By James Nemiroff, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures and Teaching Consultant at the Chicago Center for Teaching 

Questions Keywords
1. What are the learning goals for the assignment? Goals
2. What characteristics of academic discourse will the students be practicing?

Discourse

3. What are the grading standards associated with the writing assignment?

Assessment

4. Will this assignment be process-based or product-based? Practice
5. How will class activities complement the goals of the writing assignment and vice-versa? Relevance

1. What are the learning goals for the assignment?

Ideally, an effective writing assignment helps students achieve the course’s learning goals or the skills and/or knowledge you want students to acquire or practice in your course. Whether the assignment furthers one or a series of goals, being transparent about these goals:

a. Helps you as the instructor explain the assignment to students and its importance in your larger course aims;

b. Assists you in creating a rubric appropriate for that assignment (more on rubrics below)

c. Motivates students to relate this assignment to the general course.

2.  What characteristics of academic discourse will the students be practicing?

In addition to the learning goals you are teaching students, effective writing assignments should also take into account the nature of academic discourse in your field, given that we as teachers are instructing students in how to write in a specialized language unique to that discipline. Here are some questions to consider when determining the nature of academic discourse in your field and how to incorporate that information into your writing assignment:

a. What are the criteria for originality in your field?

b. What does it mean to make a close reading?

c. How do these scholars contextualize and present arguments?

d. How do academics in your field distinguish between someone else’s voice and their own?

e. What field-specific jargon must students know to succeed in your course?

Once you have done this brainstorming, you can then select which aspects of academic discourse you expect students to produce for your course.  A common pitfall for instructors is to assume that students know what certain prompts are asking them to do.  But you should keep in mind that what “compare and contrast” “read closely” or “examine” mean is discipline specific.  Therefore, it should be modeled for them and they should be given several opportunities to practice it.

3.  What are the grading standards associated with the writing assignment?

After taking these questions into account, you should think about how these characteristics can be translated into concrete and level-appropriate grading standards.  One successful strategy is to develop the writing assignment and the grading rubric together.  Here are some questions to consider when designing a rubric to accompany a writing assignment:

a. Is your writing assignment proving that students have mastered the content of   your course or should student go beyond the content presented in class?

b. If there is a rough draft to this assignment, how will be rubric be distinct from    the one created for the final draft of the assignment?

c. In the case of the final draft rubric, will you be only be considering the degree to which the student responds to your feedback or will you be judging the product more holistically?

4.  Will this assignment be process-based or product-based?

One other issue to consider is whether you want to incorporate process-based assignments, product based assignments or a combination of both. Process-based assignments, following such composition theorists as Peter Elbow, conceive of writing as unfinished.  Therefore, assignments focus on having students reflect on their own writing processes. Products based assignments focus on the finished essay only and assess it without taking into account pre-writing or drafts.  We suggest incorporating both kinds of writing since process-based writing assignments allow you to emphasize the metacognitive strategies behind the writing process and allow students to evaluate their own writing processes.  Additionally, by incorporating other sorts of low-stakes writing assignments into courses, you will be able to emphasize skills that they can apply throughout their college careers in addition to your class.

5.  How will class activities complement the goals of the writing assignment and vice-versa?

One final question to consider is how classroom activities will complement assignments. Once again, think about the skills that the students will need to complete the writing assignments and see how you as the instructor can either model those skills for the students or how they can practice the skills incrementally in class.  That way, you the students have the opportunity to hone these skills in a low stakes environment.

Resources

I. General Anthologies

  • A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. Eds: Gary Tate, Amy Rupiper and Kurt Schick. New York: Oxford UP, 2001.
  • The Norton Book of Composition Studies Ed: Susan Miller London: Norton & Norton, 2009.
  • The University of Chicago Writing Program also maintains an excellent database of pedagogical resources related to the Teaching of Writing: http://writing-program.uchicago.edu/compresources/

II. About Process Pedagogies

  • Elbow, Peter. Writing with Power. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.
  • To Compose: Teaching Writing in High School and College. 2nd Ed. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1990.

III. About Academic Discourse

  • Bartolomae, David. “Inventing the University” When a Writer Can’t Write: Studies in Writer’s Block and other Composing Process Problems. New York: Guilford, 1985. 273-285.
  • Elbow, Peter. “Reflections on Academic Discourse and how it Relates to Freshman and Colleagues” College English, 53:2 (Feb 1991).