Gearing Up for the Fall Semester (and Beyond)

Matthew Luskey

Before the hurly-burly of the academic year begins, it’s worth carving out time to fine-tune your syllabi and the key writing assignments in your courses. The Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) team can support your efforts. Our Teaching with Writing (TWW) tips suggest ways to craft a promising syllabus that clearly situates the role of writing in your course and discipline and provides students with helpful information about the excellent resources available through the Center for Writing and Student Writing Support.


Introducing the Writing Assignment Hotline (WAH)


Along with our TWW tips, we are pleased to consult with you on syllabus and writing assignment-related matters. You can schedule an in-person or Google Meet consultation, or you take advantage of our new Writing Assignment Hotline by emailing us a draft of your writing assignment with specific questions you would like us to consider. 

A Few Suggestions for Writing Assignment Design

As you work on your assignments, here are six suggestions culled from the research literature on assignment design.

  1. Align your writing assignment with the core learning objectives for your course. Ideally, as Mary Soliday points out, writing assignments should provide students with an opportunity to enact concepts they’ve been exposed to in reading, discussion, and/or lectures.
  2. Be explicit about the rhetorical situation for the assignment. Making clear the purpose, the audience and the specific genre (e.g., lab report, speech, prospectus, white paper, memo, literary analysis, memoir, performance, etc.) for your assignment will help students produce more focused and authentic work. And speaking of authenticity…
  3. Design the writing task with an authentic scenario, problem-solving situation, or inquiry question in mind—rather than by topic. To paraphrase John Bean, topic-based prompts can often produce less focused “all about” writing—term papers that provide a lot of content but often lack a controlling idea or central line of reasoning.
  4. Provide clear details about the stages, deadlines and grading guidelines for the assignment. A strong practice is to provide the grading guidelines (rubrics, etc.) with the assignment, so students have a clear idea of what is most important. We can chat with you about rubrics as well!
  5. Be attentive to how and when the assignment fits in your course. Longer assignments often benefit from segmenting, and shorter assignments from sequencing. For longer assignments, consider having students submit their work in stages.
  6. Provide templates, formulas, and schemas judiciously. While schemas and templates can help students learn the epistemological moves that expert thinkers use, too much structure can stultify the assignment. A better practice is to provide and discuss exemplars of the work you want students to produce.

Here to Help 

Writing assignments can be tricky to compose. Whether we assign lengthy research papers, short problem sets, presentations, or in-class short-writes, we want our assignments to be helpful, clear, and generative. So how much information is too much? Not enough? We’re here to help you think through your assignments, in person or online through our new Writing Assignment Hotline.

Please Share

Do you have a writing assignment that has worked well in your course? If so, please consider sharing it in the comments below. You might also consider submitting your assignment to Prompt: A Journal of Academic Writing Assignments.

Further Support

See the Teaching with Writing pages on the Center for Writing website for teaching resources, including sample assignments and syllabi. As many of you know, our WAC program also hosts the popular Teaching with Writing event series. Each semester, this series offers free workshops and discussions. Visit us online and follow us on Twitter @UMNWriting. To schedule a phone, email, or face-to-face teaching consultation, click here.