March 6th, 2013

What Types of Writing Assignments Are in Your Syllabus?

By:

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.