Designing Reading/Writing Assignments

Note: This post is part of a series on “Teaching First Year Composition.”

In designing assignments, you can begin in a number of places. You might have a text to teach that you think would be interesting to your students. Where does it fit in your course? How will they use it? You might have a need to focus on a particular learning outcome. What writing assignment would be appropriate? What texts and activities might support it? Or you might have a topic or theme you want your students to explore. What texts would help students learn about this topic?

An Assignment Template

Whatever motivates your assignment, you should probably end up with a pattern similar to this:

  • Prereading: What can students do to prepare to read this text?
  • Reading: What should students be looking for as they read the text?
  • Postreading: What should students do to analyze and assimilate what they have read?
  • Prewriting: How will the students connect the text to the writing assignment?
  • Writing: What will students write? What audience and purpose will it serve?
  • Revision: What criteria will you use to evaluate the student responses? How can students use this criteria to revise their texts?

This is a very simplified version of the template used by the Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC). The handout in this link provides a much more detailed version of this template.

The TILT Framework

The Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) project recommends an even simpler “Transparent Assignment Template.” They say that students should know:

  • The Purpose of the assignment: what skills are practiced and what knowledge is gained.
  • The Task: What to do and how to do it.
  • The Criteria: a checklist or rubric for self-evaluation and annotated examples of excellent examples of the assignment.

These two templates are not mutually exclusive. The TILT framework could be used to frame the more detailed reading/writing sequence in the ERWC-inspired template.

Looking at the Learning Outcomes

Let’s say that it is early in the course and we want to address the following learning outcomes:

  • B: Explain in clearly written English the rhetoric of others.
  • C: Develop written arguments in response to others’ arguments.
  • D: Write reasonably lucid, well-organized essays that address purpose, audience, and situation—in response to timed-exam prompts.

However, right now we are not interested in “timed exam prompts.”

Finding a Topic

I did a quick search on “Should Americans be required to do public service?” I thought this might be a good issue because I think most students will say no, we are already too busy with school and work, but some may say yes for idealistic reasons or because they are not sure what they want to do in the future and an opportunity for service might give them some experience and direction. There should be enough difference for a good discussion in class. It is best to choose an issue that has some connection with students’ lives and that has a least two different positions, ideally more, that can be supported by reasonable people.

I found an op-ed by David Brooks: “We Need National Service. Now.”

Brooks is a good writer and is supposed to be a conservative, though he has drifted to the left in recent years.

Our Tasks

Our first task in designing this assignment is to devise a prereading activity: What can students do to prepare to read this text? In this case, I think it could be pretty simple. We could ask students to write down an answer to this question: Should Americans be required to do public service? Why or why not? They can put their response aside for now.

What should they be thinking about while reading? We can ask, “Does David Brooks persuade you that the U.S. needs to invest more in public service programs? Do his arguments confirm or refute your previous response?”

Because Outcome B asks students to be able to explain “the rhetoric of others,” we can ask students to apply the Aristotelian appeals, ethos, logos and pathos, to the essay by Brooks. We can also ask them to revisit their original response to see if Brooks has changed their views.

Brooks also asks a number of rhetorical questions, such as

What would it mean to the future social cohesion of this country if a large part of the rising generation had a common experience of shared sacrifice?

What would it mean to our future politics if young people from Berkeley spent a year working side by side with young people from Boise, Birmingham and Baton Rouge?

Has any nation prospered that did not encourage in each new generation the habits of work, the taste for adventure, a sense of duty and a call to be of use to neighbors and the world?

Students could try to answer these questions, or talk about the rhetorical effect on the reader of asking them. All of these postreading activities could be done individually in writing, or in group discussions.

The Writing Assignment

Now for the writing assignment. There are a number of possibilities, depending on what we what to accomplish. If we were attending to Outcome L: “Design their own academic inquiries and develop strategies for finding, evaluating, and integrating information purposefully in a given context,” we could have them research what programs like AmeriCorps do, or what other public service programs exist. They might also research public service in other countries and find that in South Korea, every male must engage in two years of military service, or that in Israel, every citizen, male or female, is required to participate in the military. However, we are focusing on the earlier outcomes. We might ask them to focus on a specific point made by Brooks that they strongly agree or disagree with and write a letter to the editor type of response, giving them some examples of the genre to look at first. Because we have already asked them to do some rhetorical analysis, we could ask them to write a rhetorical analysis paper. See “Writing a Rhetorical Analysis” for some instructions.

It is common for instructors to ask students to agree or disagree with the author and explain why. A problem with this sort of assignment is that the paper that is in agreement ends up largely being a restatement of the author’s arguments, with little original thinking.

A more personal take might be to ask students, if given the choice, what kind of public service they would want to engage in, why they would make that choice, and what effect they think it might have on their lives.

Framing the Assignment

Whatever writing assignment you decide on, think about the TILT framework described above. Tell the students the purpose of the assignment, perhaps referencing the learning outcomes, how to do the assignment, and the criteria for evaluating their response, perhaps in a rubric. Designing a rubric will be discussed in a subsequent post.

Of course, the assignment I have created here could be taught, though it might not be appropriate for your students or your course. My intent, however, was to demonstrate the kind of thinking and planning that goes into designing a short integrated assignment sequence, which in ERWC we called a “mini-module.” A well-planned assignment sequence is a joy to teach (though things can always go wrong) and if the work seems well-structured to the students, they are more likely to engage with it.

One last comment about the TILT framework. When I first starting reading about some of the applications and studies on their Examples and Resources page, I was a bit put off by the emphasis on explicitly telling students exactly how to do the tasks. It seemed like too much spoon feeding. However, in one of the introductory PowerPoints (Using a Transparent Framework to Remove Barriers to College Students’ Success (15-min research update and project overview), they note that some instructors wanted the students to spend the bulk of their work time figuring out how to address the problem or question. For these instructors, they recommended the following statement: “The purpose of this assignment is for you to struggle and feel confused while you invent your own approach to addressing the problem or question.”

I like that. Sometimes the purpose is to create difficult problems for students to solve. The trick is in knowing when they are ready for that. If your assignment causes confusion, confusion should be part of the design, not an accidental result.

One thought on “Designing Reading/Writing Assignments

  1. Pingback: How Is a Course Like a Song? – Teaching Text Rhetorically

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