Recommendations for Assigning Writing
Defining Purpose and Audience
Writing Assignments which prompt the strongest responses are those which clarify both the purpose and the audience for a particular writing assignment. More typically, however, we give students writing assignments such as, "analyze the household distribution of income in the United States" or "compare and contrast two scientific theories for the beginning of the universe." While our students may well understand the concepts or materials we are asking them to examine, these assignments may cause problems for them because they do not understand their purpose or audience. Why, for example, do we want them to analyze or compare and contrast? Is there a larger goal? Are they simply to explain to you, the teacher, these concepts? Likewise, few of us sit down to write without a clear sense of the journal to which we will submit the essay, the office to which we will send the report, or the colleague to whom we will address the letter. But often when we make writing assignments, we don't think about assigning or encouraging students to define an audience for their work. They frequently, therefore, have difficulty in organizing their work because they don't know which material is essential and which is unnecessary. If we insist that they define their audience, some of the earliest steps in planning and organizing an essay take care of themselves. If they are to analyze the household distribution of income in the United States for a peer in an economics class, then certain terms can go undefined because there is a shared vocabulary for such a discussion. If, however, the same material is to be presented to a group of employers in Mississippi who are supporting the Welfare to Work project, certain specific economic terms might warrant definition.
The most effective writing assignments are written. Students need something to hold on to, to return to as they brainstorm. Written instructions allow the professor to clarify expectations and to establish a clear purpose and propose possible audiences for assignments. In addition, some professors may wish to explain the components necessary for a successful response and/or list the elements by which the essay will be evaluated.
Types of Assignments:
Formal Writing Assignments
The documented formal research paper remains one of the most frequently assigned papers. To be most useful for student learning, the paper should be assigned early enough so that the student may revise it at least once for the chance to learn from the teacher's comments. Often term papers coming in on the last day of class or even later are never picked up by students so the teacher's comments are of no benefit to them. Students should be encouraged to evaluate their sources and do more than piece together a collection of quotations from various secondary materials. We should expect more than just an uncritical acceptance of any authority.
One of the most traditional ways of using writing in a course can further enhance student learning if essays written for the exam are revised by the student after being graded and returned.
Informal Writing Assignments
Journals, daybooks, learning logs, thinking and reading notebooks are useful assignments for helping students learn. Such writing may lack both large-scale coherence and finely tuned sentences, but its record of students' immediate impressions and tentative conclusions allows the teacher to assess student learning and to lead students toward material for further writing and learning. The Writing Program has a wealth of material on assigning and responding to journals.
Freewriting, impromptu writing during a limited period of time without pausing (or as little pausing as possible) and without any concern for correctness or "style," is often an excellent way to promote class discussion and to get students started on a more formal writing assignment. Freewriting can be "free" in the sense of asking students to write whatever occurs to them in a short period of time. Or it might be focused on a particular topic. Focused freewriting at the beginning of class or at a point of shifting discussion can start students thinking in ways that can make class discussion more effective. Having students read aloud from their freewrites can get discussion going and can be a way of eliciting contributions from students who might be reluctant to join in the discussion. Advocates of freewriting, such as Peter Elbow, Ken Macrorie, and Donald M. Murray, encourage the teacher in the class to freewrite along with the students. Freewriting on a paper topic is often an effective way for students to generate ideas for a writing assignment. The Writing Program has various resource material on the use of both kinds of freewriting.
The one-minute essay is a brief focused freewrite that gets students to write rapidly on two things: What was the most important thing I learned today? What questions do I still have? These brief responses can be written and collected in the last few minutes of a class, can be read quickly, and can be very useful in assessing the day's success and in determining what to do at the next class meeting. If students regularly expect to write on what they learned on a given day and what questions they have about the material covered, they may pay more attention to what is happening in class in order to have something to write and consequently may actually learn more.
Brief reports, particularly of reading, can be more challenging if students are asked to do more than merely summarize. For instance, they could compare and contrast two readings or criticize and evaluate the reading.
Revision, if it is more than merely correcting typos, can further students' development and can increase their learning of course content. If revision is a significant part of writing assignments, students will pay closer attention to the comments on papers by their teachers and may actually learn something from a teacher's marking of and responding to their papers. The use of peer groups will be more effective if the student writer benefits from their comments in revising a paper. In many courses students are required to submit early versions of papers to groups of their peers or to the teacher. While these drafts are expected to be coherent texts, students are prepared to revise them at the larger organization level or at the sentence level. The final text is the result of cumulative acts of pre-writing, drafting, and revision.
Recommendations for the Teaching of Writing
The most useful instruction for writing will:
Recommendations for the Grading of Writing