DESIGNING WRITING ASSIGNMENTS THAT PROMOTE THINKING

A workshop presentation at the annual

AFACCT Conference January 16, 1998

by

William Peirce © 1998

 Table of Contents
1.  Teaching Thinking Through Writing
2.  Improving Assignment Instructions
3.  Limitations of the Traditional Term Paper
4.  Speech 109 Interpersonal Communication Assignment
5.  Designing Grading Criteria for Formal Writing Assignments
6.  Checklist Assessment for Article Review
7.  Develop a Repertoire of Thinking Tasks
8.  Ten Strategies for Designing Thinking Tasks


 Abstract

A variety of formal and informal writing assignments can promote thinking about the subject matter, engage the students, and not take forever to grade. The conference presentation was a discussion of strategies for designing such assignments. After critiquing a badly designed research paper assignment, participants viewed a series of transparencies (reproduced below) presenting the limitations of traditional term papers, a model of a well-designed research assignment, grading criteria for formal writing assignment, and tips from John Bean's Engaging Ideas, closing with a discussion of problems and successes from the group's experience.  

Introduction to the Overhead Transparencies

Rather than repeat the commentary and discussion at the workshop, I am reproducing below some of the overhead transparencies I presented. Most are self-explanatory; my comments are in italics.


1.  Teaching Thinking Through Writing

 This transparency suggests questions to consider in designing or redesigning your writing assignments.

1. What kinds of thinking do you want students to do?

Put disciplinary thinking at the heart of your task. 2. What course content are you trying to teach through this assignment? What information? What procedures?

3. What in this assignment will elicit that thinking? Where have you explicitly asked for it in your instructions?

4. What makes this assignment engaging for the student?

5. Could you use a more productive variety of writing assignments?

Source: Modified from a handout presented by Barbara Stout, Montgomery College, at the Cherry Blossom Conference on Critical Thinking, April 7, 1995

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2.  Improving Assignment Instructions

 This brief three-line sample instructions for a research assignment was critiqued by the workshop participants.

Research Paper Instructions [Model in need of revision]

Instructions:  Write a 15-20 page research paper (typed, double-spaced, with 1-inch margins). Your paper should discuss in depth a topic covered briefly in one of the chapters. Cite at least five sources, using APA documentation format. The paper is due the last day of class and is worth 30% of the course grade.

Participants critiqued the  instructions on the example above, focusing on what was missing that would guide students.  Then participants received these recommended revisions:

Recommended Changes to These Research Paper Instructions:

1. Make clear that the writing task requires thinking, not information reporting.

Ask students to support a position on a debatable issue, to summarize opposing views, to explain where both sides agree and disagree, to evaluate evidence for a claim, to evaluate a procedure, etc.  Use words like "evaluate," "support a claim," "argue," "defend," "compare," "interpret," "decide," "recommend," "propose."  Use the language of your discipline.
2. Suggest how the final paper could be organized into sections; show students the customs of your discipline.

3. Set up a schedule and provide peer and instructor feedback at important steps: selecting an issue, searching for material, planning, reviewing drafts.

4. Engage the student in the task; establish a rhetorical context.

5. Consider abandoning the long research assignment and using instead a sequence of shorter, formal graded assignments or informal small-group classroom tasks.

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3.  Limitations of the Traditional Term Paper

The traditional long term paper might not be the best way to teach disciplinary reasoning.

1. Professors write imprecise instructions that do not give enough guidance

Professors  use vague terms such as "discuss," "analyze," "critique." (Discuss or analyze from what perspective? If students interpret "critique" to mean "criticize," they will tell you their personal likes and dislikes.)
 2. Professors don't provide enough support throughout the semester
 Students need guidance about workable topics, finding material, checkpoints, models (sample papers),and how to conduct peer rough draft reviews.
 3. The task consumes inordinate amounts of students' and professor's time and the time is not well spent
While there is nothing wrong with students' spending a lot of time doing a task, unless they receive guidance and feedback at each stage, they will work inefficiently and the process will be undermined by their frustrations and shortcuts.
 4. Professors ask for one-shot thinking rather than develop disciplinary thinking throughout the semester
The thinking processes needed to deal with the single issue presented by the research project often do not encompass all the kinds of disciplinary thinking that students should learn.
 5. Students report the thinking of the "experts" rather than do their own thinking
Students turn the task into an information-recall paper despite the professor's clear instructions and oral explanations about the thinking task they have provided.
 6. Students focus their attention on form rather than formulating a good argument
Students worry more about citation style, margin width, and number of pages, rather than how to develop a cogent argument.
SOURCE: Chet Meyers, Teaching Students to Think Critically (1986)

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4.  Speech 109 Interpersonal Communication Assignment

 This is a sample research assignment by Susan Richardson; it illustrates well the kind of assignment instructions recommended by this workshop, including grading criteria.

