July 11, 2014

Designing Developmentally Appropriate Writing Assignments

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Often the articles highlighted in The Teaching Professor newsletter are examples of pedagogical scholarship that could beneficially be done in many fields. That is the case with this piece on developing writing assignments, but it also contains content useful to any faculty member who uses writing assignments as a major method of assessing student learning in a course.

The five authors describe the goals and offer illustrations of writing assignments developmentally appropriate in beginning, intermediate, and advanced psychology courses. Their justification makes sense in any discipline. “If the psychology curriculum is developmentally structured to progress from introductory to advanced courses to foster student learning …, it is reasonable to argue that they may benefit from writing assignments that match this gradual increase in complexity.” (p. 88) Most faculty do use assignments that reflect the level of the course but not with the thoughtful planning and care illustrated by the assignments described in this article.

For beginning psychology courses, they recommend “writing assignments that are brief in length [five pages or fewer, they note elsewhere], assigned frequently, and focused on assessing students’ reflections and reactions to class reading and discussions.” (p. 89) In those papers students offer opinions with at least some evidence to support them. They should start using the language of the discipline, but more important is the application of psychological concepts to daily life. Accepted disciplinary style guidelines (in this case APA style) should not be required in these papers. The example discussed at length in the article is an analytical essay students write about an advertisement that involves race, class, gender, or sexuality. In the paper they explore the psychological consequences of the images in the ad.

In intermediate courses, writing should “encourage significant personal engagement with the material, so that students synthesize ideas for a subdiscipline while also trying to express original ideas within its framework of reference.” (p. 89) For psychology courses at this level they recommend assignments that encourage reflection, but now it is reflection focused specifically on a question or issue related to the content area of the course. At this level students should be expected to write using more disciplinary language and theory. They should also be writing with some understanding of methodology. These papers should be between five and 10 pages and correctly formatted in APA style. The example, from an abnormal psychology course, is a 10-page paper on a disorder that interests the student and is taken from a list of possibilities provided in the syllabus. Students work on these papers in groups.

In advanced courses, writing assignments should focus on and continue developing the higher-order thinking skills of analysis and synthesis. Students should be able to offer critiques. The assignments should move students in the direction of being able to produce knowledge as opposed to simply consuming it. The recommended length for these papers is between 15 and 25 pages, and students should (with teacher input) be able to generate their own topics. The most typical examples here are traditional research papers and honors theses.

Of interest to instructors teaching any subject is content in the article that explores and illustrates the development of learning objectives for writing assignments. The authors note that “counter to what most students probably believe, it is not easy to design effective assignments. The development of meaningful and measurable learning objectives is challenging.” (p. 95) And because it is, many instructors avoid doing so, or they design the assignment first and generate learning outcomes after the fact or only when they are asked for them. Starting with the learning objectives—what it is students should know and be able to do—results in better designed assignments and makes grading easier and more objective. The article contains examples of learning objectives that pertain to the intermediate assignment example and samples of grading rubrics used to assess the assignments. They illustrate the value of being able to clearly connect assignments, goals, and grading criteria.

The intermediate assignment example, as noted above, involves students writing collectively in groups of three but with significant parts of the paper prepared individually. As a group they collaboratively write the first two sections of the paper (the introduction and a three-page description of the disorder that is the focus of the paper). The third, fourth, and fifth parts of the paper (their synthesis of information from the textbook and two peer-reviewed journal articles, the conclusion, and their reference page), each student prepares individually. Seventy-five percent of the points on the paper are based on this individual work. The authors believe this enables students to benefit from peer collaboration without experiencing the disadvantages often associated with group grades.

Reference: Soysa, C.K., Dunn, D.S., Dottolo, A.L., Burns-Gover, A.L., and Gurung, R.A.R. (2013). “Orchestrating authorship: Teaching writing across the psychology curriculum.” Teaching of Psychology, 40 (2), 88–97.

Reprinted from Thinking about Writing Assignments Developmentally. The Teaching Professor, 27.5 (2013): 6. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

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