designing effective writing assignments
Every October, members of the Canadian Forces College’s National Security Program—a master of public administration program for senior military personnel and senior public service professionals—have the opportunity (and privilege) to travel to Ottawa to meet with high-level policy practitioners. The intent of the trip is to allow our students to compare what their in-class readings have taught them about governance and executive leadership with what actually happens in the national capital on a daily basis.
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.
Most students in my developmental writing classes claim they “hate” writing. It’s a familiar refrain. But, it is less about “hate” and more about a lack of preparation in the subject area. They do not have sufficient experience with the writing process in order to understand what to do. It is not until they gain this experience and realize for themselves what is wrong and what is right with their own work will their writing improve. This personal realization has to happen. It is key to neutralizing their fear and boosting their confidence.
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.
There is little argument that reflective writing is a good way to foster critical thinking, encourage self expression, and give students a sense of ownership of their work (Chretien et al. 2012, Kennison and Misselwitz, 2002). This generation of college students has been doing reflective writing since elementary school so they are familiar with the process, even if not all enjoy it. Almost every academic discipline includes content on which learner reflection is appropriate; so the problem, typically, is not in creating the assignment but rather in assessing the work. How do we place a fair and equitable grade on an assignment that has so many variables? What are we looking for in our students’ work that we can reward and encourage with a good grade?
A qualitative study of plagiarism reported that although students know that plagiarism is wrong, most are quite confused about what actually constitutes plagiarism. The availability of so many online resources has exacerbated the problem. Cut-and-paste features expedite using the material of others. Studies are also showing that students do not think the principles of ownership apply to online resources the same way they do to published material. Finally, many faculty are still struggling to master the rules of referencing that apply to Web-based resources, which does not excuse but certainly explains why students find referencing these materials so confusing.
The Writing Process: Step-by-Step Approach Curbs Plagiarism, Helps Students Build Confidence in Their Writing Ability
I’ve long been an advocate of student-centered learning and approaching material from a variety of perspectives. We hear so many buzzwords describing the ways we should teach or the ways our students learn, and we deal increasingly with issues of plagiarism and academic dishonesty. In a classroom of adult learners who frequently view themselves as consumers, we balance the need to meet their demands with the need for them to meet ours. Getting back to the basics can intrinsically incorporate kinesthetic, collaborative learning and nearly eliminate plagiarism while promoting critical thinking.
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.