Speech 109   INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION                                                       S. Richardson
Final Paper—20%—Final Grade      In-the-Field-Project Paper

A. Choose a concept in the communication process which could be observed in the "real world," or a concept that could be observed through experiential or  experimental means.

B. Plan and execute the assignment.

1. Plan and execute a "mini-experiment," in a situation which involved the selected communication concept,
  (or)  2. Plan and construct a survey which involves the selected communication concept.

C. Explain the concept and investigate whether the concept in the real world matches the textbook discussion.

1. Design and execute the mini-experiment,
             (or) 2. Design and administer the survey.

In order to complete the In-the-field project paper, you must:

1. Start early to determine the concept you wish to study for your project.  Once you have a general idea you will have an individual interview with your instructor to clarify and focus your in-the-field project idea.

2. Research the communication concept which will be the focus of your paper.  You may find any of the following types of sources helpful in this step:

 Readings—textbook, sociology, psychology, communication, management.  Additional sources may be suggested to you by your instructor during your personal interview.  Diagnostic instruments:  communication apprehension, listening tests and styles, self-concept  questionnaires, nonverbal measures, androgeny scale, anger inventory, FIRO-B, assertiveness, conflict styles, etc.
You will complete this step when you have the following:
A review of at least 5 sources discussing the theoretical base of the communication concept and how it seems to apply for most Americans. A clear statement of purpose, or a specific question/s to be answered.
3.    A. Plan the experiment.  Determine the steps you will take, how you will observe and measure the communication concept.  Determine the time, the location, the other people involved, the materials you will need and any other necessary elements.

(or)     B. Construct the survey.  You may rely on previous research tools found in other studies, used in the classroom activities or formulate your own.  We will discuss survey techniques in class--refer to your notes.  You will then need to select the respondents for the survey.

 4.     A. Execute the experiment.
                    (or)
        B. Administer the survey

5.     Prepare the written paper (approximately 5-8 pages long)
        It should be structured as follows:

A. Introduction
Describe why you chose to do this project, why you were interested in this particular communication concept.  What is its relevance to you?
          B. In one sentence/or question state the purpose of your experiment or survey.

          C. A discussion of the concept being observed.  This should be a summary of pertinent research.  From what you have    read, what do you expect to find  through your observations?  This section should be about two pages long.

  1. Use at least four (4) sources outside our text.
  2. Be sure to identify your sources and include a final bibliography.  Use APA style.  You may sometimes wish to paraphrase, but if you quote you must always make it clear that these are not your words, either in your text or in a footnote.  (I refer you to the college policy on plagiarism.)
  3. Don't be afraid to present contradictory information.  One author may have found one result, another have found the opposite to be true in his/her research.
  4. Tell it in your own words.  Pull other information together, then make it your paper, not theirs!
D. Describe your methodology.  (How did you set up your experiment, construct your survey, choose your respondents, etc.?)

E. What kind of results did you get?  What happened?

F. What are your personal conclusions?

G. Bibliography of sources.
 

6. Prepare the oral presentation in any format which you feel best achieves the general explanation of your paper.  You will be allowed approximately 5 minutes to informally present how your project went and what you discovered as a result of it.

    Highlight: 1.  How you set it up.   2.  What you learned.

***All project papers will be presented in class the last week of class.  The paper must be informally presented in order for the student to be eligible for an A or a B on this paper.

Susan Richardson
Prince George's Community College         301-322-0928

Speech 109 Assignment Grading Criteria

1. Meets minimum criteria: All instructions followed, conference with instructor; project and method approved in advance

2. Sources and/or diagnostic instruments are sufficient and appropriate

3. Experiment is planned well; survey is designed well

4. Experiment/survey is executed well without bias

5. Introduction explains why project was chosen; describes personal relevance

6. Statement of purpose (one sentence) is clear and complete

7. Pertinent research is summarized accurately in at least two pages, at least 4 non-textbook sources are used; conclusions and major evidence are included in summaries

8. Sources are cited accurately and correctly in APA style without plagiarizing; paraphrases and summaries are not half-copied

9. Contradictory information (if any) is made clear; opposing views are handled fairly

10. Methodology is described clearly and completely; methodology is appropriate for the project and is unbiased

11. Results, findings, and inferences are explained clearly and completely; are based on sufficient and relevant evidence

12. Conclusion explains what was learned from the project

13. Bibliography is accurate and correct; follows APA format consistently

14. Organization follows instructions; uses headings; paragraphs begin with topic sentences; main points of paragraphs are fully developed; sentences are clear; there are few grammar and punctuation errors

15. Oral presentation is clear, well-organized, complete; takes 4-5 minutes

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5.  Designing Grading Criteria for Formal Writing Assignments

1. Make all your expectations explicit -- in writing. Don't trust your students' note-taking or their memory of your explanations.
 

