Teaching and Learing at Indiana University Bloomington
Teaching and Learing at Indiana University Bloomington
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Handbook Table of Contents > Teaching Methods > Constructing Writing Assignments

Indiana University Teaching Handbook

Teaching Methods

Constructing Writing Assignments

Like writing essay exam questions, constructing effective writing assignments requires some thought and preparation on your part. First, you need to decide what your goals are in assigning writing. If you keep your goals in mind, you will find that constructing a writing assignment will be easier and the assignment is more likely to accomplish those goals.

When you assign writing, you need to decide and make explicit to students what standards you will use in evaluating their essays. Some areas of evaluation include accuracy or richness of content, organization, and sentence-level correctness.

Making your criteria clear ahead of time eases your students’ fears about the evaluation process to some extent. Moreover, students who know what standards against which their essays will be judged are more likely to try to meet those standards when they write. One way to make your standards clear to your students is a rubric which describes the characteristics of an “A” paper, a “B” paper, and so on. Sample rubrics Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning.

Another good method is to grade a paper in front of the class. The paper you grade might be one written in the previous semester (with the student’s name removed, of course). It is useful to perform this exercise with a paper which might receive an average grade rather than a superior one; the average paper that makes some interesting mistakes will teach students what to avoid, while a superior paper will only excite envy or hopelessness.

Regardless of the method you choose, you are welcome to consult with the CITL Writing Program, 855-9023. Its staff members will help you to construct rubrics or provide student papers to grade in class.

Responding to Student Writing

Writing is a tool for communication, and it is reasonable for you to expect coherent, lucid prose from your students. However, writing is also a mode of learning and a way for students to discover what they think about a subject. You should be willing to participate in this learning and discovery process as well as grade the product (Adapted with permission from Farris, 1985).

The quality of student writing is often far below acceptable standards. Many instructors try to ignore the problem by insisting that writing skills are not part of their assigned subject area. This attitude results in further problems for both instructors and their students. If you demand good writing, make your expectations known and offer help to those who need it (or refer students to Writing Tutorial Services, Ballantine Hall 206). Students will try to meet your demands; make your standards worth meeting.

Not all instructor comments on student papers are equal. Instructors often find it useful to involve themselves in students’ writing (and learning) processes, rather than simply “correcting” the final products by having them submit first drafts which are given constructive criticism on content, organization, and presentation. One-to-one conferences after the student has read the critique and perhaps begun a second draft are invaluable. The second draft is graded and usually demonstrates improvement on all fronts, especially in the depth of analysis and support for an argument so often found lacking in one-draft student papers.

Comments on a first draft are typically different from those given on a final draft. On a first draft, comments usually address whole-paper level concerns. Is there a clear thesis that appropriately addresses the assignment? Is the evidence appropriate and convincing? Is the organization clear? It is often a good idea at this stage to phrase you comments as questions you as a reader would like the writer to address. In addition, if you connect your comments to specific phrases or sentences in the student’s text and avoid vague directives such as “be specific” or “expand,” the student will have a clearer idea of how to revise the text. In the early stages of the writing process there is little point in addressing sentence-level problems, as during revision many of those sentences may disappear. Comments on a final draft have a different purpose—to justify a grade, to point to sections that are particularly effective or ineffective, or to address sentence-level concerns, for example.

As you read student essays and diagnose writing problems, you may notice patterns. A paper full of long, convoluted sentences, for example, may indicate that the student is struggling with very complex concepts. Ideally, in your comments you may be able to help the student find ways to discuss those concepts without adding to their complexity. If the essay contains glaring grammatical or mechanical errors, it may be because the student is unfamiliar with the discipline or topic. Even experienced writers may let grammar lapse when they are writing on a topic or in a discipline new to them. If your students are inexperienced writers, you may read many papers in which the thesis is stated in the conclusion rather than at the beginning. In these cases, the student may have begun to write before thinking through the argument to be presented; writing a draft at this preliminary stage becomes a process of discovering the argument. Such a student can benefit substantially from some carefully phrased comments and an opportunity to revise.

Peer feedback groups in which students read each other their first drafts for critique are also useful. These groups work best when students observe a fairly strict protocol: generally each student reads the draft twice. The first time group members listen only; on the second reading they write comments on their photocopy and/or fill out a form designed to address problems specific to the assignment. Then one at a time, the group members offer their comments to the writer. One advantage to the peer feedback method is that you are not the only audience for the students’ writing. They hear suggestions for improving their drafts from others before you read the papers.

Avoid the trap of editing papers for students. The point is to get the students to be able to edit their own papers; tell them there is a grammatical problem in a line, but don’t fix it for them. Written comments, especially about grammar and mechanics, do very little to improve the student’s next effort. Also, getting back a paper covered in red ink can devastate students’ morale and confidence in their writing ability.

Richard Haswell, in “Minimal Marking” (1983), advocates responding to surface error, grammar, and mechanics problems, by indicating the presence of such an error “only with a check in the margin by the line in which it occurs.” One check per error, so two checks in the margin means two errors in the line. He marks these problems, records the number of them, and returns the essay to the student. He requires the student to correct checked errors and resubmit the essay for evaluation. No grade is recorded until this stage.

Haswell claims that much less of his time is spent on surface error, allowing more attention to substance. This also reduces the reverse “halo effect” where the irritation caused by explaining and correcting surface errors causes an instructor to devalue the student’s content. Haswell also claims that he saves more time by not correcting surface errors than he loses in looking at each paper twice. (Kalish, 1993, and Farris, 1985).

If you have further questions about using writing in your class or about how to respond to it, contact the CITL Writing Program at 855-9023.

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