Developing Strong Writing Assignments

Carol Rutz, Carleton College

What are Strong Writing Assignments?

Writing assignments are a powerful delivery system for an active, engaged course. A truism among rhetoric and composition scholars goes like this: Writing makes thinking visible. Because writing requires students to manage new knowledge within linguistic and rhetorical conventions, students are challenged on several levels. Recall of new terminology or concepts is only the beginning: in a strong writing assignment, a student may be asked to show her facility with new knowledge as well as adopt new language and, possibly, unfamiliar rhetorical conventions. Strong writing assignments are characterized by the following: they have a clear connection to course goals, they engage students with course content, and they have expectations that compliment both the pedagogy and the subject matter.

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Why Teach with Writing Assignments?

Writing is a flexible means of demonstrating learning as well as a method of exploring one's thinking to stimulate learning, which is why the literature on writing instruction emphasizes both learning to write and writing to learn. Writing assignments aid instructors in ensuring that students have completed and comprehended reading assignments, to determine how well a student understands concepts covered in class, and writing assignments help students practice communication skills, including summarizing, comparing, describing, narrating, or communicating about observations such as data collection, analysis, or interpretation.

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How to Teach with Writing Assignments

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. Strong writing assignments

  • 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.
  • offer 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.
  • provide opportunities for students to practice the skills necessary to fulfill the major purpose of the writing task.
  • require 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.
  • involve 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.

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Examples of Teaching with Writing Assignments

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