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WRITING ASSIGNMENTS

In a First-Year Seminar or a writing-intensive course, it is best to have several writing assignments and a variety of types of writing, usually integrated with course readings, rather than one long assignment at the end of the course. On this page we will emphasize the difference between informal writing, or writing to learn, and formal writing, or writing to communicate.

Think of informal writing as short and often impromptu, written primarily for the benefit of the writer as an aid to clarifying purpose and not requiring extensive instructor response. A variety of informal writing activities can help develop students' critical thinking skills by providing them with a space for asking questions, raising critique, and playing with ideas.

Formal writing is more reader-based, with specific considerations for audience and convention. Each type of writing is integral to the students' literacy development.

 

Informal Writing

Formal Writing

Reading Logs Exit/Entrance Cards

Essay Assignments

Response Papers In-class Freewrites

Writing About Reading

Microthemes Invention

Essay Exams

 

Consider the following general suggestions for planning and creating writing assignments that work well:

  • make sure the task is clearly defined, using language that helps students know what they are expected to produce, when, and why.
  • offer an authentic situation, one that provides students with a clear sense of purpose and audience.
  • if there are specific steps that students need to follow to complete the assignment, make sure to include them (length, plans to see a thesis statement, notes, and/or draft; plans for conferencing and peer review, etc.).
  • write assignments so that students can understand how their purpose ties into the overall plan for the course.
  • if appropriate, include information about how you will respond to the writing assignment and grading criteria.
  • consider whether there are aspects of the assignment that can be made flexible for students with special learning needs or different levels of ability (extended deadlines, time for conferencing, etc.).

Writing assignments can be developed for different purposes: as a way to support learning as well as a means of communication.

Informal Writing Assignments: Writing to Learn

Whether considering writing in the classroom for a writing course, a First Year Seminar, or a content-area course, it is important to understand how course content can actually be understood and secured through writing to learn. In this mode, students write in order to discover, examine, and test their ideas about reading assignments, class discussions, lectures, and essay topics. Such writing is usually informal, can take a variety of forms, and represents the kind of active thinking and critical engagement with course material that helps students prepare for more formal writing tasks. Writing to learn becomes a vehicle for figuring out and refining what we think before we communicate publicly to others.

Ideas for using writing to learn in the classroom:

1. READING LOGS OR COMMONPLACE BOOKS

  • analyze the writer behind the text:
    think of the unique human being using writing to express an idea. List as many facts as you can think of about the writer based on what is found in the reading: are there thoughtful conclusions and careful evidence presented about the subject under discussion? What does this tell you about the writer's intellectual response to the subject?
  • try a passage commentary:
    select a passage from the reading that seems most important, copy it into the reading log, and then write several paragraphs explaining why the passage seems significant.
  • use the ancient tradition of commonplace books:
    for every assigned reading, copy important passages because they have significant ideas related to the course material and/or because they represent strong writing that might be imitated in terms of form and style choices. Such a commonplace book will help improve memory of course topics and serve as a helpful resource for review.

2. RESPONSE PAPERS

  • for every assigned reading, write a response that both summarizes the main points (lower-order reasoning skills) and analyzes/critiques the main points (higher-order reasoning skills).
  • practice critical reflection as part of reading response:
    -what was strong and weak about the assigned reading and why;
    - what was interesting, relevant, and connected to other readings and why;
    - what seemed off the topic, irrelevant, or inconsistent with other readings and why;
    - what assumptions seemed explicit and/or implicit in the reading and why;
    - what opposing viewpoints to the reading seem important and why;
    - what are the advantages and/or disadvantages of agreeing with the reading and why?

 

3. MICROTHEMES

  • use a series of short (100 words), progressively more difficult writing assignments that can be completed in the classroom or as homework. Short, quick summaries of assigned readings could be asked for first, then short syntheses of ideas in several connected readings, and finally analyses of the quality of an argument or string of related ideas. As micro themes grow in number and difficulty, topics for more formal assignments like critical analysis might emerge and signal productive directions for both teacher and student.

 

4. EXIT/ENTRANCE CARDS

  • using 3x5 cards, ask students to comment with an idea or question about the topic under discussion for a specific class period, then use their comments/questions to begin the next class period.
  • using 3x5 cards, require that students enter class with a comment or question about the assigned reading written on the card and ready to be shared for class discussion.

 

5. IN-CLASS FREEWRITES
  • interrupt a lecture or discussion with a short freewrite that asks students to comment on what is under discussion. These short freewrites can then be discussed or the class can move ahead. Either way, freewriting will allow students to focus closely on a topic.

