Reasons to Write

When students write in courses across the curriculum, they come to see writing as a worthwhile and necessary skill, something that educated people do. Continual practice in writing can also help them maintain and improve their writing abilities. Content-area teachers are uniquely able to teach their students, particularly upper-level students, to write in the "language" of their disciplines. Biology students, social science students, history students can become comfortable with the forms and vocabulary (and hence, thought processes) of biologists, social scientists, historians

Different writing activities accomplish different ends. A writing assignment should fit your purposes and help you meet your educational goals.

Common purposes for writing

There are many reasons to have your students write, but overall goals can be grouped into writing to learn which can help students understand and retain course information writing to demonstrate knowledge through which students show that they have learned necessary information, and writing to improve or maintain writing skills in which style and correctness are important, . Most writing assignments serve more than one of these purposes concurrently.

Writing-to-learn

According to cognitive research, people learn best when they: 1) Make subject matter personal and place it in the context of their lives. 2) Connect new information with old, placing it in the context of what they already know. 3) Verbalize it, restating new information in their own words.

The sort of writing that most facilitates learning is informal, relatively unstructured, and has an emphasis more on what is said (the new ideas and concepts being struggled with) than how it is said (correct spelling, grammar and usage). These things are important, but to what extent depends on the purpose of the writing. When students are writing to learn their attention should be on ideas more than on "correctness." If they later seek to convey this information to others, then correctness becomes important.

Hints

  • Students may be hesitant to show a lack of knowledge in writing, yet this ability to be tentative is essential to building new knowledge. Remember to encourage, rather than discourage whenever possible. Pose questions and offer suggestions that will help them form correct concepts.
  • Encourage students to write to themselves for themselves or to you as a facilitator of learning rather than a judge. Don't be dismayed by the surface appearance of what they write; in "writing to learn" the ideas and thought are most important.
  • Make assignments clear and realistic. Know exactly what you expect students to get out of an assignment, how you expect it done, and let the students know, too. Write the assignment yourself, whenever possible, to make sure it works. If you grade writing-to-learn assignments, share your grading criteria with the students.
  • Use writing-to-learn to serve your ends, to teach and reinforce your subject.

Sample Writing Assignments
Assignment design

Writing to demonstrate knowledge

This sort of writing lets you know how well your students understand the information conveyed by your course, be it factual or skill-based. Having them demonstrate knowledge through writing also requires them to integrate information.

Hints

  • When giving the assignment, be clear that the purpose of the assignment is primarily to demonstrate knowledge or mastery. When grading, focus on a student's ability to meet that goal.
  • Stress the need to use information, to apply knowledge, not just repeat it.
  • Encourage students to state concepts in their own words and/or to give examples not from the text or lecture.

Sample Writing Assignments
Assignment design

Writing to Improve or Maintain Writing Skills

Any writing activity can help maintain or improve writing skills and text correctness. If writers in your field use a particular format or style, this is an excellent opportunity to give your students practice.

Hints

  • Bring in samples of published writing in your field as models.
  • Allow students to pre-write. Give them a chance to free-write, make lists, talk to others, keep a journal, before beginning the formal writing of a paper or even test. A chance to deal with ideas informally can improve the clarity and organization of the final product.
  • Provide students with feedback from you, classmates, or the Writing Center. Let them know whether they have written what they planned to, whether they have fulfilled the assignment before they hand it in.
  • Allow students to rewrite. Give them the chance to redo a paper (or test) if they have not met their (or your) goals.
  • Save editing until the end. Separating getting-ideas-down-right from getting-the-forms-right (checking for spelling, punctuation, grammatical correctness) can help people write more fluidly, clearly, and effectively. It's easier to say what you want, if you know you don't have to worry about correctness yet. This doesn't mean correctness is not important; it is, at the most effective time: after the ideas are down and clear.
  • Provide students a chance to "publish." After they've put effort into their papers, give them the chance to share their work with someone other than you. Have them present to the class, produce a handbook, post papers in the hall.
  • Read the papers for what you consider to be most important. If clarity of ideas is most important to you, then that's what's most important in your students' papers. If your students need to be able to support ideas with examples, read the papers primarily for that. If people in your field need, above all, to use semi-colons correctly, read for that. You don't have to read their papers for everything. This is writing for your purposes and the purposes of your field--use your response to train your students to meet these expectations.
  • Similarly, make these expectations clear to the students before they write. Handouts, even example papers can help students write the paper you want and make your job as reader much easier and less frustrating.