Writing Assignments Across the Curriculum

Below are descriptions of 35 types of writing assignments teachers may use. Many of these descriptions note connections to the assignments used in the University's ENGL101 courses.  Each assignment includes its purpose and appropriate discipline(s).

 

Analysis of Book Review

Supplying a list of recently reviewed (within the past two years) books pertinent to course content, ask students to select one or two and then “review” the reviews. You might ask students to comment first on the reviewer’s attitude to the material, methodology, and conclusions of the work being reviewed, then assess the assumptions about the field underlying the reviewer’s assessment, and finally the relevance of the review to the course’s subject matter. Culling reviews from the Washington Post Book World and the New York Times Review of Book can help demonstrate the pertinence of course work beyond the university, while selecting reviews from academic journals will place students within the discourse and concerns of the field.

Purpose
To engage students in the discipline’s ongoing conversation.

Discipline
All

Annotated Bibliography

You may wish to supply a list of works, or you may prefer to have students select their own. Your decision will depend on your purposes. If this assignment should dovetail with the content of a specific class, then you will probably want to supply a list. If you are using this assignment as a preface for individual research projects, then you will probably want to let students find their own. Explaining that entries should offer not only a brief summary of the work but also critical evaluation that includes the work’s usefulness to the umbrella topic will help produce more substantive results. Providing a sample entry will concretely illustrate your directions. [Some sections of UMCP’s ENGL 101 courses use this assignment.]

Purpose
To engage students in the discipline’s ongoing conversation.

Discipline
All, especially Humanities, Social Sciences, Business, and Education

Annotation

Asking students to supply brief commentary for key terms, concepts, or names that appear in non-textbook readings will allow students to make course vocabulary their own. Selecting a piece from a publication geared to a lay audience (e.g., an opinion piece from the Washington Post) puts a different twist on this task and will help students recognize the extra information and assumptions that specialists bring to bear on particular topics.

Purpose
To engage students in the discipline’s ongoing conversation.

Discipline
All

Book Report

This assignment requires students simply to summarize a work in order to illustrate that they did do the reading.

Purpose
To test that the material has been read.

Discipline
All

Book/Article Review

This assignment develops skills in summarizing and situating material within the context of a course’s related reading and the discipline’s conventions. Structuring this assignment as a review for a professional journal supplies a specific context for the type of evaluation this assignment requires. Providing a list of questions that reviews typically answer as well as samples will ensure better results.

Purpose
To engage students in the discipline’s ongoing conversation.

Discipline
All

Case Study

Applying course concepts through case studies affords students the opportunity to test their understanding of what they are learning, to experience firsthand the methods of a particular discipline, and to see the uses and values of these methods. A business course, for example, might assign a project in which course principles form the framework for a start-up plan for a new business or a market test for expansion of an existing product line. An environmental science course might require a case study in which students develop a conservation plan for a region.

Purpose
To assess ability to integrate course concepts with outside material.

Discipline
Social Sciences, Business, and Education

Comparison Paper

Whether assigned as a short essay or a more extended piece of work, a comparison paper obliges students to distinguish differences and similarities within a group of readings, scenarios, objects, situations, or other types of course content. This process assists students in uncovering relationships that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. [This exercise builds upon skills acquired in several of UMCP’s ENGL 101 assignments.]

Purpose
To discover relationships and detail distinctions.

Discipline
Humanities, Social Sciences, and Education.

Contextual Analysis/Solution

Providing students with a scenario or problem and asking them to respond using course concepts will help students recognize the real-world applications of what they are learning. A math class, for instance, might provide a situation that would require using a formula learned in class; students should also explain their process. Similarly, an architecture class on design and function might ask students to consider a particular space – a building on campus perhaps – and detail how its plan and use reflect the material being taught.

Purpose
To assess ability to integrate course concepts with outside material.