 

6. INVENTION TECHNIQUES FOR PREPARING TO WRITE AN ESSAY
  • use a focused freewrite on the day that a formal writing assignment is introduced: review the material that has been covered and the actual writing assignment; then ask students to write freely for about five minutes on what they are thinking about as a possible topic. Share these ideas in class discussion, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses and relevance in terms of the assignment.
  • use a center of gravity approach. Start freewriting on a possible direction for the assignment and stop after three minutes, then:
    - review what was written and underline or circle the idea that seems most prominent;
    - copy the underlined or circled idea on a clean page and then begin freewriting again for three minutes, focused on the copied idea;
    - again review what was written and complete the same process of underlining, copying, and freewriting on the specific idea that has been copied.
    Each time the student freewrites, in other words, the original idea becomes more and more focused - the students draws closer to the "center of gravity" for the actual writing assignment and have something to start with for a draft.
  • write a discovery draft as a first response to a formal writing assignment, one that is shared in a peer group and/or read by the teacher and commented on for the coherence of its main idea and supporting evidence only. Such a discovery draft will then allow the student to build on early ideas as a more complete draft is written.

Formal Writing Assignments: Writing to Communicate

When writing to communicate, students move from their informal and more discovery-based writing to more formal, demanding and public expectations of particular discourse and rhetorical conventions. Learning the conventions for specific fields of study, developing different methods for analysis and argument, as well as fine tuning the details of grammar, documentation and mechanics are central to the mode of writing as communication.

At their most effective, assignments in writing to communicate can be built directly off the scaffolding that has been provided through writing to learn. The two modes of writing are connected in terms of developing content, but writing to communicate will call for more coherent development and structure.

Students can be asked to review everything they have written informally through writing to learn in order to determine a focus or direction for their more formal assignments in public communication. They may find an initial thesis for a specific topic emerging through their ideas for using writing to communicate in the classroom.

 

1. ESSAY ASSIGNMENTS

  • Consider the PURPOSE or the primary focus that will be emphasized by a specific assignment. Do you want students to develop analytical, informational, argumentative, reflective, or expressive skills, or a combination of several skills? The essay instructions should make clear to students what set of skills will be most valued when completing the assignment.
    • Analytical: What is valued is the students' ability to examine closely the connection between the parts and the whole of a particular subject and their ability to investigate and articulate the way ideas connect to or contrast with one another.
    • Informational: What is valued is the students' ability to summarize and synthesize information about a particular subject.
    • Argumentative: What is valued is the students' ability to articulate a claim about a particular subject with appropriate evidence to support such a claim.
    • Reflective: What is valued is the students' ability to look at experiences retrospectively and articulate what has been learned from them.
    • Expressive: What is valued is the students' ability to consider the relevance of personal experience.

    Analysis is the skill underpinning all others. To write well from an informational, argumentative, or expressive perspective, in other words, students need to use their analytical ability to focus their writing.

    A sense of purpose will connect to developing a central idea or thesis. Knowing what kind of writing is expected of them (informational? argumentative? expressive?) and reviewing the ideas present in their writing to learn assignments will help students accomplish the difficult task of determining a central idea. After reading, class discussion, and writing to learn, students will be more able to decide what they want to say and thus have a starting point.

    A set of essay instructions can ask students to follow through on these kinds of review and explorations to arrive at a working central idea. Students can be encouraged to begin with a working central idea in order to develop a preliminary draft. Ideas might be roughly sketched out to begin with using the following seed sentences as frames:

    I am analyzing/arguing about_______________ in order to understand/examine_______________________.

    Most people believe that _____________________, but my investigation has shown that __________________.

    We know this _____________ about ____________; we also need to know this __________________ about ____________________________.

    Seed sentences can help students get started writing and can then be further refined later in the process of writing. Working with seed sentences might also be a productive approach to writing to learn.

  • Effective assignments should also ask students to consider AUDIENCE. 

    Are they to be thinking of the teacher exclusively when completing the assignment?

    Should they be thinking of a general educated audience, or an audience only of their peers?

    Should they be thinking of the audience as completely or partially informed about the subject?

    Will the audience hold values similar to or different from the writer?

    How much will the audience identify with the subject and topic under study?

    Such considerations will help determine the form and style choices that can be made and are central to the writing task.

