Three Roles for Writing in Your Course: Differentiating goals for writing tasks

Daniel Emery

Welcome back to the spring semester! As you prepare your courses, syllabi, and assignments, it may be valuable to think about three distinct ways that writing can help your students learn and use course content. While we often think of formal graded assignments as the cornerstone of “college-level writing,” shorter, less formal writing activities can help students to master complex course content, understand connections among course topics, and consider their own learning and development.

Role 1: Using writing to develop understanding

Wood Letter Stamps

Brief, informal writing exercises, conducted before, during, and after class, can help students develop content knowledge. For example, asking students to identify the most critical points of course readings to prepare for class can help to confirm students’ understanding of course content. Asking students to develop hypotheses, draw inferences, or predict connections and outcomes can help students to organize their knowledge and make their assumptions and understanding apparent.

Asking students to produce a descriptive outline of a course reading can be another powerful way to help students use writing to develop understanding. For each paragraph of a selected reading, ask students to identify the central topic of the paragraph. Having completed this task, ask students to then consider the role of each paragraph in the construction of the overall argument or point of the reading. Differentiating the purpose of particular paragraphs in addition to their meaning and content can help students understand how arguments are made, what counts as evidence, and what considerations are essential in producing writing in the discipline.

Additional resources and examples are available on our TWW pages on informal writing and early semester writing assignments.

Role 2: Using writing to demonstrate understanding

Students can demonstrate their understanding of course content in many ways. The simplest strategy is to ask students to record and summarize course content or to restate course content using newly acquired academic vocabulary. Such low-level assignments can serve as homework assignments or take the place of quizzes using a simple rubric.

Analysis and application activities might include requiring students to respond to cases, scenarios, or examples to illustrate how their course knowledge helps them to understand the meaning of events or actions. Problem-based assignments, lab experiences, and observations provide multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate understanding through application. At the highest level, the analysis or application assignment may lead to an assessment or judgment about the topic.

Complex writing assignments may ask students to synthesize information from multiple sources to draw conclusions or generate new claims. In writing literature reviews and research papers, students combine skills of summary and analysis with the ability to draw connections, make inferences, and assert new conclusions. Assignments of this type often benefit from scaffolding smaller assignments and early intervention with formative assessments.

Role 3: Using writing to reflect on learning

Grayscale Student with Pen and Paper

Asking students to reflect on their own learning is a valuable strategy to reinforce the learning that has happened in your courses. At the start of the course, it can be helpful for students to reflect on prior knowledge and develop their own learning goals. After any examination or assignment, students will benefit from reflecting on what they do well and what they need to work on. This strategy is particularly valuable in courses where early learning constitutes the foundation for later work. Finally, at the end of a unit or course, students might describe how their understanding has changed over time or how their learning will influence their decisions and actions in the future.

Other roles for writing

While these broad categories describe many roles for writing in your courses, writing can also help students to understand roles, professions, and identities; to develop their ethical awareness and sensibilities; and to participate in public discussion and decision making.

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.

If you are a teaching assistant or graduate instructor of record, you can still register for spring semester workshops, but space is filling fast. Read more and register.

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.


The first 100 UMN faculty, staff, instructors, or teaching assistants to comment here will receive a free consultation from the Writing Across the Curriculum staff!

Also, so will anyone after the first 100. Our services are funded through the Office of Undergraduate Education and available to our teaching community.