Discipline
All

Critical Persona Paper

This assignment takes an imaginative approach and asks students to assume the personae of particular theorists or critics. You might ask students to assume the persona of one particular theorist and project how he or she would address a specific situation or another theorist. Fostering a dialogical framework, a student in a government class might adopt the position of John Locke, for example, and engage with Filmer. Or for an economics class, a student may become John Maynard Keynes and address his particular response to an economic argument at odds with his tenets. Or you may wish to assign critical positions within a contemporary debate in the field.

Purpose
To provide creative forum for critical thinking.

Discipline
Humanities, Social Sciences, and Education.

Definition Paper

This assignment asks students to delineate a key term that the course embraces. Assigned early on in the course, this assignment can furnish a foundation for the presentation of material throughout the semester. Later on in the semester, you might ask students to return to their initial definition essays and assess how their understanding of the concept has shifted. When a term is a contested one in the field, this assignment can also serve as a means of engaging students in debates within a given discipline. For example, you might ask students to consider how the ways participants define the term shape their arguments and approaches to a topic. You might also have students define a key concept or concepts for audiences outside your given field. [This exercise builds upon UMCP’s ENGL 101 Definition paper.]

Purpose
To engage students in the discipline’s ongoing conversation, develop skills in using course vocabulary, and identify points of contention.

Discipline
All

Double-entry Journal

Instructing students to divide their notebook pages into columns and record the “facts” of a reading in the first column and then their reactions, judgments, or questions in the second can furnish material for class discussions, future essays, and end-of-the-semester review. The exercise itself helps students distinguish between opinions rendered in the piece and their own assessments.

Purpose
To generate material for class discussions; to obtain a sense of what ideas, theories, and relationships need clarification.

Discipline
All

Essay Exam

Unlike true/false or multiple choice questions, short essay exam questions require students to synthesize material learned. By asking “how” and “why” questions instead of queries that could be answered with a “yes” or “no,” you will underscore expectations for analysis and facilitate the formation of solid thesis statements. You might consider taking a creative approach to formulating questions. For example, an art history course might ask students to imagine that they are curators in charge of construction an exhibit of western art from 1450-1650 and to describe what works studied in the course they would include and why. Similarly, a literature course might pose the following scenario: “You have just been appointed the editor of the X Anthology of English Literature Since 1800. Identify three or four texts that must be included in the anthology and explain why.”

Purpose
To synthesize and analyze course material.

Discipline
All

Field Report

Field reports allow students to practice research methods of observing, note taking, and interviewing commonly used, for example, by sociologists, anthropologists, and investigative reporters. Attending to these reports as written documents helps students gain a better understanding how particular disciplines organize and present the findings, how they describe their methodologies, and how the overall presentation of material can enhance or diminish the credibility of the document. [Recalls the concept of “ethos” presented in UMCP’s ENGL 101 course.]

Purpose
To develop sense of the discipline’s generic conventions and procedures.

Discipline
Social Sciences.

Glossary

This assignment can take many forms. You might ask each student to compile his or her own glossary of key terms over the course of the semester. The results would be useful for exam review. Near the end of the semester, you might ask students to reflect on how their understandings of these terms have shifted as the semester progressed. You might also ask students to exchange and comment on one another’s glossaries.

Purpose
To engage students in the discipline’s ongoing conversation.

Discipline
All

Group Project Report

This assignment can serve several purposes. For one, it enables students to gain practice in writing collaboratively – a prime form of writing for many professions. Second, asking students to distribute their reports as part of a presentation encourages classroom exchange and peer learning. Third, designing a group report assignment that requires some sections to be written individually can help you assess the specific performance of each student.

Purpose
To share ideas and/or findings with other students; encourage collaborative work.

Discipline
Humanities, Life and Physical Sciences, and Education

Journal

Asking students to record regular reflections about class discussions, lectures, or readings creates an exploratory space for students to examine their learning process over the course of a semester. Instructions about how you will grade these entries will shape the function and quality of these entries. You might decide to furnish a list of weekly topics or approaches. For example, you might instruct students to converse with a text, to detail their understanding of specific concepts, or to apply the course material to external situations. Some of the more formal assignments (e.g., the definition paper or the comparison paper) listed here could easily become the bases for entries.

