Incorporating writing into classes across the curriculum is crucial for helping students develop the ability to learn independently, think critically, and organize ideas thoughtfully. For many instructors, writing assignments can seem daunting to assign.
We offer some tips for helping you to decide when a writing assignment may be most appropriate and how to handle writing assignments in face-to-face, online, and hybrid contexts.
- Incorporate short, ungraded freewrites into the class. Starting class with a quick freewrite, where students write informally about a particular topic, can get students thinking about a difficult concept before a lecture or discussion begins. Wrapping up class with a closing freewrite can help students summarize key points and identify points of confusion. This simple step can work in any learning environment – online or in person.
- Ask students to write out the instructions for an assignment. When students have to write instructions for themselves, it can help them see what to do on it more easily.
- Ask students to contribute to a blog or a social network. Writing in informal, online spaces can motivate students to write directly to a public audience while working through complex ideas. In online and hybrid class contexts, blogging can also help students create a presence in their class environment and feel like they’re contributing to an online class community.
- Ask students to contribute to an online discussion forum. Writing in response to a discussion forum prompt within the learning management system, particularly in online and hybrid courses, can encourage students to not only process ideas on their own but to share their insights with others and see their classmates’ responses.
- Make sure assignment prompts specify an intended purpose and audience. Without knowing the use of the writing exercise, essays can quickly become superficial exercises. Defining a purpose and audience can help garner student buy-in on a writing activity.
- Be sure to give writing prompts that do not require an understanding of American popular culture. Underrepresented students can feel alienated from participating in a writing assignment if the prompt requires they have prior knowledge of something from pop culture with which they may not be familiar. Be sure to rely upon references that are inclusive of all members of our ISU community.
- Introduce writing assignments through several different modalities. Students will process information in a variety of different ways. Provide prompts and introductions to tasks visually (with a written assignment prompt) and aurally (through a video in a hybrid or online class or through an in-class, spoken presentation).
- Follow guidance on the
Assessing Writing Activities
When feedback is used well, all students – regardless of where they began – can not only demonstrate their learning, but learn, improve and grow because of the assessment. For additional guidance and tools, read through the Interactive Feedback strategies page.
- Align rubric categories and criteria with course learning outcomes. Ensure that the requirements you are applying to grade a specific assignment help you evaluate the objectives established at the beginning of the course.
- Keep it simple; shorter rubrics are often more effective. Extended, detailed rubrics can get confusing both for students and the instructor. Try to prioritize the essential student outcomes for the assignment and design your rubric around those desired outcomes.
- Limit comments to two or three “action items” for the student to accomplish. Giving students comments on every part of the paper can be overwhelming and less effective for student learning.
- Focus on providing substantive comments. Focus on higher-order concerns, like purpose and argument, and identifying patterns of sentence-level errors rather than correcting individual mistakes for students. You may find it useful to use Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide for determining the kinds of higher-level concerns worth noticing in student writing (See References).
- Limit spoken feedback to 5-7 minutes. Just as written feedback works best when it’s limited to two or three “action items,” audio and feedback works best when the instructor points students to 2 or 3 specific parts of his or her paper in the length of a video. When using a free screen-capturing video program, like Jing, users are limited to creating 5-minute videos. Using a program like this can give you an excellent way to keep your feedback concise and focused on global concerns you may have about the student’s writing.
- In screen-capture feedback, use the cursor to point to and highlight certain parts of student work. The beauty of creating a screen-capture version of student feedback is that you’re able to engage students visually! Move your mouse around the screen and point students to specific moments where you hope to draw their attention (See Cavanaugh and Song).
- Keep your tone friendly and informal! You may feel inclined to sound “scripted” in a feedback video, but it’s best to keep an upbeat mood and warm so that students feel encouraged by (rather than disappointed or frustrated with) the feedback you provide them.
- Establish clear expectations for peer reviewers. Have a norming session where students practice giving feedback, and the instructor informs them of best practices in feedback.
- Create a guiding handout for peer reviewers to work through their peers’ writing. Offering guidance for peer reviewers can help them pay attention to higher-order concerns in each other’s writing.
- Learn more from CELT’s Peer Assessment page.
Writing in Various Learning Spaces
Teaching writing online, or using writing as a way for students to explore other concepts or skills, has significant benefits for both students and instructors. For the most part, writing is an individual activity, and the online space can give the instructor more opportunities to work one-on-one with student writers. Both synchronous writing activities (like individual freewrites during webinars or collaborative writing activities) and asynchronous writing activities (like writing short responses to readings or writing long papers) have advantages.
For a hybrid class, incorporating a blend of synchronous writing activities (like freewriting or collaborative writing) and asynchronous writing activities (like short responses to readings or longer essay assignments) is useful. Given how hybrid courses leverage the advantages of students’ independent out-of-class time with the benefits of face-to-face, synchronous conversation.
For best practices, visit the Blended and Flipped Course page.
In face-to-face classes, many instructors see writing as merely something that happens outside the class. However, synchronous writing leveraged as an in-class activity for facilitating reflection and learning can be powerful.
Things to Consider
- You do not have to be in the humanities or teaching a writing-focused class for writing to be useful. Writing assignments are a powerful learning tool for students in all disciplines. Even if you are not a teacher of writing, students can process ideas that can enable them to reflect deeply and process complex ideas.
- You are not responsible for correcting students’ grammar or fixing sentence-level errors. While students may make errors in their writing in your class, you do not have to be a grammar expert to help them. Pointing out error patterns, rather than fixing every mistake, is more useful for writers anyway.
Tools for Writing
Centrally Supported Tools:
Carpenter, J. H. & Krest, M. (2001). It’s about science: Students writing and thinking about data in a scientific writing course. Language and Learning Across the Disciplines 5(2), 1-20.
Cavanaugh, A.J. & Song, L. (2014). Audio Feedback versus Written Feedback: Instructors and Students Perspectives. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 10(1), 122-138.
Dreyer, D. B. (2013). Scaling writing ability: A corpus-driven inquiry. Written Communication 30(1), 3-35.
Ferris, D. (2007). Preparing teachers to respond to student writing. Journal of Second Language Writing 16(3), 165-193.
Heckelman, R.J. & Dunn, W.M. III. (2003). Models in algebra and rhetoric: A new approach to integrating writing and mathematics in a WAC learning community. Language and Learning Across the Disciplines 6(3), 74-88.
Reid, S. (2008). Shelley’s Quick Guides for Writing Teachers: Responding and Grading Writing. Retrieved from http://mason.gmu.edu/~ereid1/teachers/tchguidegrading.htm
Weimer, M. (2013). What Types of Writing Assignments Are in Your Syllabus? Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/what-types-of-writing-assignments-are-in-your-syllabus/
Information adapted from Discussions. EdTech Commons, University of California-Davis
Writing Activities, by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Iowa State University is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0. This work, Writing Activities, is a derivative of Writing Activities developed by University of California-Davis Ed Tech Commons (retrieved on May 1, 2020) from http://edtech.ucdavis.edu/teaching/writing-activities/.