1 Fekus

Itx My Assignment Design

The educational benefits of writing are undeniable. Challenging students to write about our disciplines for diverse purposes and audiences deepens learning and promotes critical thinking. And so we put a great deal of effort into creating writing assignments that do not merely ask students to report back to us the content we have “delivered,” but instead require them to explore course content and address a target audience that has specific needs.

It can be difficult to succinctly convey the complexity of a quality writing assignment to students. Sometimes the more we know about the value of writing, the longer our assignment handouts grow. We want those handouts to be resources that students can turn to when they are working on their papers in the middle of the night. And so we stuff the handouts full of instructions, timelines, and warnings. If we get unsatisfactory student work the first time around, then we expand our handouts and use bold or even ALL CAPS. A colleague of mine who teaches psychology complained last semester that she gave her students a carefully developed writing assignment and explained every page in class, but they immediately peppered her with questions. I think faculty at many institutions, in a variety of disciplines, have similar experiences.

Anne Beaufort, in two influential books, proposed a framework for writing expertise that I have found helpful when creating writing assignments. Beaufort first described the framework in Writing in the Real World: Making the Transition from School to Work, and developed it further in College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction. In both books, she conducted close ethnographic studies of individual writers working to develop writing expertise in unfamiliar discourse communities. Analysis of her copious data led her to conclude that expert writers possess deep knowledge of the discourse communities they occupy. She also concluded that expert writers’ discourse-community knowledge takes four forms: subject-matter knowledge, genre knowledge, rhetorical knowledge, and process knowledge.

I have found Beaufort’s framework valuable when it comes to assignment design, as have other faculty at my institution. The way to get students to understand a writing assignment is to foster a sense of expertise (and the accompanying confidence) by giving them the knowledge they need. The first step is situating the writing assignment in a discourse community. At the graduate level, we can situate assignments near the center of a disciplinary discourse community. At the undergraduate level, it is best to let students begin at the margins of academic discourse communities and progress closer to the center as they advance toward graduation.

The discourse community primarily influences the premise of an assignment, or what experts in writing call the rhetorical situation. Beaufort’s four components of discourse-community knowledge provide a way to describe complex writing situations and assignment details (without resorting to over-emphatic proscription). It is a simple matter of presenting our assignments in terms of four kinds of knowledge:

  • Subject-Matter Knowledge is the writer’s grasp of the information that is necessary for completing the assignment. It may be existing knowledge or knowledge newly gained through research, observation, reading, reflection, or imagination. It is “what you’ll write about.”
  • Genre Knowledge is the writer’s awareness of the type of document he or she must write and its features (structure, content, length, tone, format, etc.) as well as its limitations. Genre may be very specific (e.g., lab report for an introductory chemistry course or brief reflection on simulation exercise). It is “what you’ll write.”
  • Rhetorical Knowledge is the writer’s awareness of the target audience(s) for the writing, the audience’s motives or purposes for reading the document, and the relationship between reader and writer. It is “who you’ll write for.”
  • Process Knowledge is the writer’s knowledge of how to go about writing a particular document. While complex writing generally requires planning, drafting, feedback, revision, and editing, the specifics of the writing process vary from document to document. It is “how you’ll write.”

In my experience, faculty often do address all four kinds of knowledge in their writing assignment handouts. However, they tend to emphasize process, writing as much of the handout as possible in the form of chronological instructions. Also, certain kinds of knowledge get less attention than others. It is not uncommon, for example, for a professor to say very little about audience (rhetorical knowledge), assuming that students will easily understand a rather complex rhetorical situation in which the primary audience is hypothetical and the professor is a secondary reader whose role is to evaluate. With Beaufort’s four-part framework for discourse-community knowledge (which is one way of defining a writer’s expertise), faculty can make sure their assignments cover all of the bases. My psychology colleague used this framework to revise the writing assignment that had caused her students to bombard her with questions. The day after she presented the revised handout to her students, she told me, “It was almost spooky—no one had any questions.”