Purpose
To encourage reflection.

Discipline
Humanities, Social Sciences, and Education

Lab Report

Attending to these reports as written documents helps students gain a better understanding of how particular sciences organize and present their findings, how they describe their methodologies, and how the overall presentation of material can enhance or diminish the credibility of the document.

Purpose
To develop sense of the discipline’s generic conventions and procedure.

Discipline
Life and Physical Sciences

Letter to the Editor

This assignment can be developed in several ways depending on your purposes. Presenting students with an article/editorial from a newspaper or periodical and then asking them to write a letter to the editor in response to the piece enables them to see how course material relates to real-world concerns. You might ask students to respond to a general interest issue by offering their specialized knowledge. For example, students in an environmental science course might supply their insights about the environmental effects of plans for a new highway. This assignment can help students develop their persuasive skills and strengthen their mastery of course material.

Purpose
To assess ability to integrate course concepts with outside material.

Discipline
All, especially Education

“Missing” Chapter or Paragraph Paper

This assignment encourages students to approach material with a critical but imaginative eye by having them invent as little as a few paragraphs or as many as five pages of “missing” material. For example, you might suggest that students consider what facts or perspectives a particular reading overlooks and then ask students to insert these omissions into the original material. In some cases, you might also require students to analyze how these additions alter the original argument. A variation of this assignment asks students to image how author X might alter his or her argument after reading author Y’s piece. A literature class might use this assignment to generate parodies in which students demonstrate their understanding of one author’s style, method of characterization, and the like by supplying a “lost” segment of his or her literary work.

Purpose
To provide creative forum for critical thinking.

Discipline
Humanities and Social Sciences

Newspaper Commentary Paper

This assignment asks students to find a newspaper commentary piece and discuss how course concepts relate and could be applied to the information and opinions offered. Sunday editions are often good sources for this assignment. (In fact, some introductory sociology courses assign an “Outlook” Paper named for the Washington Post Sunday commentary and opinion section.)

Purpose
To assess ability to integrate course concepts with outside material.

Discipline
Humanities, Social Sciences, Business, and Education

Note-Taking

Discussing the note-taking procedures most suitable for your field during the first week of class will help make this writing task more effective as a learning tool. Explaining what type of information is most valued in your field will aid students in understanding how your discipline constructs knowledge and should improve their performance in and engagement with the class.

Purpose
To compel students to organize knowledge.

Discipline
All

Performance/Exhibit Review

This assignment asks students to critique a performance or exhibit they have attended. You may wish to have students do some research before the event, and you should encourage them to think in advance about a list of questions (supplying a list also helps) that they will want their review to answer and to take notes immediately after the performance or as they tour.

Purpose
To engage students in the discipline’s ongoing conversation.

Discipline
Arts

Position Paper

Asking students to take a stand on a particular issue and support their position encourages engagement with the course material while developing abilities to think critically and communicate persuasively.

Purpose
To compel students to draw conclusions and take a stand.

Discipline
Humanities, Social Sciences, and Education

Process Paper

Requiring students to explain in writing how they performed a calculation or reached a solution will reinforce the mental processes used in coming up with an answer. Although this assignment could work well in various disciplines, it is an especially useful means of incorporating writing in math, computer science, and technical disciplines.

Purpose
To develop sense of the discipline’s generic conventions and procedures.

Discipline
Social Sciences, Life and Physical Sciences, and Math

Professional Article

Providing a specific audience and context for student essays can make an assignment more meaningful and realistic. Suitable primarily for upper-level courses, this assignment encourages students to engage in a discipline’s ongoing conversation and to see documentation procedures as both a professional courtesy and an ethical necessity. [This exercise builds on audience analysis skills acquired in UMCP’s ENGL 101 course.]

Purpose
To engage students in the discipline’s ongoing conversation.

Discipline
All

Reflective Paper

Most often used in a course that involves experiential learning, this assignment asks students to write a substantive analysis of their work, experiences, and learning over a period of time, and then relate this analysis to the course or program.

Purpose
To synthesize and analyze course material.

