Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What Makes an Effective Assignment?

The effectiveness of a writing assignment hinges on what we think a writing assignment is. When I first started teaching business writing, I tried the very basic assignments included in many of the texts I had reviewed. These assignments were often totally bare-bones: “Write a fund-raising letter” or “Write a bad-news memo.” Totally bare-bones—and totally ineffective.

Neither of these prompts gives students the support and information they need to successfully complete the writing task. Such assignments are not limited to the business writing classroom of course. In a language arts or composition classroom, they take the form of prompts such as “Write a persuasive essay” or “Write an analysis of the novel.” When I presented students with such stripped-down assignments, they typically wrote extremely general responses with unclear purposes and audiences. Compare these generic prompts with the following assignment:

There has been a problem in Montgomery County Schools with discipline and violence. On the basis of the positive examples that they have seen at other Virginia schools, Families for Safe Schools, a local community group, is calling for the school board to adopt a school uniform policy in order to cut down on these problems. What is your position on this issue? Write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper or the school newspaper, stating your position on this issue and supporting it with convincing reasons. Turn in two copies of your letter and an envelope addressed to the newspaper (I’ll provide the stamp). I’ll grade one copy and send the other copy off to the newspaper.

When I used this assignment—one that offers considerable support and detail—students responded with stronger writing. I quickly learned that the more detail and attention I put into the writing assignments, the better students’ writing was.

An effective writing assignment isn’t a simple prompt on a page or a directive to write in a particular mode or genre. It’s much, much more, and it begins with a fully-developed writing scenario. It sets out an authentic audience and purpose for the writing activity. It focuses on critical thinking and allows students to make choices that suit their own knowledge and expertise. When an assignment fits all those characteristics, students have the raw materials to begin doing their best work.

[This entry is based on information taken from Chapter 1 of Designing Writing Assignments.]


Stacy Goldberger said...

An effective writing assignment almost always reflects a standard rubric that students have used in the past. That rubric should also be considerate of compositional risks that proficient and creative writers might take.

At times, a carefully dilineated essay assignment with the graphic organizers, essential questions, and highly specific rubric is appropriate. At other times, however, students can use more flexibility and should not be restricted by guidelines.

Consequently, as teachers, we have to consider our students' experience, expecations, and writing histories. Additionally, sometimes we have a clearer idea of how to design a writing assignment after we've tested it.

Charles R. Cooper said...

This is well-motivated: students need a full description of any writing situation they face. But it is ambiguous and incomplete. For example, it waffles between proposing a solution to a problem and taking a position on an issue. Also the student is left to choose between discipline and violence, two quite different phenomena within school settings. Further, students are unlikely to know the conventions of letters to newspaper editors, and the newspaper readership is much too broad a rhetorical target. (Anyway, few students read newspapers.) A better audience would be the instigating school board members or the FSS, supporting their cause.

Finally, a key direction is misleading: writers taking a position do not so much support a position with convincing reasons (though they do need a tentative list of reasons as a starting point) as they argue to support each reason. It's this inventiveness/elaboration of support for each reason that makes an essay taking a position succeed or fail. And students need to be asked to anticipate resistance to their arguments and to concede or refute this resistance.

Now, if this assignment is recast as a proposal to solve a problem (a likely recasting for the posed writing situation), different rhetorical requirements take center stage. There are many different kinds of argument.

In general, every writing assignment should pose for students a full writing situation in language appropriate to their age level. The situation needs class discussion to insure that every student understands the writing situation. If possible, students should write two or three consecutive essays in the same genre. There is much to learn about each of our culture's valued genres, without which social life would be impossible.