Syllabus and Assignment Design
When you design a syllabus for any course, you begin with the goals that you have for your students and 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 will connect students with the questions and skills that the professor deems essential to the course.
At the first stage of backward design, writing instructors should ask themselves two questions: What do I want my students to know/experience in my course? and What do I want them to be able to do, once my course is over?
You'll note that the first question—what do I want my 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 an experiential assignment or exercise—for instance, asking students to chart their encounters with technology through the course of the day and then to write a paper that explores the consequences of these encounters (tracing their technological "footprint," to use the current metaphor).
The second question that the designing instructor needs to ask is, What do I want them to be able to do, once my course is over? Here the instructor needs to identify the skills that she wants the student to master. In a writing class, this list can be rather long. In terms of meta-goals, we restate here the goals for our first year courses, outlined elsewhere in this website:
- Bring students into the ongoing conversation of scholarship
- Teach students the elements of argument
- Improve students' critical reading and thinking skills
- Instruct students to find, use, and cite sources
- Teach students to write clear and effective prose
Within these categories are many sub-categories. For instance, the library and the writing program have identified several research aims as necessary to first-year instruction (see Educating First-Year Students). In terms of writing, we offer the following goals:
- Students will wean themselves from notions of writing that they brought with them from high school (e.g., the five-paragraph theme).
- Students will understand the foundational conventions of academic discourse (as you or your discipline define it) and the general expectations of the academic reader.
- Students will have guided practice in the methods of scholarly inquiry and critical thinking.
- Students will learn how to write a strong thesis sentence and/or how to craft a good thesis question.
- Students will be able to effectively structure an argument, crafting focused paragraphs and making solid transitions from argument point to argument point.
- Students will learn how to find and how to use evidence to support their arguments.
- Students will learn how to effectively contextualize an argument, via a good introduction, within the ongoing conversation both of the class and of scholarship (as they currently understand it).
- Students will understand and employ the principles of clear writing and good style.
- Students will produce grammatical, correctly formatted papers.
- Students will discover the nuances of their own writing processes, determining what strategies work best for them as writers.
Once you have a governing course question and a list of goals, you are ready to begin designing your assignments. Reading assignments should be limited to those books that best address the course question. If you're deciding among books, consider which ones best carve out the lay of the scholarly landscape, and which will give your students the best "experience" of the question at hand. Also consider which books might serve as models of good (or bad) writing. After all, ten weeks is a very short time, and every book should serve multiple purposes.
Assignments should serve multiple purposes, too. If, for instance, an early goal is to challenge students' existing writing models, you might assign a reading that isn't structured conventionally and then ask students to write an essay that posits a question or that prohibits students from explicitly stating their thesis. If you want to teach students how to contextualize an idea, give them a thesis sentence and ask them to write an introduction for that thesis, then share the results in class, commenting on how a particular introduction is (or is not) effective.
Whatever assignments you design, do understand that simply making an assignment does not insure 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. Don't be reluctant to explain to your students again and again why they're doing a particular assignment. 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:
- Give students time to move through the writing process. If you are teaching a first-year course whose purpose is (in part) to make students more facile in the writing process, you will have to give them time to move through the various pre-writing, writing, and revision processes. One way of making room for these various steps in the writing process is by assigning a paper in three parts: the pre-draft (which could consist of crafting thesis questions, writing a discovery draft, creating an outline, and so on), the first draft, and the final draft. Instructors often omit required pre-writing exercises as students become more skilled in the writing process.
- Give students time to revise. If we want our students to revise their papers substantively, we must give them adequate time. This means that we need to get their papers back on time, particularly the first drafts. Consider whether you'll need two days, four days, or a full week to return an assignment. Also consider whether or not you expect the student to see a writing assistant or to meet with you between drafts.
- Try not to make a reading assignment on the day a major paper is due. Let your students focus their attention fully on their writing. Schedule writing workshops the day that a paper is due instead.
- Long assignments (particularly those that involve research) work better if you break them up into smaller assignments. Ask students to bring in an annotated bibliography, a working thesis, an outline, etc. Scheduling these shorter assignments ensures that students remain engaged in the writing process. It also prevents them from writing the paper at the last minute.
- Think of yourself. Students and professors typically like Monday due dates: students get the weekend to work on their papers, and professors keep their weekends free. Whatever you decide, try to keep your due dates consistent, because consistency enables your students—and you—to plan.
Though not every professor uses them, assignment sequences offer many advantages to a course. They help students to explore the course material in increasingly complex ways, and they require students to master increasingly complex thinking and writing skills. In any case, using assignment sequences in your course can serve to provide coherence both to your course and to your students' learning processes.
To set up an assignment sequence, consider the goals of your course.
- Is the primary purpose of your course to give students practice in writing as a process? Your assignment sequence may begin by asking students to turn in some pre-draft exercises, such as an outline or some possible thesis sentences, followed by a first draft and a revision.
