When you design a syllabus for any course, you begin with the outcomes that you intend for your students to achieve, and you work backwards from these to particular readings and writing assignments. This method, formalized, is called the method of backward design. Backward design is a useful method for any professor in that it ensures that all assignments, readings, and activities will connect students with the outcomes that the professor deems essential to the course.
At the first stage of backward design, writing instructors should consider two issues: what they want their students to know/experience in their courses, and what they want them to be able to do, in these courses and afterwards. Put another way, instructors need to think both about their focusing questions and their course outcomes.
You'll note that the first issue—what instructors want their students to know/experience—distinguishes between knowledge and experience. Indeed, this distinction is significant in a writing class, where course content (while important) does not drive the course. The best writing classes consider the students' experiential learning in their course design. To accomplish the aims of experiential learning, it's important to come up with a course question that can bring together the many smaller questions of the course and that can engage students intellectually and experientially. For instance: What is happiness? What are the roots of violence? What is the nature of the self? Technology: friend or foe?
These are the kinds of questions that can focus course readings and class discussions. They are also the kinds of questions that students can engage with outside of the context of the writing classroom. Finally, they are the kinds of questions around which professors can build a course that is intellectually coherent.
Even more important the the course questions, however, are the course outcomes - in other words, what students should be able to do when the course comes to an end. In the first-year writing classes, an instructor's set of outcomes will be informed by the course outcomes (see the outcomes for Writing 2-3, Writing 5, or the First-Year Seminar). Take some time to review these outcomes, and to consider how every assignment and classroom activity might work to help students achieve them.
As you design your assignments, you'll want first to determine the outcomes that each assignment will work to accomplish. If your aim is to ensure, for instance, that students learn how to shape good academic questions, you might ask them to compose, share, and then revise their questions. If you want them to develop their research capabilities, have them take these questions to the library data bases in order to look for appropriate sources. If you want to ensure that students learn how to work with sources, ask them to compose a summary and synthesis document, in which they nutshell their sources and show how these sources are in conversation with one another. Finally, if you want to ensure that they learn how to compose and revise, assign drafts and give them feedback. Have their peers offer feedback as well. Whatever you decide to assign, use the outcomes to guide you.
Second, you'll want to scaffold your assignments, so that students can build on their capabilities. You'll see in the examples cited in the paragraph above that each assignment builds on the one before. Students work on one step in the process and get feedback on it (from the instructor or their peers) before moving on to the next challenge. By scaffolding, instructors can be sure that students know how to successfully complete the final assignment. Students can also track the evolution and transfer of their skills.
Third, writing instructors frequently comment that Dartmouth's ten-week term is very short. Assignments must therefore be designed to achieve multiple outcomes. Consider the first step of the assignment sequence outlined above: "Ask students to compose, share, and then revise their questions." Several outcomes are achieved here: students are composing, they are collaborating, and they are revising. If you design your assignments to achieve multiple outcomes, you'll be surprised at how much your students can accomplish.
Whatever assignments you design, do understand that simply making an assignment does not ensure that students will acquire the desired skills. For an assignment to succeed it should be transparent and progressive—that is, your students should understand your goals for the assignment, and they should be able to chart their own development in relation to these goals. The better students understand your assignments and your vision for your course, the better they'll be able to meet the course aims.
When designing your syllabus, you will want to consider carefully the spacing of your writing assignments. It's important that students are given enough time to write and to revise their papers. Professors who use a writing assistant will also want to be sure that they provide the writing assistant enough time to read and respond to students' papers.
Here are some things to consider:
The Open Writing Assignment
Professors who don't use writing prompts believe that an important part of scholarship is learning to raise questions that will yield a good academic argument. Instead of creating a writing prompt, these professors craft an assignment process that supports students as they work through the various challenges of scholarly inquiry. In a sense, these professors are asking students to craft their own prompts, and to write the paper that will answer the questions that they outline there. The obvious pedagogical advantage of the open assignment is that it allows students to learn to develop topics on their own. In the open assignment, students are not only permitted to pursue intellectual questions that are of interest to them, they also gain some experience in framing a topic that is neither too narrow nor too broad.
If you elect not to use prompts, you should intend to devote class and conference time to assisting students in this process. For instance, you might ask students to come up with three good academic questions about the course's reading materials. Students can post these questions on the Blackboard discussion board. You can then workshop these questions, using class time to talk about which questions will (or won't) yield a good academic argument, and why. You should also comment thoroughly on the questions submitted, raising further questions for the student to consider. You might also invite students to comment on one another's questions on the Blackboard site. Students can then revise their questions and resubmit them for another round of feedback before they write.
Some professors find it useful to offer students models of good academic questions. Other professors give explicit instruction regarding what the paper shouldn't do and leave it to the students to determine what they want to do within these parameters. All professors ask students to submit their prompts in advance of drafting so that they can determine, before the students proceed too far, whether or not these topics are appropriate and promising.
Whatever you decide, do note that a prompt-less writing assignment needs a good infrastructure in order to succeed. Indeed, Karen Gocsik's research assignment for Writing 2-3 has twelve steps, indicating the many moments of support and feedback that first-year students require as they work through the process of writing a research paper Your assignment need not have twelve steps to be effective; it may have four steps, for instance, or five. Craft your assignment steps according to the aims of your assignment.
Crafting a Good Prompt
Writing a good prompt for a writing assignment is a difficult task. Too often, professors write prompts for writing assignments knowing exactly what sorts of essays they want their students to produce, only to get papers that miss the mark. How can you produce writing assignments that clearly convey the tasks and questions you want your students to undertake?
Before writing your prompts, you will want to consider a few matters.
Once you've determined the outcomes for your writing assignment, you're ready to craft the prompt. Here are some things to consider:
If you have an assignment sequence that you'd like to share, please send it to Karen Gocsik, Executive Director of the Writing and Rhetoric Program.
Last Updated: 12/3/12