Designing Writing Activities

A student works on her laptop

Incorporating writing into classes across the curriculum is crucial for helping students develop the ability to learn independently, think critically, and organize ideas thoughtfully. For many instructors, writing assignments can seem daunting to assign.

We offer some tips for helping you to decide when a writing assignment may be most appropriate and how to handle writing assignments in face-to-face, online, and hybrid contexts.

Decide When a Writing Assignment is Appropriate to Meet a Learning Outcome

  • A writing assignment often works best when you want students to:
    • Develop an argument
    • Take a stance
    • Apply abstract concepts to a concrete situation
    • Analyze a particular issue

Develop an Effective Rubric

  • Align rubric categories and criteria with course learning outcomes. Make sure that the criteria you are applying to grade a particular assignment helps you to evaluate the outcomes you establish at the beginning of the course.
  • Keep it simple; shorter rubrics are often more effective. Long, detailed rubrics can get confusing both for students and for the instructor. Try to prioritize the most important student outcomes for the assignment and design your rubric around those desired outcomes .

Write an Effective Prompt

  • Ask students to contribute to an online discussion forum. Writing in response to a discussion forum prompt within the learning management system, particularly in online and hybrid courses, can encourage students to not only process ideas on their own, but to share their ideas with others and see their classmates’ responses.
  • Make sure assignment prompts specify an intended purpose and audience. Without knowing why or for whom they’re writing, essays can easily become superficial exercises. Specifying a purpose and audience can help garner student buy-in on a writing activity.

Use Informal Writing Assignments Effectively

  • Incorporate short, ungraded freewrites into the class. Starting class with a quick freewrite, where students write informally about a particular topic, can get students thinking about a difficult concept before a lecture or discussion begins. Wrapping up a discussion or the entire class with a closing freewrite can help students summarize key points and identify points of confusion. This can work in any synchronous environment – online or in person.
  • Ask students to write out the instructions to an assignment. When students have to write instructions for themselves, it can help them see what to do on an assignment more easily.
  • Ask students to contribute to a blog or a social network. Writing in informal, online spaces can motivate students to write directly to a public audience while working through complex ideas. In online and hybrid class contexts, blogging can also help students create presence in their class environment and feel like they’re contributing to an online class community.

Develop Inclusive Content for Multilingual Writers

  • Be sure to give writing prompts that do not require an understanding of American popular culture. Multilingual writers can feel alienated from participating in a writing assignment if the prompt requires they have prior knowledge of something from pop culture with which they may not be familiar. Be sure to rely upon references that are inclusive.
  • Introduce writing assignments through several different modalities. Students will process information in a variety of different ways. Provide prompts and introductions to assignments visually (with a written assignment prompt) and aurally (through a video in a hybrid or online class or through an in-class, spoken introduction).

 

Assessing Writing Activities

Give Effective Written Feedback

  • Limit comments to two or three “action items” for the student to accomplish. Giving students comments on every part of the paper can be overwhelming and less effective for student learning
  • Focus on providing substantive comments about higher order concerns, like purpose and argument, and identifying patterns of sentence-level errors rather than correcting individual errors for students. You may find it useful to use Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide for identifying the kinds of higher-level concerns worth noticing in student writing (See References).

Give Effective Audio/Visual Feedback

  • Limit spoken feedback to 5-7 minutes. Just as written feedback works best when it’s limited to two or three “action items,” audio and feedback works best when the instructor points students to 2 or 3 specific parts of his or her paper in the length of a video. When using a free screen-capturing video program, like Jing, users are actually limited to creating 5-minute videos; using a program like this can give you a nice way to keep your feedback concise and focused on global concerns you may have about the student’s writing.
  • In screen-capture feedback, use the cursor to point to and highlight certain parts of student work. The beauty of creating a screen-capture version of student feedback is that you’re able to engage students visually! Move your mouse around the screen and point students to specific moments where you hope to draw their attention (See Cavanaugh and Song).
  • Keep your tone friendly and informal! You may feel inclined to sound “scripted” in a feedback video, but it’s best to keep your tone upbeat and friendly so that students feel encouraged by (rather than disappointed or frustrated with) the feedback you provide them.

Use Peer Review Productively

  • Establish clear expectations for peer reviewers. Have a norming session where students practice giving feedback and the instructor informs them of best practices in feedback.
  • Create a guiding handout for peer reviewers to work through their peers’ writing. Offering a handout with guidance for peer reviewers can help peer reviewers pay attention to higher order concerns in each other’s writing.
  • Need a tool Here. Can we mention a tool here that is useful for peer review? Or something about how peer review can be done online?

Writing in Online Classes

Teaching writing online, or using writing as a way for students to explore other concepts or skills, has major benefits for both students and instructors. Writing is, for the most part, an individual activity, and the online space can provide the instructor even more opportunities to work one-on-one with student writers. Both synchronous writing activities (like individual freewrites during webinars or collaborative writing activities) and asynchronous writing activities (like writing short responses to readings or writing long papers) have advantages.

