be solved rather than prompting students to produce correct answers,
  • coaching students as writers who think, and
  • offering ways to respond to student writing that provide useful help without exhausting the teacher.

Many of the principles articulated in Engaging Ideas are showcased in a module on Quantitative Writing that John Bean created for the SERC Pedagogy in Action site.

See that site for definitions and examples that are broadly applicable to teaching writing across the curriculum with the added feature of the rhetorical use of numbers for setting context as well as detailed analysis.

As Bean's work demonstrates, writing is a set of pedagogical practices deeply contextualized within disciplinary and rhetorical conventions. Robert L. Scott speaks of rhetoric as an epistemic, generative set of activities; that construction of writing informs the notion of writing to learn as the mirror image of learning to write. (Scott 1967, 1976) Where writing assignments match the pedagogical context, learning gains are greatest.

Resources for faculty in all disciplines:

As a general reference for faculty development, the Tomorrow's Professor Mailing List- a listserv moderated by Richard M. Reis of Stanford University - features items of broad interest to higher education, including frequent postings on communication of all kinds across the curriculum, including writing.

The WAC Clearinghouse, hosted by Colorado State University, offers books, journals, and other resources for teachers who use writing in their courses. The site includes a comprehensive bibliography organized by topics such as assessment, faculty development, program design and development, WAC history, and WAC theory.