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Constructing Successful Writing Assignments Dr. Emily Heady LU Graduate Writing Center.

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1 Constructing Successful Writing Assignments Dr. Emily Heady LU Graduate Writing Center

2 And the Students Replied… “Dude, this paper was HARD.” “I showed this paper to my high school teacher, and she said it was an A.” “Okay, so maybe you didn’t like my paper. That’s your opinion.” “I didn’t know this was due today. When did you say that?” “Was this supposed to be, like, typed and stuff?”

3 They Replied Further… “You didn’t tell me I had to quote!” “This paper just didn’t flow.” “I couldn’t think of a good topic, and I didn’t want to waste your time, so I didn’t write it.” “But I spent like three hours on this paper!” “I’m not arguing. I’m just saying your idea of plagiarism is totally different from so-and- so’s.” “I didn’t know what you wanted.”

4 Why Should We Assign Papers? They force students to organize, explain, and engage the information taught. They help students produce—not just consume— information. They show students that writing, like any other skill, can be learned. They create meaningful student-faculty dialogue. They allow us to evaluate the effectiveness of our own teaching.

5 Bad Writing Assignments Have unclear, unrealistic, or absent learning goals. Have mysterious, incomplete, or contradictory technical requirements and grading criteria. Offer few or no “how to” instructions. Seem disconnected from other assignments. Do not permit consultation and revision, even when appropriate or necessary.

6 If We Do This Right… We will drastically reduce occurrences of LPS, or “lousy paper syndrome.” Grading will be daunting, but it will be rewarding. Students will write with more confidence. Students will learn more, and we will in turn learn from them. Seeing how our students learn (or misunderstand) will make for better teaching.

7 Some Things About Students… Through no fault of their own, students often do not know how to start writing, researching, or even choosing a topic. Plan class time to discuss any or all of these. You may want to ask students to complete assignments like abstracts, literature reviews, or outlines in preparation for the final paper. Students should, where appropriate, be encouraged to draft and revise. You may want to include multiple due dates for drafts and set aside class time for peer reviewing. Students often think that good grammar equals good writing. You will need to impress upon them that grammar is the packaging for their content—not the whole paper. Students need writing role models (hint: in most cases, a model STUDENT paper is more effective than a professional essay).

8 Questions to Ask What sort(s) of learning do I hope to see demonstrated here? How does this assignment fit with the rest of the class? Do I want an open-ended assignment or a set question? How many pages would I need to do this assignment? How much research would I have to do to understand the topic enough to talk about it? How much will I expect from my students? What sort of paper would I love to receive?

9 Learning Outcomes All assignments should clearly state what skills the student should demonstrate. Lower-level skills should be taught earlier in the term. Higher-level skills should be taught after students have mastered lower-level skills. Each assignment’s learning outcomes should, when possible, reflect those of the course. Writing cannot replace exams, but it can test different skills more effectively.

10 An Easy Model for Learning: Bloom’s Taxonomy Knowledge (define, describe) Comprehension (summarize, interpret, discuss, extend, predict) Application (illustrate, examine, experiment) Analysis (compare, explain, connect, infer, classify) Synthesis (formulate, design, compose) Evaluation (assess, judge, convince)

11 To Prompt or Not To Prompt… 3 types of assignment prompts: 1. Completely open-ended -“Write a 5-page essay on a topic from this class.” 2. Completely directive - “In 6-8 pages, summarize Tozer’s arguments about faith from Chapter 7 of The Pursuit of God and compare them to the book of Hebrews.” 3. Directed but with specific topics, sources, and arguments left open. - “In 5-7 pages, compare two clothing ads from recent publications, focusing on the use of any of the marketing strategies we have discussed in class.”

12 Format Requirements How long should this paper be (pages/word count)? –Word counts are better than page counts unless you’re going to specify font. –Younger students tend to have trouble making length (so make it long enough to stretch them but not long enough to make them run out of ideas); older students tend to write filler more easily (so force them to be concise) What format does my discipline use most often, and am I prepared to evaluate whether students are doing this correctly?

13 Format (Continued) Do I want fancy report covers, graphics, title pages, etc.? –Be aware that any extras you assign can easily turn into space fillers for less motivated students. Guard against this. How many sources should students use? –Giving a number is not enough, especially for younger students who go to Google as a first line of defense. Specify what types of sources are acceptable and how extensively they should be used. –You may need to spend some time introducing students to the library.

14 Explaining Your Grading Standards How much should grammar count? –Your department may have a rubric you can follow. If not, be sure you aren’t overemphasizing grammar or content since both must work together for a successful paper. Do I expect this to conform perfectly to professional standards for this type of writing (e.g., lab report, position paper, review, etc.), or will I reward effort? –A learning curve is appropriate in the early parts of a class or with younger students. Older students need to be held accountable for the forms they ought to know. What do I weigh most heavily when I grade? –Students appreciate a percentage breakdown of their score (e.g., 20% grammar/style; 60% content, 20% research). –If you don’t like percentages, at least let students know your priorities.

15 Providing Models Providing a model is a way of demonstrating format and structure—not giving them something to plagiarize or taking the thought out of writing. Provide models of good student papers. If possible, set aside some class time to go over what you particularly liked about the paper or write some comments for the paper and post them on Blackboard. You may also want to provide a model of a bad paper and let the students rip it apart in class. If you don’t have model papers, the Internet can help.

16 The key is CLARITY Remember: Students cannot learn to think outside the box until they have first located the box. So, use your assignment sheet to help them find it. –Provide technical requirements. –Explain what you want students to learn while writing the paper. –Explain what skills students need to demonstrate to do well. –Explain your grading standards. –As necessary, offer step-by-step instructions. –Keep communication lines open. –Refer to model papers that you have provided. –WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN.

17 Final Words Writing instruction does not stop when you hand out the assignment sheet. Be prepared to read drafts, to give “tough love” in conferences, to spend time letting students talk out their ideas, and to give an occasional painfully bad grade to a student who worked very hard. Also be prepared to field questions during class and provide encouragement. Unless you are both bored and brave, however, you should NOT be prepared to read full drafts on e-mail.

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