Well-designed writing assignments should build on prior knowledge and anticipate future learning.
Building a Course of Study
To develop and reinforce writing skills, students need opportunities to bridge their ideas.
Scaffolding shorter assignments or segmenting longer ones provides these opportunities. For example, prior to submitting an annotated bibliography, students might write short summaries of individual sources. In turn the annotated bibliography might precede a longer literature review.
In The Elements of Teaching Writing, Gottschalk and Hjortshoj offer the following guidelines for sequencing assignments to develop and reinforce student learning.
Move from simple to complex tasks.
- Writing short papers before writing longer ones.
- Writing about one reading selection before comparing or synthesizing two or more readings.
- Explaining a basic concept before applying that concept to new problems or cases.*
- Summarizing a text before analyzing, interpreting, or criticizing a text.
- Explaining one author’s argument before developing one’s argument on the issue
Precede the Theoretical / Abstract with the Experiential / Concrete. As a rule, students have difficulty with grasping theories, abstract concepts, and associated readings without prior attention to cases, concrete examples, or connection with personal experience (43).
Like writing itself, courses usually have a narrative quality of movement that carries students from one level of knowledge and understanding to another.
—The Elements of Teaching Writing
* Basic Terms & Concepts: Explanation Before Application
Each discipline has its own jargon, technical terminology and theoretical concepts. It is helpful to design early assignments that develop mastery of these terms and concepts before asking students to apply them.
Assignment 1: Define the concept of Structural Violence.
Assignment 2: Analyze a health issue using the concept of Structural Violence.
Assignment 3: Write an op-ed about a public issue that can be better understood when viewed through the lens of Structural Violence.
This sequence of writing assignments takes students through a hierarchy of skills:
Defining → Analyzing → Arguing. Each assignment enables the next.
Sequence Assignments to Build a Frame of Reference. If one of your goals is to have students develop a substantial argument, it makes sense to delay a “personal opinion” assignment until after they have developed some basis for developing and supporting an argument with explicit assumptions, sufficient evidence, and acknowledgment of differing views (44).
Use Repetition to Measure Progress. There are very few skills that can be mastered in one assignment (45). Having students write more than one case study, one literary analysis, one Document-Based Question, one explication essay allows them to gain mastery over the term.
|Learning Cycle Phase||Suggested Writing Assignment|
Concrete Experience Phase
Learners are introduced to new concepts and issues through watching a film or demonstration, playing a game, doing field observations, and so forth.
Reflective Observation Phase
Learners consider the concepts and issues again after doing readings, listening to lectures, participating in class discussions, and hearing different points of views.
Abstract Conceptualization Phase
Learners try to achieve abstract understanding of the concepts and issues by mastering and internalizing their components and seeing the relationship between new material and other concepts and issues
Active Experimentation Phase
Learners actively use the new concepts to solve problems by applying them to new situations.
Bean, John. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.
Gottschalk, Katherine and Keith Hjortshoj. The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in all Disciplines. New York: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2003.
Soliday, Mary. Everyday Genres: Writing Assignments Across the Disciplines. NCTE/CCCC and Southern Illinois University Press, 2011.