Discipline
All

Research Paper

Frequently representing the culmination of a student’s work for a course, this assignment develops skills in researching, applying course concepts, and drawing original conclusions. Breaking up this assignment into smaller tasks (topic proposal, thesis statement, annotated bibliography, and progress report) due over staggered periods of time should improve the quality of final papers. Such an approach not only teaches students how to manage large research projects but also supplies a continuous thread of applying and integrating course material. [This exercise builds upon skills acquired in UMCP’s ENGL 101, especially the Final Position paper.]

Purpose
To assess ability to integrate course concepts with outside material, synthesize and analyze course material.

Discipline
All, especially Humanities, Social Sciences, and Education.

Response/Reaction Paper

A more refined piece of writing than the journal assignment, a response paper asks students to explore ideas sparked by a particular reading. You may direct them to respond to a specific detail or aspect, or ask them to respond to something which strikes their fancy. While students should supply support for their reflections, this assignment does not require a well-developed argument.

Purpose
To test that the material has been read, assess comprehension of material read, and generate material for class discussions; to obtain a sense of what ideas, theories, and relationships need clarification.

Discipline
All

Review of the Literature

This assignment asks students to survey and summarize the work that has been done on a topic. By examining the literature about a particular subject and the directions that literature spans, students gain a deeper understanding of a subject and the work that remains to be done.

Purpose
To engage students in the discipline’s ongoing conversation.

Discipline
Social Sciences and Education

Summaries

Asking students to write, in class or as homework, brief summaries of assigned reading will foster increased preparation for class and, in turn, class discussion. It will also help students hone their skills at selecting key information and provide a useful resource for exam review or notes for formal essays and research projects. As a variation, you may wish to ask students to sum up a class lecture.

Purpose
To test that the material has been read and assess comprehension of material read.

Discipline
All

Timed Short Paper

Having students write an informal, one-,two-, or three-minute response at the end of a class discussion or lecture helps define ideas that need clarification or merit further discussion. You may wish to ask a specific question that channels attention to a potentially difficult issue, or you may wish to pose a more general question like “What was the most useful/meaningful thing you learned in today’s class?” followed by “What question(s) remain uppermost in your mind as we end this class?”

Purpose
To generate material for class discussions; obtain sense of what ideas, theories, and relationships need clarification.

Discipline
All

“Translation” Paper

Having students “translate” for a lay audience a piece written for a specialized audience offers a good means of assessing student comprehension of the material. As a variation, you might want to have students “translate” a specialized piece for another specialized audience. For example, students might take a piece written by an environmental scientist and reproduce its points for legislators or urban planners.

Purpose
To assess comprehension of material read.

Discipline
All

Web Chat

Like a listserv, Web Chat provides an electronic discussion forum. Yet unlike a listserv, all contributions appear grouped together in a single location. You can set up a Web Chat divided into weeks, course units, or other divisions suitable to your needs. While writing in this environment tends to be informal, this tool nonetheless does compel students to think about a topic. This forum is particularly valuable for determining concepts that need clarification and issues that deserve more in-class discussion. It also allows a discussion begun in class (or a peripheral discussion) to go on outside of class time.

Purpose
To generate material for class discussion; to obtain a sense of what ideas, theories, and relationships need clarification.

Discipline
All

Website Review

Asking students to describe and evaluate a website for its content, credibility, targeted audience and the like could serve several purposes. While many students are turning to the Internet for research, their treatment of these sources often lacks discernment. This assignment compels students to take a critical approach to electronic resources. Like the critical annotated bibliography assignment, a website review could serve as a preliminary state of a larger research project. [Some sections of UMCP’s ENGL 101 course use this assignment.]

Purpose
To evaluate electronic resources.

Discipline
All

“What are the Issues?” Paper

This assignment asks students to identify and synthesize the main threads of a particular debate while reserving judgment. It is often useful for students to detail the parameters of a discussion and to assess what is at stake from various perspectives before they enter the fray.

Purpose
To assess comprehension of material read.

Discipline
Humanities, Social Sciences, and Education