Rethinking Student Writing Assignments

On December 13, 2013, Rebecca Schuman, an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri St. Louis and columnist for education at Slate and The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote a blog post at Slate entitled The End of the College Essay that created a firestorm of controversy in the humanities community. Schuman, who confesses to writing with “gallows humor” was clearly venting her frustrations in trying to teach a specific form of literary research-based writing to students with little motivation or reason to learn it.  Schuman was surprised by the virulent reactions to her rant, and maintains that the level of debate the post provoked is indicative of the need to reassess writing assignments.

Metal box containing pencils and pencil sharpener.Recently, Marc Bousquet, associate professor of English at Emory University and frequent contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education presented a more nuanced version of Schuman’s argument in a post entitled Keep the ‘Research,’ Ditch the ‘Paper’.  “To cultivate undergraduate research, we may have to prune back the surrounding kudzu called the research paper. Often wretched, usually pointless, tens of millions of these artifacts heap themselves on faculty desks and inboxes every year. But to what end? Does assigning this form of “researched writing” teach students much about either research or writing? In most cases, clearly not.”

Instead, Bousquet suggests that instructors create assignments that provide opportunities for students to engage in real research, as opposed to Googling for quotes, and for the publication or sharing of that research to reflect the range of options available to professionals inside and outside of the academy.  “Millions of pieces of research writing that aren’t essays usefully circulate in the profession through any number of sharing technologies, including presentations and posters; grant and experiment proposals; curated, arranged, translated, or visualized data; knowledgeable dialogue in online media with working professionals; independent journalism, arts reviews, and Wikipedia entries; documentary pitches, scripts and storyboards; and informative websites.”

By giving assignments that develop skills for 21st century careers instructors provide authentic experiences that are more likely to engage students. Ultimately, the work you assign to students will depend on your learning objectives for the course. If the goal is to teach students how to write an essay, then you will have essay writing assignments. Otherwise, in aligning student work outside the classroom with your course objectives, you have a chance to be imaginative when you give your students an assessable assignment.  As an example, see the January post Creative Student Assignments: Poster Projects, and stay tuned for an upcoming post on best practices for multimedia assignments.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources


Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art

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  1. Pingback: Multimedia Assignments | The Innovative Instructor

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