Giving Writing Assignments
Emphasize critical thinking
Ensure that your writing assignments do more than ask a student to report facts and information. There should typically be some aspect to the assignment that requires students to contribute their own analysis and original thinking—in fact, in most cases this should be the emphasis of the assignment.
Provide detailed instructions
The clearer you are about your expectations, the better your students’ writing will be. Make sure to provide and explain a grading rubric every time you give a writing assignment so that students understand exactly how their work will be evaluated.
Provide a sample paper
Keep an example of an “A” paper from a previous semester. Remove the student’s name, and with his or her permission, distribute the paper to the class when you give the assignment. Your expectations for their work will be further clarified, and their writing will be better if they have the opportunity to consult a model.
Emphasize writing as a process
While most classes are not designed to teach writing, writing assignments are often the best way for a student to critically engage with and learn about any topic. Consider instituting an outlining and/or drafting process so that you can provide feedback along the way and help students to think in a more complicated way about the subject.
Grading and Providing Feedback
Provide feedback throughout the writing process
- Teachers often spend too little time explaining assignments and developing student papers and too much time grading. As Barbara E. Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson point out in Effective Grading, it is often the case that a teacher’s time spent with a given assignment breaks down like this:
- | GIVING | GUIDING | GRADING |
- In fact, it ought to look more like this:
- | GIVING | GUIDING | GRADING |
- Using class time to guide students through their drafts not only makes their papers better, it provides an important opportunity for students to think critically and originally about the subject matter. Have students openly discuss the content of the papers they are developing and challenge them along the way. This also saves you valuable time at the end of the process—you can simply use your rubric to grade rather than writing extensive comments that studies show students often don’t read anyway. If they received such feedback throughout the process, they have likely already incorporated it into their work.
Don’t nitpick about grammar and phrasing
- You are a teacher, not a copy editor. Content is the most important aspect of a student’s paper, but when grading, many teachers focus on small grammatical problems and on crossing out sentences and rephrasing them as they themselves would have written them. If a student’s grammar and phrasing are so muddled that their ideas are unclear, certainly point this out. Likewise, if there is a repeated grammatical error (as opposed to a typo), identify it. Otherwise, simply be clear in your rubric that grammar and other language issues account for a certain percentage of the final grade.
- Problems with grammar and syntax frequently come from a lack of knowledge or experience with writing—but just as often, they come from students putting too little time into drafting and rewriting. Emphasizing revision and incorporating drafting into your class will solve many of these problems. Empower students to find these mistakes themselves, either on their own or with the help of a tutor. Marking every grammatical mistake will give the student the impression that these are the only flaws with the paper; they will correct them based on your feedback and learn nothing. However, if they are told there are grammatical mistakes and are left to their own devices to find the bulk of them, they are more likely to retain what they learn.
Embracing Writing in the Classroom
Ask students to reflect on what they have learned. When students write about something they have recently learned, they are able to identify gaps in their own retention of the subject matter. After a lesson, try asking them to summarize and/or comment on what they have just learned.