Types of Writing Assignments

Professors assign a wide range of types of assignments, depending on the subject area and specific requirements of the course. Traditional essay-type assignments can be excellent for skilled upper-division students who have already learned the conventions of inquiry and argumentation in a discipline. But for many college writers, especially undergraduate students and students from other cultural traditions, such freedom can be debilitating. Not yet at home with academic writing or with the discourse conventions in a discipline, these students may producing wandering “all about” papers rather than arguments or quasi-plagiarized data dumps with long, pointless quotations and thinly disguised paraphrases. Even worse, students may resort to outright plagiarism.

When designing formal writing assignments, instructors should consider carefully the kind of writing they hope for and the processes they want students to follow. Sometimes slight variations in the way an instructor designs a writing task can cause significant differences both in students’ writing and thinking processes and in their final products. For example, some assignments encourage careful planning and formal top-down organizing. Such assignments can encourage thoughtful study of difficult material and teach structured, analytical reading and response. Other types of assignment can be structured to encourage more personality, voice, energy, and spontaneity. In general, instructors can influence the thinking and writing processes of their students by varying such aspects of the assignment as the audience, the rhetorical context, the writer’s assumed role, the purpose, or the format. When planning assignments, therefore, teachers need to consider not only the learning goals they have set for their courses but also the thinking and writing processes that they want to invoke in their students as learners.

Designing critical thinking tasks works best if teachers focus their assignments on their main teaching goals for the course. A combination of formal and informal assignments and other kinds of critical thinking tasks can be created that will help students meet many of the teachers’ course goals. These may include writing to learn assignments such as informal, exploratory writing assignments including journals or learning logs. Students’ errors, mistakes, and misunderstandings can provide valuable insights into their thinking processes and provide clues about how to redesign and sequence instruction. For assessing students’ learning, short write-to-learn assignments are particularly effective because they provide direct windows into students’ thinking processes. Another type of informal assignment is a “reflection paper” that allows a student to write about their personal response to the course material.

In more formal writing assignments, students appreciate handouts explaining each writing assignments that the students can refer to at a later time. Such handouts are also valuable if the student seeks help from a writing center. Handouts should ideally include the following information: task, format, expectations about the processes to be followed, and criteria for evaluation. When giving the assignment in class, allow plenty of time for student questions.

Developing high-quality writing assignments is one of the best ways for professors to improve student writing across the curriculum. A good writing assignment deepens students’ engagement with course material, promotes critical thinking, and helps them learn the discipline’s discourse – its characteristic methods of inquiry, analysis, and argumentation.

  • Source: John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), Chapter 5.
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