March 6th, 2013

What Types of Writing Assignments Are in Your Syllabus?


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.

Researchers found that faculty employed a variety of writing assignments in their courses; 49% included essay exam writing (including take-home tests), 48% required short reflection papers such as book reports, group project reports or essays, 23% assigned 6-10 page papers, 14% traditional library-research papers, 12% used some sort of journal assignments, 11% assigned longer 11-15 page papers, and 2% used creative writing assignments. Another 17.5% used assignments that belonged in an “other” category, which included things like written homework, outlines, writing for the web, case studies, memos, and study guide questions.

Course syllabi that listed critical thinking as a course goal were significantly more likely to include writing assignments that the researchers labeled “transactional” — in that they informed, instructed, or persuaded readers. An author referenced in the article suggests that writing assignments that develop critical thinking skills should contain these components: “They must ask questions, define problems clearly, examine evidence, analyze assumptions and biases, avoid emotional reasoning, avoid oversimplification, consider alternative interpretations, and tolerate uncertainty.” (p. 48)

Even though students taking these courses wrote more and completed more kinds of writing assignments than their peers in other courses, they were assigned traditional term papers infrequently. Most of the courses were not introductory-level courses, but courses taken by majors. Why have teachers abandoned the venerable term-paper assignment? Are students so unable to write coherent, well-developed research analyses that teachers have given up on the assignment? What skills do term-paper assignments develop? Are those skills necessary for the writing tasks most professionals face?

In this sample, almost 81% of the writing assignments were transactional. A bit more than 63% were expressive assignments — identified as reflective writing in which students typically explore feelings and individual reactions. Expressive writing is often less formal, may be done during class, and is graded less on grammatical and syntactical correctness. Less than 1% of the writing assignments described on these syllabi involved what the researchers call “poetic” or creative writing.

Are students in sociology being asked to write enough and to do the kind of writing that develops the skills sociology graduates need? Those are questions only those in sociology can answer, but they are questions that should be asked of the collection of writing experiences in every major.

I know I written this before, but we so regularly do not think about collections of learning experiences (like writing assignments) that occur across a set of courses or in degree program. If those teaching in a program shared their syllabi, this kind of analysis could easily be replicated and the results would raise questions we ought to be discussing. Questions like:

  • How much writing is enough, given the skills student don’t have and need to acquire?
  • Are some writing assignments better suited for some courses?
  • What writing assignments are best suited for introductory courses, major courses, and capstone experiences?
  • Besides developing writing skills, are these assignments contributing to the development of other course and program goals?
  • Do our writing assignments prepare students for the kinds of writing they will be doing professionally?

Writing does serve different purposes in different fields, so what’s being done in sociology isn’t a benchmark for all fields. But it should motivate us to consider our writing assignments. Are the writing experiences offered to students accomplishing the goals that have been set for those assignments? It’s a question to ask about writing assignments in individual courses as well as across the entire degree program.

Reference: Grauerholz, L., Eisele, J., and Stark, N. (2012). Writing in the sociology curriculum: What types and how much writing do we assign? Teaching Sociology, 41 (1), 46-59.

  • esoltani

    Thank you for bringing to everyone attention to include writing assignments in their course syllabus. I believe it should be included in every subject matter because it allows students to brainstorm and put their own understanding of concepts in writing. Also, it helps students to become a better writer to express their understanding, feeling and thought.

  • This is an excellent question to consider. As a new faculty member at my college, we're reading a book called Engaging Ideas by John Bean and it offers a lot of really practical ways to integrate writing into the classroom experience. Bean gives many examples of both formal and informal writing assignments that can help professors develop critical thinking in their students across the curriculum.

    One of my particular favorites is as assignment in which students write a creative dialogue between critics or philosophers who have a significant disagreement about an issue. This rather informal assignment actually requires a lot of formal critical analysis. Students have to be able to identify the disagreement, understand what is at stake in that disagreement, and then apply that understanding to an issue of open dispute. The beauty is that this can work in a Sociology class or in a Physics course, I think.

    Writing doesn't have to be formal and research oriented in order to be useful in the classroom (this concession from an English professor, by golly!). Writing has a generative quality to it that encourages intellectual growth and it should be integrated in many types of courses.

    • Matt Birkenhauer

      "Writing has a generative quality to it that encourages intellectual growth and it should be integrated in many types of courses. " And not only does this kind of transactive writing intersect with WAC, but it also melds well with Writing to Learn . . . .