2. Match the criteria to your instructions. Yes, be redundant all over again.
 

3. The criteria, like the instructions, should tell the students how to do a good job.
 

4. Identify what you're looking for (and what peer reviewers, friends, and tutors should look for when they review the drafts).
 

5. Describe good reasoning; help students make their thinking visible.
 

6. Design it for rapid grading.
 

7. Anticipate problems. Provide warnings in advance of their commission.

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6.  Checklist Assessment for Article Review

NAME___________________
 The grade of your article review is circled below. The grade on the final draft is the one that matters. The checked items below are to help you improve your rewrite. Attach this sheet to the front of each article review and always turn in the initial draft with the rewritten final draft. The initial draft is due in class the day the article is discussed and will not be accepted late. The final draft is due one week after being returned by the instructor.

___Initial Draft ____Final Draft Grade: A B C D F

  ____1. You were not in class on the day this article was discussed.

____2. This article review does not represent your own independent efforts.

____3. You need to give a more adequate (that is, detailed, accurate, or complete) description of the main point or conclusion of the article.

____4. You need to give a more adequate (that is, detailed, accurate, or complete) description of the reasons the author presents in support of the main conclusion.

____5. You need to show more clearly how the reasons provide support for the main conclusion.

____6. If the author's intention is descriptive more than argumentative, you need to more clearly outline the major points of the article.

____7. You need to express the points of the article in your own words rather than using so many quotes and close paraphrases.

____8. You need to explain the significance of the article in relation to issues covered in other readings or in class discussions.
 
 

____ For the initial draft: This is well done and does not need to be rewritten as a final draft. Good work!
 

____ For the final rewrite: This is failed because it contains an average of  2 departures per page from standard language usage conventions. This includes such areas as spelling, sentence boundaries (fragments, run-ons), verb forms, pronouns, apostrophes, and sentences which make sense.

Source: Workshop by Barbara Walvoord at University of Maryland University College 10/95.

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7.  DEVELOP A REPERTOIRE OF THINKING TASKS

This list comes from the introductory chapter of an exceptionally fine book on teaching disciplinary thinking:  John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996. Click here for the publisher's address and a list of other books about teaching thinking and their publishers.

1. Problems presented as formal writing assignments
    These tasks can range from one-paragraph microthemes (discussed further in chapter 5) to semester-long research papers (chapter 12).  Have students support a thesis that responds to an instructor-posed problem.

2. Problems presented as thought-provokers for exploratory writing
     Informal writing tasks on course-based topics are an especially good device for promoting daily thinking. Chapters 2, 3, 6, and 8 provide numerous examples,

3. Problems presented as tasks for small-group problem solving
     As small groups in and out of class prepare oral or written responses to problems, students' thinking is clarified as they consider, negotiate, and evaluate several perspectives (see chapter 9).

4. Problems presented as starters for inquiry-based discussions
     Similar to small-group problems are problems presented to the whole class as the basis for exploring the full complexity of an issue (see chapter 10).

5. Problems presented as think-on-your-feet questions for socratic dialogue
     Useful for whole-class systematic, increasingly complex discussions (see chapter 10).

6. Problems presented as focusing questions for in-class debates, panel discussions or fishbowls
    Another variation for whole-class discussions of  issues (see chapter 10).

7. Problems presented as practice exam questions
    Practice and feedback of representative essay questions (see chapter 11).

SOURCE: John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas (1996), pages 6-7

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8.  TEN STRATEGIES FOR DESIGNING THINKING TASKS

 This list  comes from chapter 7 of John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1966. Click here for the publisher's address and a list of other books about teaching thinking and their publishers.

1. Tasks linking course concepts to students' personal experience or previously existing knowledge

2. Explanation of course concepts to new learners

3. Thesis support assignments

4. Problem-posing assignments

5. Data-provided assignments

6. Frame assignments

7. Assignments requiring role-playing of unfamiliar perspectives or imagining "What if" situations

8. Summaries or abstracts of articles or course lectures

9. Dialogues or argumentative scripts

10. Cases and simulations

SOURCE: John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas (1996)
 

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