by MU Instructional Designers
September 29, 2021
5-7 min read
Design authentic assignments.
Writing assignments are a common and essential form of assessment in the classroom, but a key to their success is to make them authentic and meaningful beyond the classroom. Similar to our best practices for discussions, you should first examine whether a writing assignment is the best (or even the only) approach to students accomplishing the learning goals (framed as “separating the means from the ends” in UDL on Campus’s article about learning goals). When you assess whether or not a writing assignment is the best route, you’re able to more clearly articulate for students why this assignment is meaningful and authentic. This is particularly relevant when you explore types of writing assignments beyond the traditional academic paper, like web articles, interviews, white papers, etc., which might help students see real world relevance to the assignment (critical component of andragogy).
Provide opportunities for student voice and choice.
Providing room for student voice and choice in some of the options within an assignment is an excellent way to increase access and inclusion for diverse students (consider UDL and CRT frameworks for inclusion). As you plan a writing assignment, examine different aspects that could provide students with flexibility in how they complete the task. Could there be options for the topic/focus of their writing or for its style/format (e.g. scholarly essay, popular publication, etc.)? For example, a course goal might be for students to express themselves in an APA academic paper, but they can have a choice in what aspect of the course content they write about. Or, perhaps the goal is for students to analyze a film or composition, and they could choose to do that in a traditional essay format or in the format of a magazine article.
Set clear expectations.
Students need clearly defined expectations in all their assignments. The assignment instructions should articulate the expectations regarding both content and mechanics — how long should the final work be? Is external research expected, and if so with which citation style? Are there style and/or tone expectations (e.g. avoiding the use of first person voice)? Beyond the assignment instructions, samples of student work as well as detailed analytic grading rubrics can greatly clarify expectations (rubrics in Canvas).
Provide options for feedback and reflection.
As with any assignment, mastery-oriented feedback is essential for writing assignments (UDL checkpoint 8.4). In particular, feedback opportunities throughout the writing process scaffold student learning effectively. This can take the form of teacher or peer feedback on stages like research question/thesis development, outlines, annotated bibliographies, early drafts, etc. (peer review in Canvas). Once again, rubrics can come in handy here (UDL checkpoint 9.4).
In addition to feedback from others, it’s important for students to give themselves feedback on their writing process in the form of reflections and/or self-evaluations. A formalized approach to this would be for writing assignments to be submitted in a portfolio format, with additional documentation and reflection on the revisions made to earlier drafts. Less formally, surveys or brief written reflections can prompt students to develop those metacognitive skills when it comes to writing (UDL checkpoint 9.3).
Scaffold ethical behavior.
When we think about academic integrity and digital ethics in the context of writing assignments, three concerns come to mind: plagiarism, information literacy/validation, and privacy.
The most effective strategies for promoting academic honesty and avoiding plagiarism are not reactive (e.g. Turnitin) but instead proactive. First, clearly outline your expectations regarding what constitutes plagiarism; international and non-traditional students especially often need this clarification. Second, empower students to be successful without resorting to academic dishonesty. The Writing Center (undergrad) and Heartful Editor (grad) can give students direct feedback and guidance. Self-service tools such as those available on Messiah’s writing program website, the Library research help site, and the Messiah University Writing Center Resources web page can also equip students to research and write effectively. (Check out our annotated bibliography on academic integrity.)
When research is involved in a writing assignment, information literacy/validation is also important. A key component in digital citizenship is the critical thinking skills required for evaluating potential sources for credibility and authenticity. The Library offers extensive support in this area, including asynchronous resources and classroom visits.
Lastly, it’s important to consider privacy in the context of what students write and with whom their work is shared. If student papers will be shared beyond an instructor (e.g. peer review, publication, future samples, etc.), students must be informed early in the process, so that they can choose what to share and not share with others. Encourage students to think critically about the level of personal information they choose to share about themselves.
To learn more about the research on writing assignments, check out our annotated bibliography.