teaching with writing
What Students Ask
about Writing Assignments
of the campus-wide writing program at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa
interviewed over 200 students about their experiences in writing intensive
classes. Their responses—which will seem very familiar to any experienced
teacher—can be condensed into four questions:
will the writing assignment help me to learn the course material?”
to forget that the purpose of an assignment isn't automatically clear
to students. Explicitly linking it to the goals of the course will
help students see the value of an assignment. Saying something like “I
want to be sure you understand the difference between Concept A and
Concept B” or “Your notebooks show what you've learned about
collecting and evaluating data” confirms that an assignment is
a way of learning the material, not busy work.
you had to do this assignment yourself, how would you do it?”
to encountering new ideas, students are often encountering new cognitive
tasks. Models are especially helpful in such cases. For example, if
you're asking students to evaluate research methodology, you might
demonstrate ways that can be done or provide a printed example with
key features marked.
does this writing assignment or topic relate to the work that specialists
do in this field?”
Such a question
is most likely to occur in advanced classes as students think more
in terms of professionalism. In fields where written records have legal
implications, that concern ought to be stressed; questions about the
amount and type of writing done on the job might be asked of visiting
professionals as well.
you evaluate my work on this assignment, what exactly will you be looking
statement of criteria for evaluating written work can be provided in
the course syllabus or the assignment itself. The answer to this question
should be clearly connected to the purpose of the assignment as well.
Here, too, examples of successful papers can be helpful.
the short paper on a video, I wanted students to make connections
among the archeologist's questions, the methods used to get answers,
and principles from their reading.”
assignment was like writing a high-school movie review. I wanted
to give my own personal understanding about the video, so I was
going to write a narrative.”
the journals I wanted students to really wield their own opinions
and grapple with issues, to really think about course material.”
I first heard the assignment, I thought I was supposed to write anything,
like a reaction, just to show if I learned something.”
wanted students to really wrestle with the questions on the assignment
sheet, to give in-depth answers. I wanted students to distinguish
between the author's words and their own interpretation.”
was supposed to write a 6-page analysis on a reading and juice up
the answers. I tried to make it sound good by adding lots of details
and sounding excited in my writing.”
When we asked
experienced WI instructors to analyze instructor expectations and student
understandings, here is some of what we found:
translate an instructor's goals into processes they think they can handle.
An instructor's desire to have students “grapple with issues” becomes for the student “to write anything, like a reaction, just
to show if I learned something.” Translations such as this point
to significant gaps in students' understanding of the instructors'
purposes and expectations.
enter WI classes with strategies they devised to deal with earlier writing
assignments, and they may try to use these strategies again rather than
risk something new.
the student who tried to make “a 6-page analysis . . . sound good
by adding lots of details and sounding excited” had learned to
try to please the teacher and thus to win the “A.” Sometimes
prior experiences promote new learning; at other times they impede
Writing Program, University of Hawaii at Mānoa.May 12, 2003. <http://mwp01.mwp.hawaii.edu/wm1.htm>.