Sample frameworks:
First-year writing assignment (Angus Woodward). Open PDF »
Developmental psychology writing assignment (Dr. Susan Brigman). Open PDF »

Beaufort, Anne. (2007). College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction. Logan, UT: Utah State UP. Print.

Beaufort, Anne. (1999). Writing in the Real World: Making the Transition from School to Work. New York: Teachers College Press. Print.

Angus Woodward is the Director of College Writing Programs at Our Lady of the Lake College in Baton Rouge.

Posted in Effective Teaching Strategies
Tagged with college writing assignments, designing effective writing assignments, writing assignments

"[R]eal problems are messy and not amenable to unequivocal final answers...."Grant Wiggins in "'Get Real!' Assessing for Quantitative Literacy," Quantitative Literacy: Why Numeracy Matters for Schools and Colleges.

Jump down to: Keep your eye on your course goals | Backward-design your course and assignments | Be very clear on your goals | Set assignments in an explicit, real-world context | Plan your assessments and assignments | Tell students what you are up to


The principles for designing strong quantitative reasoning (QR) assignments are similar to those for designing strong assignments of any other type. Because of this, much of what follows is drawn from John Bean's take on designing strong quantitative writing assignments.

Hide Caption
Microsoft Office photo of working with data

Provenance: Microsoft Office
Reuse: This item is offered under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ You may reuse this item for non-commercial purposes as long as you provide attribution and offer any derivative works under a similar license.

There are a number of tips that are specific to teaching students to work with quantitative evidence in particular:

Of course, one of the best suggestions for assignment redesign is simple: borrow and steal!

1. Keep your eye on your course goals and align QR activities accordingly

When was the last time you got toward the end of the term and thought, "Gee, I have no idea how I will fill the last days of the class. I have completely achieved all I had hoped to for this term!"? The reality is that time is scarce. We never cover everything we had hoped to cover in our courses. We struggle to teach everything that is presumed by courses that list our own courses as pre-reqs. And now we are being asked to take on general education learning goals like QR.

The solution to this tension is not to speed up the class to squeeze in 10% more content. And it isn't to jettison the disciplinary content expectations of our colleagues. Instead, we need to think hard about how QR naturally fits in the context of our course. We need to make the introduction of QR a means for doing better what we already are trying to achieve rather than a competitive threat to our primary priorities. Otherwise it is a safe bet you will drop QR altogether.

So, start by articulating the goals you have for students in your course. Then look for where QR is relevant and important to meeting fully those objectives.

In some fields it is obvious how teaching QR complements traditional course goals. In other fields it may take a little more thought. To jumpstart that process, look through the collection of Quantitative Reasoning in Writing assignments from disciplines close to your own. Even if you don't intend to give writing assignments, these existing assignments can spark ideas of how QR can be connected to your discipline.

2. Backward-design your course and assignments

It is generally best practice to start course planning at the end. Broadly speaking, start with the course goals, then move back to how you will know if those goals are met (i.e. assessments), and finally consider how you will bring students to a successful outcome (activities). You might think about answering the following questions: What do I want my students to learn by the end of the term? How will I know if they achieve those goals? In order to get to that point, what will students need to learn first? How can the assignments and activities in early stages of the course support later learning. Similarly, complex assignments may benefit from backward-design. What class activities must happen first to arm students with the tools to complete the assignment? Should the assignment be broken into sub-parts so that later sub-assignments can build on previous activity?

These same general principles apply to teaching QR. It is worth thinking a little, though, about the specific way these principles play out in the QL context.

Course design: QR involves application of mathematical concepts. These methods may be very basic, such as computing an arithmetic mean, or relatively involved (e.g. formal statistical estimation). Either way, be sure students are armed with the skills they will need before they are asked to apply them. The trap to avoid is assuming that students know more than they do. For example, it might seem obvious that a graph should include a title and axis labels and should employ a color scheme that provides enough contrast to be easily read. But to students who have never been asked to create a graph of their own, these things are not obvious. Design your QR course content and assignments to build from basic to more advanced activity. Don't forget: We can't reasonably expect students to perform what we don't teach.

Leave a Comment


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *