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College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Designing Thoughtful Writing Assignments

What makes a good writing assignment? We know that thoughtful papers come from thoughtful assignments, but why do some students run with our assignments, surprising us with interesting insights and careful research, while others, like Bartleby the Scrivener, simply “prefer not to?”

Assignments work on multiple levels, especially in a first-year writing course, when students, as apprentices, are asked to think about big, complex ideas, and asked to do so as if they were experts on these topics.  We’ve learned that assignments work best when we work backwards, asking, What must a student know how to do in order to successfully write this assignment? And when we sequence each assignment to give students time to practice skills, one lesson at a time, and provide opportunities for students to try out ideas and receive feedback in low-stakes writing exercises.

But how do our best pedagogies square with students’ learning? When speaking with college students about writing assignments, I often hear their uncertainty about what their teachers are asking them to do:  What counts as a good thesis? What kind of evidence should I use? How can I say something different from what my source already says? And what criteria will be used to grade my paper? Viewing assignments through students’ eyes shows us both the complexity of what we are asking them to accomplish in a single assignment and the challenges they face as apprentices trying to simultaneously develop expertise in new subjects and new methods.

During my travels this semester, I came across engaging assignments at the University of Mississippi and Tacoma Community College. These assignments provide opportunities for students to enter public conversations as fellow participants, with something to gain and much to give.

In the University of Mississippi’s Foundations for Academic Success Track (FASTrack) program, students take a research-writing course focused on the theme of community. Each of their assignments asks them to solve community problems and enter debates that demand real, immediate solutions.  The course culminates in the $100 Difference Project, which asks students to research a community problem, investigate organizations which attempt to address that problem, and propose how the organization might use $100 to make a difference.  In completing this assignment, students not only develop their authority as rhetoricians, but also use their research skills to make something happen in their community.

The second assignment, from Tacoma Community College, asks students to assume the role of mediator for a current social or ethical issue that the class has studied. To do so, they need to research the background and context for the debate, listen closely to various arguments in the debate, acknowledge the legitimacy of each side’s claim, synthesize the commonalities and differences between sides, and present a workable compromise.  To understand what it would take to achieve compromise, students must move beyond either/or thinking and engage with competing sides in the debate, find common ground by being sympathetic and respectful to opposing views, and  use their synthesis to work in the territory of compromise and reconciliation.

Dear Readers: What makes an engaging assignment for your students? Do you give students opportunities to enter real civic or academic debates? Please share your thoughts and assignments with fellow readers.

With every good wish,

From Between the Drafts by Nancy Sommer’s Teaching Journal