Concern about the quality of student writing is ongoing and not without justification. Faculty are addressing the problem with more writing assignments and a concerted faculty effort to improve student writing across the curriculum. Authors Allison Rank and Heather Pool, who during their graduate work directed a political science writing center, laud these faculty efforts but point out that faculty are not looking carefully at their writing in the assignment descriptions they give students. “We…
Concern about the quality of student writing is ongoing and not without justification. Faculty are addressing the problem with more writing assignments and a concerted faculty effort to improve student writing across the curriculum. Authors Allison Rank and Heather Pool, who during their graduate work directed a political science writing center, laud these faculty efforts but point out that faculty are not looking carefully at their writing in the assignment descriptions they give students. “We argue that the intent, structure, and working of a prompt all help promote or impede student writing.” (p. 675) In this very detailed article, they offer advice and suggestions on writing better assignment prompts. The article's many examples are drawn from political science, but the advice and suggestions offered are broadly applicable.
The authors aspire to give teachers guidance “about how to actually write a clear and doable writing assignment, pitched at the right level to achieve specific aims.” (p. 676) They start with an updated version of the Bloom taxonomy, to which they add further modifications. Writing assignments can be designed to achieve five cognitive objectives, listed from low to high, as in the Bloom hierarchy: 1) to summarize, which demonstrates a grasp of previously presented material; 2) to relate, which develops connections among concepts, events, and actors; 3) to analyze, which deconstructs arguments using logic and disciplinary standards; 4) to evaluate, which involves assessing claims according to disciplinary standards; and 5) to create, which involves generating content ranging from research questions to policy proposals. (p. 677)
They recommend appropriate terms for prompts at each of these levels and identify the benefits to students and instructors of each objective in a helpful table on page 677. Assignment terms should be used precisely. For example, the terms “describe” and “discuss” mean different things. Describe means “to give a detailed account,” and discuss means to “offer a considered and balanced review that includes a range of arguments, factors or hypotheses.” (p. 676) To ask students to do both in a single question can lead to confused and muddled responses.
They make the same point about an assignment that contains multiple questions. “Instructors often use a host of questions that seem to be clear and in order, but students frequently respond with paralysis.” (p. 678) Beginning writers may struggle to identify the central and supporting questions. They respond with papers that are not structured around a clear thesis statement. Authors Rank and Pool recommend identifying primary and secondary questions for beginning writers and encouraging more advanced writers to consider the relationships between questions before they start writing. Differentiating between multiple questions as they write assignment prompts can also help instructors see whether the goals of the assignment align with course objectives.
The article also contains a discussion of each of the five writing assignment cognitive objectives, which are summarized briefly here.
Summarize—“These prompts (define, summarize, describe, identify) require [students], in their own words, to communicate information covered in lectures, readings, or prior classes.” (p. 678) The authors recommend using these prompts in low-stakes, free-writing assignments when the instructor needs feedback on the levels of student understanding. This writing can also be used in class to promote discussion.
Relate—“Asking students to relate two distinct analyses works best when they have been prepared by thinking about theories or events in conceptually related ways that are held together by major ideas or questions.” (p. 678)
Analyze—Writing assignments here involve disciplinary standards. Students are being asked to critically engage with course material by applying disciplinary rules for making and supporting arguments, for example. Students might be asked to “consider an argument or concept in a way that uncovers the assumptions and interrelationships of the issue.” (p. 679) These are the kinds of writing assignments that develop students' abilities to critically analyze.
Evaluate—Prompts that ask students to evaluate benefit them in three ways: 1) they are exposed to the standards of evidence-based inquiry, 2) they are being asked to consider the implications of theories being discussed in the course, and 3) they do not have to simply accept conclusions offered by authorities but are being challenged to evaluate those conclusions.
Create—Here students do writing assignments in which they use the knowledge and skills gained in the course to create new knowledge. At the high end of the Bloom taxonomy these are the most challenging writing assignments and the ones that require significant preparation before they can be successfully completed.
Beyond these five cognitive objectives for writing assignments, the authors make a strong case for writing assignments that ask students to reflect on their learning. “We encourage instructors who ask students to write multiple papers to also ask them to reflect on how the feedback on their first paper influenced their approach to the second.” (p. 680)
The authors rightly observe that the literature is full of descriptions of different kinds of writing assignments, different ways those assignments can be integrated in non-writing courses, and different approaches to assessing writing, but there is precious little advice “about how we ask students to write.” (p. 680) This very well-written article does an excellent job of filling that gap.
Reference: Rank, A., and Pool, H. (2014). Writing better writing assignments. PS, Political Science and Politics, 47 (3), 675-681.