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Guide to Making and Using Writing Assignments

Creating assignments can be a way of structuring a First Year Seminar.  Putting in the time to create assignments first can help “writing” and “content” work together so that “writing” does not appear to distract from “content” but, to the contrary, enhances the teaching of content, and vice-versa.  Here is some advice for creating writing assignments that help students to learn “content” and think about and discuss it innovatively, precisely, and assertively.  This is ONLY advice, and it may or may not be new to you.  If you already know it, feel free to use it as a checklist.  If you have anything to add, by all means add it, and educate the FYS director about it!

1.  Aim for assignments that are roomy, that might prompt writing and thinking of which you yourself would be proud.

  • One way to begin: work backwards from a piece of writing, imagined, or real, that you might admire.   Analyze it; figure out why you admire it.  Then try to formulate the question that it is addressing, and, from there, a prompt that might inspire both the question and the essay (see, as an example, "The Cancer-Cluster Myth" by Atul Gawande from The New Yorker, February 8, 1999, and (hand-written on it) the rough question and essay prompt formulated from it; or see, as another example, by a first-year College student,PDF icon Max J. Kornblith, Politically Incorrect-Would an Academic Bill of Rights 'Balance' Academia--or Tip the Scale?" Harvard Expose 2006-7). Doing this, by the way, can be an excellent exercise for students!
  • Imagine several good papers that the assignment might prompt.  If you can only imagine one good argument or piece of writing that your prompt might elicit, the assignment may not be roomy enough. Think about adjusting accordingly.
  • Be sparing and judicious with questions in assignment prompts.  Sometimes it makes sense, in early papers, to supply an essay question in your assignment prompt; sometimes it makes sense to make your prompt a description of a writing task, requiring students to come up with and justify questions of their own in short writing exercises and in class. This may be labor intensive, as you may find yourself helping each student formulate a question, but it may be rewarding in the long run.  A paper addressing a question formulated by a student is likely to help the student take responsibility for her writing.  In coming up with such a question, the student must consider what is at stake in her essay.  Moreover, coming up with a question often makes for excellent combinations of writing strategy and discussion of content.   A series of questions can be confusing in an essay prompt, unless you indicate how they are to be understood.  Is it a checklist of things to answer in the paper, or a way of inspiring in-depth exploration of a topic?

2.  Make sure that any assignment you are constructing is clear, achievable, and justifiable.

  • Try to name the task that the assignment is prompting in one sentence (though the assignment prompt as a whole may be much longer).  For instance: “Write a paper, using multiple sources, that discusses the reasons for and the implications of a common public response to or myth about cancer—e.g. responses to tests, perceptions of clinical trials, research by patients, perceptions and realities of treatment, attempts at alternative therapies—and explores its implications.

  • Say—in the prompt, in class, or in both—how this assignment might help students to achieve any or all of the goals of the course as you understand them.  If it’s a first assignment, how is it basic to the skills you want students to develop in the course?  If it’s a second or third assignment, how does it build on or incorporate skills practiced previously, and what does it ask of students that may be new? Finally, how might the skills to be practiced in this assignment be transferable to other courses and other kinds of assignments, and how are they unique to the kind of work the students will be doing in this course?  In doing this, you might use a rubric specifying common elements of the kind of writing you are asking your students to do.  Compose that rubric yourself, or use one that works for you, tweaking, if necessary, so that you are completely comfortable with it.  See, for instance, the Twelve Elements of the Scholarly Essay on this website.

  • Specify, as much as possible, what kind of evidence might or should be used in the paper.  Laboratory findings?  Field observations? Graphics?  Statistics?  Primary research?  Archives of some kind?  Text?  Conversational language? Paintings?  In some cases, you may wish to supply evidence, so that you can focus on how to use it; in others, you may wish to train students to find it themselves. You might want to discuss what kinds of evidence are to be trusted, what not.

  • Anticipate and articulate possible pitfalls. What might seem to be easy in this assignment that will actually be difficult?  What challenges should students look out for? What are potential errors or misconceptions to be avoided?  Spelling these out can be helpful.
  • Specify (where in doubt) the readership for whom you would like your students to write, and the conventions implicit in writing for such an audience.  Probably the readership should not be the teacher alone.  Often best for FYS writing would be a readership of intelligent non-specialists, since the students themselves have not necessarily decided on a major.  Be frank about how these conventions may not be the same in more specialized kinds of writing.

3. Build the process of preparing papers and presentations into your course structure and your classes.

  • Structure your course and syllabus so that what you do between assignments not only teaches the material but prepares students for the assignments you are asking them to do.  Wherever it’s practical, use readings and short assignments—response papers, emails, posts, paragraph-long descriptions and summaries—to accomplish this preparation. Plan these carefully, giving clear instructions and explaining to students how they can help in preparation for larger assignments.

  • Make liberal use of the small assignments in class, especially when they introduce terminology that might come in handy for major assignments.  This may help to ensure that the “content” of your course and skills in thinking, writing, and speaking are getting enough attention all the time.

  • Space the small assignments on a calendar so that there is time to do them, and so that they can inform what you do in class.  Start with a one-page “treatment” of the course as a whole, naming your major assignments and listing the exercises (if any) that will prepare students to do them. Let the process of preparation help determine the number of major assignments you do and the timing of such assignments. 

  • When crafting small, preparatory assignments, emphasize the formulation and refining of questions and/or hypothesesFormulating a good question can provide the focus needed for an effective, well-defined paper while at the same time encouraging inductive thinking that can accounts for counter-arguments and complexities.  Formulating theses, as opposed to hypothesis or questions, too early in the process may result in formulaic writing--coherent but implausible or overly simplistic.  Sometimes (in writing that involves argument) it’s good to encourage students to stay at the question or hypothesis stage for quite a while (frustrating though this may be) before committing to theses.

  • As much as possible, plan preparatory lessons on writing (analyses of paragraph structure, discussions of effective topic sentences or transitions, articulation of effective theses or compelling agendas, etc.) so that they help students think about the content of the course too.  Readings pertaining to content might serve to help students recognize an effective thesis, or effective structuring while giving them information they need about the topic at hand.  Introduce the elements of writing you want students to learn as ways of thinking about the content of the course, not just as abstract rhetorical techniques. 

  • But don’t hesitate to take time away from content when you really need to. Especially be careful about “scooping” students by providing model papers that address the very same questions and evidence they are trying to address in their own writing.  Sometimes you may indeed want to model essays or portions of essays that are off topic but similar in task to what you are writing. 

  • Make sure there are AT LEAST three important writing assignments, not just one or two.  The only way to learn to write is to practice.  A First Year Seminar needs to ensure that students are practicing all semester.

  • Avoid overloading your syllabus.  You have only twelve weeks, and working on writing requires preparation and time for reflection.  You also may want time for workshops and revision Workshops can combine content and writing lessons beautifully (more about that, I hope, at the August retreat) so you don’t have to regard them as time off from content.  But if you want to do them, you may have to economize in other places. Provide choices in readings, depending on what avenues students wish to take in their writing assignments.  This allows students to report to each other on what they are doing, and provides more time than you would otherwise have for honing writing skills.

  • If you have a choice between adding more readings or units than absolutely essential and having open space on your syllabus, favor the open space. Especially the first time you teach an FYS, you won’t always know how long it will take students to learn what they need to know to write, or how long it will take to discuss what they learn.  Open days are therefore precious, and where you can find one, don’t waste it!