  • Thanks for the article. re: "Less than 1% of the writing assignments described on these syllabi involved what the researchers call “poetic” or creative writing."

    I have included a weekly writing component (2- to 3-page "expressive"/"reflective" essays) in my Greco-Roman Mythology course this semester. To mix things up a bit for the last assignment, I offered an alternative—ripped right out of the classical rhetorical curriculum—of writing their essay in the voice of one of the characters from what we've been reading. This particular assignment asked them to write a essay persuading Hector either to fight or not fight Achilles by taking on the persona of a character in Iliad 6. For the students that picked the "creative" option, I found that their arguments and the textual evidence adduced were stronger overall than previous essays written in their own voices. So, a successful experiment and one I plan on offering a few more times in the second half of the semester.

  • cognitioneducation

    In include writing assignments in all my classes – the higher the level the more in-depth the assignment. In Intro, students write responses to questions posed in class (usually in the "think-paire-share" set-up – aim is active engagement and self referencing); in the 200-level class I teach students are engaged off campus in a service learning capacity and they write 11 critical papers where they complete an assignment on-site and critically evaluate how their experience jives with their placement (aim is to examine how the theory/research applies in real-world context); in the 300-level class I teach students create hypothetical situations where they use a specific set of information to create a seminar or to present a debate (much like the dialogue papers mentioned by another commenter here – aim is critical thinking, application, and recognition of ambiguity inherent in the research discussed); and in senior level classes students write traditional research reports and research proposals, with the aim being formal argumentation and professional communication skills. In all but Intro I additionally assign take home finals. I believe that I can better understand students' growth and internalization of the material when they have time to think and work on clarity of expression. Though its a ton of work to evaluate all this writing, it serves the students well and it helps me get into their heads a bit to really sort out the students who are memorizing and purging from the students who are really engaging and internalizing.

  • howard doughty

    As an unreconstructed curmudgeon who doesn't own a CD (never mind a DVD player – I'm vinyl all the way), a cell phone or any of those demonic gizmos that persuade people that something sensible can be said in 140 characters (unless, of course, your initials are AE and you came up with something like E=mc2), and who absolutely refuses to use the APA citation system, PowerPoint or any other element in the vast and nefarious conspiracy to make us stupid, I annoy my students by making them write more than they think possible.'

    That means an initial one-page reflection on their expectations about the course, a mid-term, text-based, "take-home" evaluation in which they must write two "mini-essays" of about 5 pages each, a final "take-home" evaluation with the same expectations and the mid-term, a "research essay of about 10-12 pages, and a final one-page reflection on what they've learned (or think they've learned). Total = 30-35 pages. This goes for my students in a 2-year college, undergraduate students (mostly 3rd year) and MA students (with the variation that MA students are expected to write a 15-20 page research paper.

    I am normally met with howls of protest ("Nobody else makes us do this much!") and persistently sullen faces. Sometimes, when it's over, a few admit that they've never felt better about doing genuine work. Better yet, I occasionally meet one of them a semester or a year or two later; they sometimes say something like this: "I didn't stoop to teach; I made them stretch to learn."

    I know I'm a dinosaur, and that I am a Luddite, and that I will soon be an example of an extinct species. I do not apologize. I am content with the knowledge that, when people like me have passed into what passes for history, the academic environment will be a little the worse for our loss.

  • Laura S

    I have my students doing most of their writing as "Response & Reflection" essays (500 words each) or in-class journaling (10 minute responses to questions that elicite their personal thoughts on an issue or aspect of course content covered that day). You pose a question: "Why have teachers abandoned the venerable term-paper assignment?" I try to avoid the traditional term paper for several reasons: 1. they have become way to easy to plagiarize (unlike asking for more personal, first person perspective and critical thinking response to content). 2. such papers tend to focus more on collecting facts (especially amongst my lower level 2-year college students), even if students are asked to "do something" with the facts, they tend to not get that far. 3. resesarch of factual information is too easy (given web resources these days) and too boring for me to read. It becomes "busy work" for students and a tedious, uncreative task for both students and professor. Such papers tend to focus more on the lower levels of Bloom's Taxonomy.

    • Laura S

      I do have students doing a research PROJECT – creative presentation of information they collect through research. Typically, this ends up being a PowerPoint/oral presentation (individual or group project). I also have students write a persuasive paper (1000 words) in response to a specific question I pose, drawing on evidence from what they have learned throughout the semester. No need to make it based on formal research or to cite sources (unless they do quote or use sources beyond the knowledge they now have in their own heads).