Writing assignments for Spring 2017

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Students want to write well. One key to better student writing is better writing assignments.

We all want our students to produce quality writing assignments, but teaching writing along with content daunts us. Providing effective feedback takes substantial time, which we may not have. We need to recognize that students want to write well. One key to better student writing is better writing assignments.

I went to small college preparatory school and a small liberal arts college, so academic writing always factored into my education. Since I started teaching, I have never felt like I paid forward to my students the attention and care my teachers and professors offered me in giving me opportunities to hone my writing skills.

I just made it through a digital pile of PDFs, including Allison Rank and Heather Pool’s “Writing Better Writing Assignments.” They begin with Bloom’s taxonomy, which offers course designers a systematic way of thinking about exactly what you want students to learn and how you will assess whether learning happened. Bloom, as updated by Anderson and Krathwohl (2001), organizes learning into six ranked “cognitive processes.” Each higher ranking process increases in complexity, building on learning at lower ranking processes. Rank and Pool refined the six levels, applying them to college-level work:

Cognitive process Command terms
Summarize Define, describe
Relate Classify, compare
Analyze Organize, examine
Evaluate Explain, justify
Create [None given]
Reflect [Relative to student]

While the cognitive process remains behind the scenes—What do you want your students to do?—the command terms offer course designers a way to connect the assignment to the learning objective. For example, asking a college student to evaluate a policy proposal will lead to a broad range of responses, including moral, ethical, practical, personal, systemic, environmental, economic, political, and many other rationales with no medium of exchange; how should the student weigh the economic costs with the environmental benefits—what you wanted—with the moral arguments concerned? Asking a student to justify the tax increase included in the proposal relative to the intended benefit should help the student focus on those economic costs and environmental benefits.

Crafting better writing assignments

Rank and Pool propose adding two or three secondary prompts to guide students toward a response to an overarching, though overly broad, primary prompt. While the primary prompts generally asks a question, which the thesis answers, the secondary prompts include explicit command terms.

In preparing for my spring courses, which include a section of International Conflict and Security, I looked back through the ad hoc discussion prompts I assigned. This one seems especially relevant:

Check out this post on using IR theory to inform policy making. Think about how different theories might lead to different interpretations of the same event, producing different decisions. Theories help scholars organize their thoughts and data, but those analyses then produce conclusions that inform real-world decisions; therefore, as scientists we want to be “right” as much as possible, but we also want theories that allow us to sometimes be wrong so we can learn from the unexplained cases.

I now realize I presented a claim—scholars use theories to think about the world—as a discussion prompt, only I gave no instruction for the student! What does “think about” mean? Should she describe the claims in the post, compare the major points of each theory, examine the merits of the theories, or what?

Now with a few tweaks, I have a much better discussion prompt:

Theories help scholars organize their thoughts and data, but those analyses then produce conclusions that inform real-world decisions; therefore, as scientists we want to be “right” as much as possible, but we also want theories that allow us to sometimes be wrong so we can learn from the unexplained cases. Check out this post on using IR theory to inform policy making. As you read, summarize the theories discussed in the post, describing them as you might if you were explaining them to a relative who has not taken this course. Compare the main assumptions of the theories. Examine a current international crisis through the lenses of two of the theories. Evaluate which theory better helps you understand the origin of the crisis.

Now both the student and I have a clear set of expectations:

  • The student can follow the steps generated by the command terms.
  • I can relatively quickly assess whether or not a student fulfilled the expectations
  • I can offer concrete formative feedback.
  • The student can effectively revise and resubmit her work based on that feedback.

Long-term thinking about writing assignments

Following this process, the student worked through the first three levels of the cognitive processes in a single assignment. The feedback allows the student to advance to the “Reflect” process as well, taking into account my feedback and revising her own work.

What was a frustrating, ineffective discussion prompt has now become a meaningful exercise in evaluating theories and applying them to real-world cases. An isolated discussion prompt, which may have given us one class meeting worth of material, now provides a foundation for applying the scientific process to course content throughout the term.

After a couple similar assignments that build on this one, the student can then move on to create her own theory, completing the cognitive processes steps. At the same time, writing assignments now weave together with content rather than sit parallel to them.

Jeremy L. Wells

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