- Is the primary purpose of your course to improve your students' critical thinking skills? You might create an assignment sequence that first asks students to observe an event or phenomenon; then to gather facts; then to make inferences; then to put forth an opinion; and so on. Or you may wish to ask students to consider problems in increasingly complex ways.
- Is one of the goals of your course to introduce students to the important research and writing conventions of your particular discipline? If so, create a sequence of writing assignments that gives students practice in these research and writing conventions. For example, you might ask students to turn in an annotated bibliography, followed by an abstract, followed by an introduction that summarizes the work already done in the field.
- Are your goals for the course significantly content-directed? If so, design an assignment sequence that challenges students to look at your course material in several different ways. For example, you might create a writing assignment that asks students to consider your course materials historically. You might ask them to write a personal response paper. You might ask them to summarize and compare different scholarship on the material in question.
Professors often wonder, when creating writing assignments, how detailed the assignments should be. Some professor don't use prompts, requiring students to come up with the topics and questions themselves. Others create detailed writing assignments, arguing that this allows students to save energy for writing their papers (as opposed to generating topics and questions). Still others craft writing prompts that offer students ideas for writing but that leave plenty of room for students to come up with ideas of their own. We'll consider the options of prompting and not prompting here.
The Open Writing Assignment
Professors who don't use writing prompts argue 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.
- Consider what you want the assignment to do, in terms of the larger thematic goals of your course. How will the assignment support these goals? What questions, in particular, do you want your students to consider? Are these questions related closely or peripherally to topics you've been discussing in class? You may want to include in your prompt some reference to the course materials, so that students have a point of reference from which to begin their discussions.
- Consider what kinds of thinking you want students to do. Do you want your students to define, illustrate, compare, analyze, or evaluate? You will want to come up with prompts that clearly direct students as to the kind of thinking they will have to do.
- Consider your students' writing processes. Are you focusing on teaching students to place their arguments within a larger conversation or context? If so, your prompt should address the importance of context and suggest things that you want students to consider as they write. Are you hoping to get your students to understand the mechanics of the paragraph? Your prompt might ask students to write paragraphs that summarize, then analyze, then synthesize, so that they can see how different tasks require different paragraph development.
- If the paper involves research, consider outlining your research requirements in a way that educates students about the research process. You may want to require students to use a variety of sources, or to use certain sources that you've either put on reserve or listed in the course syllabus. Understand that students may need help with finding sources, evaluating them, and incorporating them successfully into their arguments. Craft your prompt accordingly.
Once you've determined the goals for your writing assignment, you're ready to craft the prompt. Here are some things to consider:
- Break the assignment down into specific tasks. If, for example, you want students to compare the effectiveness of two political movements, you might first ask students to define the goals of each movement; then to consider the history of each movement; then to discuss how the history of the movement affected the creation of its goals; and finally, to consider how history influenced the movement's ultimate success (or failure).
- Break the assignment down into specific questions. For example, if you want students to discuss the formal elements of a particular painting, you might, as Art Historian Joy Kenseth does, ask the students: What is the focus of the painting? How does the artist treat such things as light and shadow, line, space, and composition? How does this treatment communicate the painting's ideas? If you don't want students to answer all of the questions you put to them, but want them simply to consider these questions before writing their responses, make that clear.
- Provide context. A writing prompt that asks students to discuss whether or not the films of Leni Riefenstahl are propagandistic does not point students to the interesting controversy surrounding Riefenstahl's work. Nor does it indicate whether they should limit themselves to discussing the formal elements of Riefenstahl's films, or whether they should include biographical detail. The more contextual information you give your students, the more precise their responses will be.
- Craft each sentence carefully. You will want to be sure that there is no room for misunderstanding the assignment. If you ask students to analyze how a myth informed paintings and sculptors during the first century of the Renaissance, do you want students to examine the works themselves or the artists that produced them? Sometimes a slip in word choice or the careless placement of a modifier can leave students confused as to what, precisely, you are asking them to do.
- Be clear about what you don't want. If you don't want students to discuss Virginia Woolf's personal experiences as they relate to A Room of One's Own, then be sure to instruct them not to include biographical references. In addition, explaining why such information should be excluded will help students to understand better the questions and the desired response.
- Be clear about the paper requirements. Have you indicated the paper's due date? How many pages you require? How many sources you require? What special criteria (if any) you will use when grading this paper? If you're requirements are rigid, say so. If you're flexible, let the students know. This may be the aspect of the prompt that students are most anxious about, so offer as much detail as you think is necessary.
- Try to write (or at least to outline) the assignment yourself. If you have trouble outlining a paper based on this prompt, your students will, too. You will want to think about ways of revising the assignment to make it clearer and more manageable.
- Discuss the assignment with the class. When you distribute the assignment to the class, take time to go over it. Ask for their questions. Make notes as to where their understanding of the assignment differs from yours so that you can improve the prompt the next time you use it.
Here are some sample assignment sequences for you 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 Program.
Last modified: Tuesday, 18-Dec-2007 20:31:13 EST
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