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Transforming Readers to Writers: Three Steps to Creating Effective Writing Assignments . May 2011 Spring Modules Writing Across the Curriculum Beth Hedengren.

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transforming readers to writers three steps to creating effective writing assignments

Transforming Readers to Writers: Three Steps to Creating Effective Writing Assignments

May 2011

Spring Modules

Writing Across the Curriculum

Beth Hedengren

readers to writers

“The writing prompt functions to transform its writer (the teacher) and its readers (the students) into a reader (the teacher) and writers (the students)”

Anis S. Bawarshi. Genre and the Invention of the Writer: Reconsidering the Place of Invention in Composition. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2003, p. 130.

Readers to Writers






Writing Prompt Issues

  • 3 Things
    • Purpose
    • Expectations
    • Feedback
  • Rubrics
when prompts go wrong
When prompts go wrong

“I never understood one assignment in high school—not one.”


Katherine Gee


A few weeks ago, one of my roommates asked if I could help him get started on a paper for his humanities class.

The writing assignment prompt was, “Analyze how the form and meaning of the architecture work together and are interconnected.”

I was baffled. “So what does she want you to do?” I asked him.

“I wish I knew,” he replied.

(Jared Fronk, February 20, 2008)


Are your students ever “bewildered” by your written instructions?

  • What do you think might be confusing to them?
  • What do you think helps your students to understand your expectations?
small group share

What works well with your writing assignments?

  • What concerns do you have about your writing assignments?
Small Group Share
nsse writing engagement

Best practices [in teaching writing] are positively associated with outcomes.

  • These positive relationships exist above and beyond the amount of reading and writing students do.
NSSE: Writing Engagement
nsse quality of engagement

Kind of projects they assign

  • Way they explain their assignments
  • Activities they require students to engage in while working on the assignments
NSSE: Quality of Engagement
nsse data

80% of faculty thought assignments were clear.

  • 60% of students thought assignments were clear.
is this enough
Is this enough?

As the capstone project of this course, you will conduct research and write an 8-10 page paper on a topic related to the course.

our responsibility

“Teachers are always implicated in the writing their students produce.

In our assignments we construct occasions for writing, purposes, time frames, and guidelines.”

Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj,

The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in All Disciplines,

Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004.

Our responsibility

Explain how the assignment is relevant to the course and the discipline.

“Say something about why [you] felt the need to give the assignment in the first place.”

-- A Student

expert writers draw on five knowledge domains

Anne Beaufort, College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction, 2007.

Writing Process Knowledge

Subject Matter Knowledge

Rhetorical Knowledge

Genre Knowledge

Expert Writers Draw on Five Knowledge Domains

Discourse Community

connect with real purpose

“We need to help students see the connection between being a good engineer and being a good writer.” Students must write about “something they’ve done, to a real customer, practical, realistic assignments of the kind they would use.”

Mechanical Engineering Professor

Connect with Real Purpose
big picture

What do you want to accomplish with this assignment, in terms of your course goals?

  • How does this assignment fit with disciplinary expectations? What are the students learning that will prepare them to write/think/interact in a larger community?
Big Picture

How would you characterize the genre of this assignment?

  • Are your students familiar with this genre? Do they understand it the same way you do?
  • What function does this genre serve in your discipline?
  • What can you do to help the students understand the genre?

Review the purposes of the example assignments.

  • Reflect on the purpose of your assignment.
    • Classroom
    • Disciplinary
  • Review the assignment itself. Could you make the purpose more clear?
  • How could you use class time to make the purpose more clear? To emphasize relevance and importance?
discuss in your groups

Example assignments

    • How did they make the purpose clear?
    • Did they consider both the classroom and the disciplinary communities?
  • Share the purpose for your assignments.
  • Discuss ways to clarify in your assignment and in class.
Discuss in your groups

“There is nothing more frustrating than to write an entire paper according to your interpretation of the prompt only to have it handed back with a poor grade reflecting the teachers (or TAs) interpretation of your interpretation.”

--A Student


What are your expectations for thought, content, ideas, research?

  • What are your expectations for format?
    • Realize that students are likely to value format over content. Make clear where your priorities lie.
  • Enough, but not too much!

What kind of models could you share with the class?

    • Professional
    • Student
  • When looking at several good examples, what is constant and what can vary?
share examples

“I bring examples of professional writing to TA meetings. I say, ‘Look at this paper, this is professional tone.’ They get to recognize it.” (Biology professor)

“To prepare them to write their annotated bibliography, I showed them my annotated bibliography.” (Sociology professor)

Share Examples
integrate into your class

An 8-page writing prompt was divided into 3 short, sequenced assignments, allowing feedback at each step on professional skills.

  • “The book reviews are successful. We read together [the same book], talk together, then write individually.” We do 3 book reviews in one semester this way.
Integrate into Your Class
evaluation criteria

What criteria will you use to evaluate the students’ work?

  • Do you want to weight any criterion more heavily?
  • How will you teach the students about these criteria?
  • How will you include the criteria in the assignment?
  • Do your grading criteria match the explanation in your assignment?
Evaluation Criteria

Look at the models. How do they make expectations clear (or not) ?

  • Look at (or consider) your assignment. What are your expectations? How can you make those expectations clear, yet concise?
  • Write your ideas.
  • Discuss in your groups.

“Professors would splash around terms like ‘sophisticated argument’ and I would have no clue what they meant.”

“Use headings and bullet points.”

“No longer than a page.”

format for ease of understanding

Have you limited the length?

  • Have you used graphic design principles?
  • Have you used vocabulary that is clear to the students?
  • Do you distribute (and discuss) the prompt near the time students should start writing?
Format for Ease of Understanding
design principles


Headings, bolding, lists

  • Repetition

Fonts, sizes, colors

  • Alignment

Visual connections

  • Proximity

Similar items grouped together

Design Principles
not too much

“The original rubric detailed complete instructions for each section of the report.

The revised version requires communication that is “persuasively, professionally, clearly, concisely and completely conveyed and/or documented,” emphasizing how well the document serves the rhetorical needs of the situation it responds to.”

Mechanical Engineering Professor

Not Too Much!

Look at the models. How does the format enhance readability? Are they as concise as possible while providing sufficient information?

  • Look at (or consider) your assignment. How readable is it? Write your ideas.
  • Discuss in your groups.
various kinds

See Examples in Packet

  • Holistic
  • Analytic
  • Matrix
  • Combination

Use what works for you, your TAs, your students!

Various Kinds
three steps to better assignments
Three Steps to Better Assignments
  • Purpose
    • Provide the “big picture.”
    • Explain the situations to which this genre responds.
  • Expectations
    • Read multiple samples of the genre as a class.
    • Discuss what features matter and why.
    • Explain grading criteria (rubrics).
  • Format
    • Design for ease of understanding.
the rest of the process


  • Review
  • Publish
  • Revise again?
The rest of the process