Advantages of Asynchronous Writing in an Online Class

  • Gives students time to reflect and think deeply about complex ideas.
  • Offers students the chance to revise and develop their individual writing processes.
  • Allows for instructors to design more complex writing tasks that require students to do outside research and other work that would take a long time to complete.

Advantages of Synchronous Writing in an Online Class

  • Gives students time to process a complex idea in a novel way.
  • Gives students practice in quick analysis of content.
  • Immediate feedback for questions and concerns.
  • Students can work with each other on their writing in real time and offer instant feedback.

Writing in Hybrid Classes

For a hybrid class, incorporating a blend of synchronous writing activities (like freewriting or collaborative writing) and asynchronous writing activities (like short responses to readings or longer essay assignments) is useful, given the ways in which hybrid courses leverage the advantages of students’ independent out-of-class time with the advantages of face-to-face, synchronous conversation.

Advantages of Asynchronous Writing in a Hybrid Class

  • Gives students time to reflect and think deeply about complex ideas.
  • Offers students the chance to revise and develop their individual writing processes.
  • Allows for instructors to design more complex writing tasks that require students to do outside research and other work that would take a long time to complete.

Advantages of Synchronous Writing in a Hybrid Class

  • Gives students time to process a complex idea in a novel way.
  • Immediate feedback for questions and concerns.
  • Students can work with each other on their writing in real time and offer instant feedback.

Writing in Face-to-Face Classes

In face-to-face classes, many instructors see writing as simply something that happens outside the class. However, synchronous writing can also be powerfully leveraged as an in-class activity for facilitating reflection and learning. A balance of synchronous and asynchronous writing has a number of advantages:

Advantages of Asynchronous Writing in a Face-to-Face Class

  • Gives students time to reflect and think deeply about complex ideas.
  • Offers students the chance to revise and develop their individual writing processes.
  • Allows for instructors to design more complex writing tasks that require students to do outside research and other work that would take a long time to complete.

Advantages of Synchronous Writing in a Face-to-Face Class

  • Gives students time to process a complex idea in a novel way.
  • Immediate feedback for questions and concerns.
  • Students can work with each other on their writing in real time and offer instant feedback.

Things to Consider

You do not have to be in the humanities or teaching a writing-focused class for writing to be useful in your class. Writing assignments are a powerful learning tool for students in all disciplines. Even if you are not a teacher of writing, giving students the opportunity to process ideas with writing can allow them to reflect deeply and process complex ideas.

You are not responsible for correcting students’ grammar or fixing sentence-level errors. While students may make errors on their writing in your class, you do not have to be a grammar expert to help them. Pointing out patterns of error, rather than fixing every mistake, has been shown to be more useful for writers anyway.

 

Peer Review

Students complete a critique form for each other to evaluate each other’s written work.

Submitted by: Chris Thaiss (University Writing Program)

  • What are the goals?: To learn the value and some mechanisms of peer review, and, consequently, become closer and more thoughtful readers of research. This activity also helps students give each other suggestions and improvements for their writing and for addressing the principles of rhetorically effective writing.
  • What do students do?: Students use a critique form (a kind of rubric) tailored to each assignment to give specific feedback on drafts of assignments. Students download the forms from the Learning Management System into Word, fill in the blanks on the form with their critiques, and then have the option of printing the form on paper or uploading their critiques to the student they are critiquing. Each critique form is built using criteria discussed and tried in class.

“I’ve been using this technique for years, and what works well consistently is that students apply the principles they learn through peer review to their writing of subsequent assignments. Hence, their subsequent peer reviews become better, too. I can see this in my reading of the students’ work as it progresses through the quarter.”

References & Resources

Armstrong, P. (2001). Bloom’s Taxonomy. Retrieved from Vanderbilt.edu.

Carpenter, J. H. & Krest, M. (2001). It’s about the science: Students writing and thinking about data in a scientific writing course. Language and Learning Across the Disciplines 5(2), 1-20.

Cavanaugh, A.J. & Song, L. (2014). Audio Feedback versus Written Feedback: Instructors and Students Perspectives. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 10(1),  122-138.

Dreyer, D. B. (2013). Scaling writing ability: A corpus-driven inquiry. Written Communication 30(1), 3-35.

Ferris, D. (2007). Preparing teachers to respond to student writing. Journal of Second Language Writing 16(3), 165-193.

Heckelman, R.J. & Dunn, W.M. III. (2003). Models in algebra and rhetoric: A new approach to integrating writing and mathematics in a WAC learning community. Language and Learning Across the Disciplines 6(3), 74-88.

Reid, S. (2008). Shelley’s Quick Guides for Writing Teachers: Responding and Grading Writing. Retrieved from http://mason.gmu.edu/~ereid1/teachers/tchguidegrading.htm

Weimer, M. (2013). What Types of Writing Assignments Are in Your Syllabus? Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/what-types-of-writing-assignments-are-in-your-syllabus/