  • Once the purpose, central idea, and audience have been established as part of the assignment, consider providing students additional advice on the STRUCTURE of their writing. They might bear in mind these structural possibilities:
    • Thesis/Support: the most common deductive structure whereby students establish a central idea or thesis after introducing the subject in the introduction and then provide a series of supporting ideas with examples, facts, anecdotes, testimony, statistics, quotations, and other details.
    • Problem/Solution: an effective two-part structure whereby students first examine the nature of a specific problem and then describe an effective solution that carries with it their central claim about the subject. The writing situation considers a problem to which the student is proposing a solution. Students can be asked to consider the costs and benefits of the solution proposed.
    • Question/Answer: another two-part structure that is formed around an analysis of a central question or set of questions that are pertinent to a subject and then moves into a claim/analysis of possible answers.
    • Narrative/Analysis: a structure building on story techniques whereby the student details what is happening/has happened and uses these events to develop an analysis/argument about the subject.
  • Finally, an assignment can also be accompanied by a MODEL that illustrates the expectation for writing. Successful assignments can be saved and copied for such purposes in future classes.

    The following handouts provide examples of essay assignments that stress various purposes, sense of audience, and structural ideas:

 

2. WRITING ABOUT READING

Many academic assignments ask students to write very specifically about what they've read. The following links provide helpful structures for such assignments:

 

3. ESSAY EXAMS

Unlike essay assignments or research projects, an essay exam has a limited purpose and audience: the teacher wants the student to demonstrate understanding of specific course material and to do so in an articulate manner.

These general study habit hints might be useful as students work with material that will be covered by essay exams:

  1. take careful notes during relevant class discussion.
  2. read assigned chapters critically; that is, respond in a writer's notebook with summary and response, plus annotate the text.
  3. review notes regularly before the essay exam.
  4. prepare notes or outlines ahead of time that reorganize the material around key topics or issues.

During the exam period itself

  1. read the exam question all the way through at least twice in order to stick to the question being asked and to answer it fully.
  2. examine the key words in the question and make sure to consider the difference in implication between words like "summarize" or "define."
  3. make a brief outline of the main ideas to be covered.
  4. write a thesis sentence that responds directly to the question being asked, using some of the the question's words.
  5. write the essay, trying to write clearly and concisely the first time since there won't be much time to rewrite. Make sure to use plenty of specific references to the material in question.
  6. Try to correct as many errors in spelling and mechanics as you can find before you hand in your exam. Be as legible as possible but don?t recopy.

Exam Questions

Exam questions should be written so that students understand clearly what is expected of them. Is the goal of the exam question:

  • to show that students have acquired a specific body of knowledge?
  • to show that students can create an informed opinion based on this body of knowledge?
  • to show that students can create a convincing argument based on this body of knowledge?
  • to show that students can critically evaluate and acknowledge the ideas they have been reading about and working with?

Common "Key" Words for Essay Exams and Ideas for Organizing Around Them

  1. Comparison - Contrast : "compare and contrast" Analyzes similarities and differences

    Two ways to organize:

       
    Pattern I Pattern II
    First topic Advantages
    advantages First topic
    disadvantages Second topic
    Second topic  Disadvantages
    advantages First topic
    disadvantages Second topic

  2. Definition : "define" Specifies distinctive characteristics.

    How to organize: begin with the term to be defined and discuss the group to which it belongs, then show how the term is different from other members of the group.

    Make sure to include its important features. Use details, comparisons, and examples.

  3. Analysis : "analyze" or "discuss" or "explain" Breaks topic into its elements. Explains and compares main points of view on the topic.

    How to organize: analysis involves a careful breaking of something into its various parts. Using transitional words like "first, second, third?" or "next," "another," "in addition" will add coherence to your analysis.

  4. Cause and Effect : "cause" "why" "effects" 

    How to organize: like analysis questions, cause and effect questions ask you to trace something?s features, in this case, specific effects of a particular cause or vice versa. Using transitional words will help you organize coherently, especially ?because,? ?therefore,? and ?consequently.?

Writing the Essay Exam

Starting the essay: You don't need an embellished, exciting opening for a timed essay. Instead, you can state your thesis right away and give a brief overview of what the rest of the essay will do. This will immediately show your command over the subject. Don't just restate the question without answering it. Always include your answer to the question in the intro.

Developing the essay: The body of your essay should be developed with the same attention to logical organization, coherence, and adequate development that you provide in any academic paper. Support your thesis with solid generalizations and specific, relevant details. Don't fill out the essay by repeating yourself. Don't use subjective feelings instead of real analysis.

Concluding the essay: Here you can briefly restate the thesis in new words, perhaps pointing to wider implications in a way that follows logically from what you've written rather than in a way that demands more explanation.

Before submitting the essay: Reread and correct any illegible sections. Make sure your handwriting can be read. Check for spelling, grammatical mistakes, and accidental omissions. If you find any material that seems irrelevant, cross it out and add other information on another page, keying the addition to the page where it belongs.