college writing assignments
Often the articles highlighted in The Teaching Professor 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.
Thanks to the Writing-Across-the-Curriculum movement we are having our students write more and we’re using a wider range of writing assignments. Right?
If that’s what you’re doing, it’s consistent with the actions of faculty teaching undergraduate sociology courses; as documented by an analysis of 405 different syllabi. Almost 95% of those syllabi described some type of writing assignment and most of them required more than one.
I’m betting that many of you are in the midst of grading a large stack of papers, projects or other final assignments. Too often these end-of-course pieces of work don’t live up to our expectations or students’ potential. It’s easy for us (especially the elders among us) to bemoan the fact that students aren’t what they used to be. It’s better to use our discontent to consider whether our course assignments are effectively accomplishing our course goals.
One of the ongoing challenges for my composition students is the task of narrowing a broad, generalized topic into a more particular, focused topic for a short research essay. To help them develop this skill, I now prescribe a broad topic for everyone to use in the first research essay. Over several class sessions, we work collaboratively to explore the general topic, identify more particular subtopics, and develop research strategies to investigate these subtopics as possible subject matter.
“Rarely does an examination ask students to list questions that the course posed for them.” C. Roland Christensen made that observation. “Rarely?” I can’t remember ever hearing of an exam that asked students to list questions. One time early in my teaching career, I came to an exam review session with a list of answers and asked students to pose the questions. It was April Fool’s Day, but my students didn’t find the strategy the least bit funny. It was a much more difficult task than I anticipated and the possibility that they might have to do this on the exam created near panic. I think that was the first time I realized how answer oriented students are. Later I came to understand that the same applies to many teachers.
Staring at a blank screen the night before the research paper was due—this was the dilemma faced by my upper-level science students. The paper, the product of their independent research projects, is an important part of our curriculum and one component of our assessment of their scientific writing skills.
Yvonne is frustrated. She wants to do well in her language arts class, but each essay she completes fails to earn her the grade she believes she deserves. Although her teacher thoughtfully writes out corrective comments on her essays, to Yvonne these seem to run together, forming a nonsensical sea of red ink. With each assignment, she feels less capable and grows more resentful of her instructor.
Instructors who require papers spend a good deal of time emphasizing the importance of audience and purpose in writing. Writers who remember their readers and their writing objectives are much more likely to use good judgment about the decisions that go into creating an effective piece of writing. This is equally true of the comments instructors write on students’ papers. I’d like to share some suggestions, some of which I learned the hard way.
“Why are teachers afraid of sentences that begin with ‘I feel’ or that draw on personal experience?” Margaret Mott asks, repeating a question she read in an essay early in her career.
When graded papers get a quick glance before being shoved into a backpack or deposited into the trash can on the way out of class, it’s often hard for teachers to summon the motivation to write lots of comments on papers. That’s why I was pleased to find evidence in two studies that students do value written comments on their work.