3 Steps to Designing Effective Writing Assignments

Today’s post on Tracy Gardner’s book, Designing Writing Assignments, is written with Rachel Kolb. You can find more of Rachel’s thoughts on education here.


Assignment DesignGardner starts with the idea that, in order to design an effective writing assignment, teachers need to start by considering the rhetorical situation they want to frame for their students. These questions could include the following: what are my goals? who is my audience? Gardner suggests that we go beyond simply describing a writing assignment in terms of its end product, but that we also consider a process-oriented model in which students can complete steps, work in different ways, and write along the way. She conceives of the writing assignment as a three-step process: defining the task, exploring the expectations for the task, and providing support and explanatory materials. Defining the task involves identifying the audience and purpose for the writing project, positioning students to communicate effectively with that audience, and opening up possibilities for students to interact with texts and take ownership of the task. Next, exploring expectations involves preparing models, checklists, and rubrics to guide students through the assignment. It also involves explaining the assignment with consideration for the underlying activity at hand and providing students with model responses and examples of writing. And finally, providing support and explanatory materials involves assembling materials that scaffold the writing process, creating other assignments for students to think through their ideas, providing support on how to understand the difference between finished and edited texts, and creating opportunities for peer and teacher support during the writing process.

Gardner emphasizes that instructors should think about designing a writing assignment not as a defined step-by-step process (or as a product-oriented model), but as a thought process that aims to meet goals in a fluid and organic way. She gives three vignettes to illustrate her thought process behind designing three different writing assignments: an inquiry, an expressive writing, and a persuasive writing assignment. For the inquiry assignment, Gardner suggests practices such as positioning students as experts, giving them choice over the subject matter, and framing assignments that ask them to restructure their knowledge or put it into a different genre while still following clear model- and rubric-based expectations. For the expressive writing assignment, Gardner hones in on the task of prompting students to reflect on their own composing experiences, and suggests an interactive blog structured by critical-thinking questions and a clear audience of peers, and also by adequate guidelines about how to post and comment on each other’s work. Finally, for the persuasive writing assignment, Gardner suggests making the relationship between writer and audience clear, while focusing on standard persuasive strategies. For this, she designs an endorsement-letter assignment, structured again by clear guidelines and models.

These three vignettes and Gardner’s three-part process prompt instructors to consider how they might work supporting materials, student engagement and critical inquiry, and clear scaffolding into the entire process of creating a writing assignment.

Pedagogical application:

Student ownership of writing is a great goal, but it can also be an elusive mindset to nurture. Often, students are more than willing to hand their paper over to a writing assistant, wanting it to simply be “fixed” and handed back. This same habit can spill over into conferences and peer review sessions.

Imagine your last peer review. Everyone hands their paper over, and then there is silence while (you hope) everyone is reading. Then there’s the less energized silence of each reader looking over the rubric and trying to think of what to say. And finally some lines are scratched out before you call time. Whenever I talk to writers about their peer review experiences, they respond with disappointment, proposing that their reader misinterpreted the paper. This suggests an automatic defensiveness that may be prompted by the way student ownership is suspended during the review process.

Before the peer review, spend time working with the students on giving feedback. Go over the importance of I-statements and how to word criticism as a reader’s response. At the end of that lesson, collaboratively design questions and talk about what they would like to get out of the session. During the peer review itself, have writers maintain physical possession of their papers and read aloud to their partners. Following that, the listener will have a conversation with the writer rather than filling out a handout. In this way, the writers take part in developing the review and avoid relinquishing their papers.

Discussion Questions:

  1. For first-year writers, what are some potential best practices or creative ways to encourage maximal engagement with audience and texts? Does this involve working with different formats or genres? How might Gardner’s three-part process best enable instructors to embrace effective or creative assignments while still maintaining clear expectations, scaffolding, and structure?
  2. Gardner proposes that we position student writers as subject matter experts. Consider the same first-year writers from the previous question. How would you help them be comfortable with writing from the authoritative position of an expert? Looking back at the debate between Elbow and Bartholomae, would you always want students to position themselves as experts?

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