What are Strong Writing Assignments?

How do writing assignments fit within assignments in general?

Mary Taylor Huber, recently retired senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, thinks of assignments as the interface between instructors and students, between pedagogy and learning (personal communication 10/18/10). Just as pedagogy takes many forms, such as demonstration, lecture, field work, or discussion, learning occurs under varied conditions that may include exams, quizzes, problem sets, speeches, writing, recitation, or research.

Research on learning (e.g., National Research Council 2000) suggests that learning is fostered by active rather than passive participation. Courses based in lecture pedagogy with related exams and quizzes are designed to help students recall newly learned information; however, new knowledge quickly decays after the testing experience. In contrast, courses that employ hands-on demonstration, discussion, group problem-solving, or independent research tend to produce learning that is integrated with experience—and is more lasting.

Pedagogy is tailored to the instructor's goals, course content, materials (readings, lab apparatus, guest speakers, field arrangements), and outcomes. Writing assignments connect with pedagogy to provide students opportunities to demonstrate their learning. 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. Therefore, the characterization of writing-intensive courses as a "high-impact practice" (Kuh 2008) as reported by students who have participated in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) makes educational sense. Combined with other high-impact practices, such as undergraduate research, first-year seminars, internships, and senior capstones, a strong emphasis on writing speaks to consolidation of learning that yields tangible products.

Using first-year seminars as an example, the following activities comprise a high-impact approach:

  • Establish course goals and choose a format that fits the goals
  • Use instructional teams if possible, e.g., librarians, tech support, writing center tutors
  • Use active pedagogies, e.g., group work, discussion, experiential learning, problem-solving
  • Help students understand that skills learned will serve them throughout college and after graduation (Brownell and Swaner 2010)

Writing assignments are a powerful delivery system for this kind of active, engaged course. There is something intuitively satisfying to students and faculty when a writing project demonstrates successful learning. A truism among rhetoric and composition scholars goes like this: Writing makes thinking visible.

We can begin to define a strong writing assignment as having the following features:

  • Clear connection to course goals
    • Doing the writing will advance learning for students
    • Students' writing will cue faculty to concepts that need more attention
  • o Engagement with course content
    • Writing offers practice in a new intellectual environment
    • Feedback on writing will help students manage new material
  • Expectations that complement the pedagogy and subject matter
    • Students will use new concepts and terminology appropriately
    • Students may learn to employ new disciplinary rhetorical conventions