Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology

Sequencing Assignments

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.

John Bean (Engaging Ideas) offers another effective way to think about assignment sequencing. Within a course, writing assignments fit within a specific learning cycle.
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.

  • Non-graded personal writing that records the learner’s personal observations, thoughts and feelings, during the initial experiences and that raises questions and expresses puzzlement

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.

  • Personal exploratory writing such as journal entries that allow the students to connect new material to their personal experiences and previous knowledge
  • Personal pieces based on autobiographical experiences with a topic or concept
  • Personal reflection papers that encourage a questioning, open-ended, thinking-aloud-on-paper approach rather than thesis-with-support writing

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

  • Formal academic papers calling for thesis-based analyses and arguments

Active Experimentation Phase


Learners actively use the new concepts to solve problems by applying them to new situations.
  • Position papers based on cases that use new concepts
  • Write-ups of student’s laboratory or field research using the concepts
  • Proposals applying new concepts and knowledge to solve real-world problems
  • Creative pieces demonstrating understanding of new material 

Useful Sources:

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.

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