Writing Across the Curriculum

Creating Effective Writing Assignments

Since writing assignments provide such an important opportunity to support student learning, it is worth taking the time to think through each assignment carefully. A poorly constructed assignment can leave the student unsure about how to proceed or unclear about how the assignment fits into the learning goals for the course. Assignments that are too general are more likely to yield plagiarism, while assignments that are too tightly structured can discourage creativity and student investment. There is no simple recipe for creating good writing assignments, but here are some things to think about and to try.

Tips for creating effective writing assignments

Whether you are creating a new assignment or revising an existing assignment, it may help to refer to this checklist, adapted from John Bean’s Engaging Ideas (2001).

Scaffolding high-stakes writing assignments

Rather than ask students to complete a large assignment by a set date, break an assignment into more manageable chunks. By scheduling a series of deadlines for segments of a longer essay or for intellectual exercises building toward that essay, professors can determine whether a student has gone off track or needs additional assistance. Structuring an assignment as a series of steps also minimizes opportunities for last-minute, panic-driven plagiarism.

Ideas for scaffolding high-stakes assignments [PDF]
Scaffolding toward a high-stakes assignment in health sciences [PDF]
Scaffolding toward a high-stakes assignment in history assignment

Alternatives to the traditional academic essay

While it is important for students to become comfortable with academic writing, creative assignments stimulate critical thinking and can sometimes offer better ways of achieving course objectives. For instance, an assignment that asks students to compose a formal letter may result in more purpose-driven, persuasive writing. Creating a dialogue between different thinkers can help a student enter into an academic debate and appreciate diverse perspectives on an issue, a crucial part of most academic writing. Students might make selections (of stories, musical compositions, historical texts, etc.) for an anthology and then write both a justification for their choices and an introduction to the collection. Such assignments can help students understand how disciplinary knowledge is created and communicated to a broader audience.

Sample letter assignment: anthropology [PDF]
Sample letter assignment: history [PDF]
Sample dialogue assignment: literature [PDF]
Sample anthology assignment: music [PDF]
Sample book proposal assignment: literature [PDF]
Sample multi-genre assignment: history [PDF]

Suggestions for future reading

  • John Bean, “Chapter 5: Formal Writing Assignments” and “Chapter 12: Encouraging Engagement and Inquiry in Research Papers,” Engaging Ideas
  • Peter Elbow, “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing”
  • Full citations may be found here.

Last modified: Oct 19, 2011

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