Ideas for Writing that Work

Most of these assignments are informal writing to learn assignments. This is by no means an exhaustive list of possible assignments. You can assign any of these tasks to individual students or to students as groups or pairs. These writing to learn assignments can be used on their own or as part of more formal assignments such as term papers that argue a position, research papers, or course projects. Many of these can be combined in a sequence as part of a formal, graded assignment.

  • Reading Journal
  • Reading Summary
  • Rhetorical Analysis
  • Synthesis papers
  • Journal of Terms
  • Discussion Starters
  • Position Papers
  • Microthemes
  • Solving Problems
  • Using Cases
  • Letters
  • Dialogues
  • Popular Article
  • Pre-Test Warm-ups
  • Process Analysis
  • Project Notebooks
  • Annotations
  • Abstract

Reading Journal: A reading journal can be either a student-structure or teacherstructured assignment. Students can use journals to reflect on course readings, lectures, and discussions or to respond to prescribed questions on the reading and course material. Another possibility is to create double-entry notebooks in which students respond to content questions on the left side of the page and reflect on the information on the right side. Reading journals allow students to be more conscious of connections between reading and course material and to articulate questions in direct response to the reading. Lower-level students will probably work best with structural questions while higher-level students can move quickly to evaluative statements about the material.

Reading Summary: This assignment asks students to show their understanding of course readings. You can have students give a generic summary of the reading or guide them in their summaries by asking them to identify the thesis, main points, and important terms expressed in the readings.

Rhetorical Analysis: This assignment is a variation of the reading response that asks students to analyze the reading in terms of the rhetorical aspects. Students should note the thesis of the argument being made about an issue, whether the author deals with opposing viewpoints, what appeals the writer uses, how the argument is structured, and what evidence is provided.

Synthesis Papers: This variation on the reading response asks students to work with two or more readings and discuss the commonalities and differences between them. This assignment combines summary and response and helps students understand that writing in the field is part of an ongoing dialogue that works to construct knowledge in the discipline.

Journal of Terms: Another variation of the reading journal, the journal of terms gives students a place to define and clarify course concepts in their own words. This process not only helps them remember important material, but also gives them a resource in addition to course texts and lecture notes.

Discussion Starters: Quick five to ten minute writing in class either in response to a particular question or to material read for class can often help students formulate ideas and articulate questions to bring up in class discussion. Students often have trouble processing concepts and ideas in order to present them verbally. Giving them the opportunity to write them down helps them prepare to participate actively in the class. Asking students to write down any questions they may have about lectures or readings can also be helpful for the teacher because it points out what material should be reiterated.

Position papers: This assignment is a longer and more focused version of the discussion starters. Students should write a paragraph for page before class on a question assigned at the end of the previous class to prepare for discussion. Their writing should address a particular aspect of an issue, problem, or question.

Microthemes: A microtheme is a brief essay arguing a position on a problem or issue. Length is limited to one side of an index card. Microtheme assignments can combine summary with thesis-support by asking students to respond to reading or to discussion and take a position on the issue based on that reading or discussion. Students must be able both to summarize material concisely and to organize their own ideas carefully to make a complete argument as briefly as possible.

Solving Problems: Ask students to analyze a disciplinary problem. Students must describe the problem and then discuss a plausible solution, being specific about how and why such a solution could work. Problems can be real or fictional. Choosing a real problem gleaned from industry reports, journals, or personal experience allows students to connect this writing assignment with field issues being debated outside the academy.

Using Cases: Case scenarios provide students with a complete writing context from which to analyze problems or issues and are therefore useful and engaging assignments. A simple use of the case if to set up a single scenario which notes audience, purpose, and focus of a brief writing task. A more elaborate case can include more details as well as several roles for students to adopt as writers. Case histories involve discusses the aspects of a case after the fact, allowing students to analyze what could have or possibly should have happened.

Letters: You can assign students to write letters to explain concepts, argue a position, ask questions, or solve problems. Letter writing assignments provide students with a context and an implied audience to help guide their ideas. Assignments asking students to write letters to professionals in the field, field journals, or politicians help students practice the language of particular discourse communities and field protocol. Other possibilities include letters asking for funding or project approval.

Dialogues: In this assignment, one or more students write a dialogue in which they express different points-of-view involved in an issue or problem. One possibility with this assignment is to have students play the “believing and doubting game” in which they first write in support of an idea, concept, methodology, or thesis and then write in opposition to it. Basing this assignment on course readings or a controversy in the field allows them to understand the complexity of issues and arguments.

Popular article: The popular article assignment asks students to explain difficult course concepts to a general audience with little specialized knowledge. This writing task is an excellent way to be sure students understand the material well enough to explain it clearly is non-technical language.

Pre-Test Warm-ups: An extension of the problem statement activity is to ask students to generate problems for an upcoming test. Students might work either to generate problems or to draft solutions. Students will cover the course material more fully than they might otherwise do in studying if they are asked to come up with the problems themselves. Another possibility is to give out sample test questions and have students compose answers to them. If students know that some of the problems they have come up with or already worked with will be on the test, they are likely to take the assignment seriously.

Process Analysis: A useful approach to scientific or mathematic processes is to have students trace in writing the steps of a process either during or after they complete each step. Such an approach allows students to understand why certain steps are made, and asks them to explain in their own words how a process works.

Project notebooks: Project notebooks can combine many of these assignments as part of a sequence. Students use these notebooks to record their work on class projects. Such an assignment can include process analysis, problem-solving, definitions of terms, reading responses, and questions about material. This assignment helps students understand their work for the class as a learning process.

Annotations: Annotations ask students to briefly summarize the reading, articulating key points and also to evaluate strengths and weaknesses in an article. In particular, annotations call for students to note the purpose and scope of a reading in relation to a particular course project. Single annotation assignments can be part of the larger assignment of putting together an annotated bibliography in the field in general or on a particular issue. You might also consider limiting the length of the annotations so that students must think carefully about what is most important to express about the reading.

Abstract: This assignment can be used as part of a sequence of assignments. The abstract asks students to describe their work for the class, whether it be a term paper or class project, noting the context to which they respond, the position they are taking, the ideas they will cover, and the terms they will use.

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