Writing Assignments

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 options/variety.

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.

Provide feedback opportunities.

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. Once again, rubrics can come in handy here.

Scaffold ethical behavior.

When we think about academic integrity and digital ethics in the context of writing assignments, two concerns come to mind: plagiarism and privacy.

When it comes to promoting academic honesty and avoiding plagiarism, our minds tend to jump to the policing aspect, such as using plagiarism checkers like Turnitin, but the more effective strategies are proactive rather than reactive.

Firstly, it’s important to not make assumptions about students’ understanding of plagiarism — in particular, international and/or non-traditional students don’t come to our classes with an innate understanding of what constitutes plagiarism vs. research. Clearly outline your expectations regarding what is and isn’t appropriate.

Secondly, empower students to use resources other than academic dishonesty in order to be successful in this assignment. 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.

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. You can also encourage students to think critically about the level of personal information they choose to share about themselves.