How can I teach writing effectively in an online course?

When we move to teaching in fully- or partially-online venues, some aspects of writing assignment design, writing instruction, and commenting and grading practices can migrate intact. Others benefit from being reconsidered or substantially altered. On this page, we provide some guidelines and resources to support this reconsideration.

Backward Design 1: Teaching goals drive strategies 

Person holding tablet and small multicolored tiles with random icons are shooting out the top.

As we move parts or all of course instruction into online venues, it can be tempting to align teaching goals and approaches to online teaching tools. Working in reverse, adapting tools to course goals, ensures relevance of approach, avoids access issues, and can keep you (and students) from becoming overwhelmed by options.

Backward Design 2: Meet students where they are 

Getting information from students about their access to technology and their background with the sorts of writing you plan to assign allows you to align instruction appropriately.

  • Student tech inventory will provide you with important information about online access and proficiency, NOTE:  If you would like to use this, please make a copy!
  • Student writing inventory can provide you with important information about students' experience with and confidence in demonstrating the kinds of writing abilities you expect in this course. NOTE: If you would like to use this, please make a copy! 
  • Low-stakes, early-semester writing assignments will provide you with baseline data regarding students’ proficiency with your core writing expectations and can orient students to the kinds of writing they’ll be doing in the course.

Constructing Online Writing Assignments and Activities 1: Explicit framing promotes engagement and pacing

The scholarship on designing effective online writing assignments and assessments points to the benefits of assignments that are clear and transparent, authentic and meaningful, and inclusive and accessible. Here are some useful resources to support good assignment design.

Constructing Online Writing Assignments and Activities 2: Break large assignments into smaller, low-stakes assignments

Instructors working with a complex and lengthy assignment, will want to build smaller assignments backward from the end product. This is especially important for online assignments.

Commenting and Grading Online 1: Commenting online to encourage revision

Portion of a server with bright blue components and neon green lights

Commenting on student writing is always an important opportunity for learning, but it takes on even greater significance when we are building relationships with students online. Whether synchronous or asynchronous, online courses require significantly more independent reading and writing, so finding ways to reward and promote student engagement is critical. 

Commenting and Grading Online 2: Using online grading tools

Online courses often highlight the value of explicit assessment criteria, both as guides for students preparing their written assignments and for the instructors and teaching assistants that evaluate their writing. Canvas provides both a simple way to distribute writing assignments, to review student drafts, and to record students progress on grading criteria and learning outcomes. 

Instructional Support

With its interdisciplinary Teaching with Writing series, the Writing Across the Curriculum program offers University instructors a regular series of workshops, seminars, short-courses, discussions, and consultations.