Designing Writing Assignments For Deep Learning

Writing is a valuable tool in the classroom. Among other uses, writing can help students grapple with and understand content more deeply. Writing can help students learn disciplinary ways of knowing and communicating. By making learning visible, writing can help you evaluate students’ understanding of course content. Writing can also help you assess students’ prior knowledge as well as gauge how well they’re understanding current material, both of which can help you adjust your teaching. But how can we make sure our writing assignments are effective in reaching these goals?

This resource provides a process for designing effective writing assignments that can help you: 

  • match writing assignments to your course goals
  • facilitate student learning through writing
  • design and scaffold larger writing assignments in ways that can improve student writing
  • think beyond the traditional term paper to genres that teach disciplinary and other real world writing and show students that writing has the power to make things happen 

For a guide that walks you through the steps in more detail, see our Assignment Design Planning Guide.


Design with the end in mind. Starting at the end of your course by identifying your learning goals and then working backwards—making decisions based on those goals—aligns your assignments and activities with your goals resulting in a more cohesive course. 

Identify your learning goals for the course.

We often assign writing because we think we should, or because that’s how we were taught in school, or for some other reason unrelated to the purpose of the course. But sometimes writing, or more likely the type of writing we assign, isn’t the best way for students to learn, achieve, and demonstrate learning of course goals. Therefore, we suggest you start at the end by first identifying your course goals; then consider how you could use writing to achieve and assess those goals. Defining your goals and then aligning assignments to those goals leads to assignments that are targeted and cohesive within your course. (In this process, you may also find that writing isn’t the best way to assess your learning goals; yet read on, because writing has many other uses.)

When determining course goals, remember there are two types of knowledge:

  • Declarative knowledge, or knowing about
    • Example: Learning the parts of a microscope 
    • Example: Course content
  • Procedural knowledge, or knowing how (applying)
    • Example: Using a microscope during a lab
    • Example: Applying course content to a problem

    Procedural knowledge tends to lag behind declarative knowledge. Knowing about something doesn’t necessarily mean that you know how to do something with that knowledge. Declarative knowledge is often learned through reading and lecture. Procedural knowledge requires practice, and if complex, requires practice of the component parts while building to the whole, with ongoing feedback and additional practice of those parts (i.e., scaffolding, which we’ll explain below).

    Example: Knowing about the history of and various reasons for the American Civil War vs. Knowing how to construct a compelling argument for your claim about the reason(s) for the war.

    Example: Knowing about the various socio-historical-political contexts of a social problem vs. Knowing how to write a policy brief with recommendations for addressing that problem. 

    Consider the following when identifying your goals:

    • What do students need to know by the end of your course?
    • What do students need to be able to do by the end of your course?
    • What critical thinking skills do you want students to develop?
    • What are some “target texts” (genres) students need to be able to read and write?  
    • Are you preparing students for another course or type of work?

Identify how you will know and/or assess that students have achieved those goals.

How can you assess that students achieved your course goals? By giving a test? By using a tool or demonstrating knowledge of a procedure by completing the procedure or writing about it? By composing a document that demonstrates content knowledge, critical thinking, and use of disciplinary, professional, or academic conventions?

Not all goals are best assessed with writing. For declarative knowledge, a quiz or test might be more apt and quicker. To assess goals related to critical thinking or procedural knowledge, a well-designed writing assignment could be more appropriate.

A well-designed writing assignment engages students with meaning-making tasks (Anderson et al 2016). The traditional term paper or “open topic” research project (e.g., “Write a 10-page research paper on a topic of your choice related to the course theme”) doesn’t usually provide enough structure for students to find a focus or purpose for writing. Such assignments do not help students learn ways of disciplinary, academic, or professional thinking and writing. Instead, they encourage students to data dump, telling you everything they find about the subject. As researchers, we do not write open topic research papers. We start with problems and questions that interest us--and we write to understand and make meaning out of those problems in communities of practice (see Hyland, Swales, Wenger).

Meaning-making tasks include:

  • problem-focused activities
  • critical thinking skills
  • case studies
  • synthesized reviews of literature
  • assigned positions (see Bean pages 92-3)
  • real world applications

Examples:

  • Put students in a situation with a problem they have to solve and then explain to someone
  • Provide a controversial issue from your field that students must support or argue against, backed up with research
  • Provide a set of data that students must analyze and explain to a particular audience
  • Summarize a reading
  • Analyze or evaluate something read, researched, or observed
  • Describe methods or findings related to collected data
  • Argue a position using evidence and reasoning
  • Explain the meaning of provided numerical or statistical data and generate appropriate visuals

Also consider the ways knowledge is produced in your discipline--the disciplinary and professional writing of your field:

  • What activities does writing mediate in your discipline and/or profession? In other words, why do you write? For what purposes
    • Think of what the writing does, what it’s intended to accomplish. Rather than stating the form/genre (e.g., a “bad news memo” or “editorial” or email), consider what that type of writing does.
      • Persuade…
      • Reflect on..
      • Practice...
      • Analyze...
      • Etc.
  • What forms does writing take to do this work? What kinds of documents are produced?
  • To whom do you write these documents? To what audience(s)?
  • What counts as evidence and how is it used/interpreted?

Turn these disciplinary or professional forms into writing assignments by considering: 

  • What kinds of problems could students solve and write about in your course? 
  • To whom could they write them and why? 
  • What forms does this writing take?

Identify the knowledge and skills students will need to achieve those goals successfully.

As experts in our disciplines, we often forget all that’s required to complete a task since that knowledge has become tacit for us; sometimes we even skip or combine steps. Students don’t have the years of experience, training, and practice to develop that tacit knowledge. Thus, when we ask students to write a research paper, a lab report, or argumentative essay without much further explanation, we are often surprised and disappointed with the results. Making the tacit explicit, or the invisible visible, provides students a fuller understanding of what to do and how to accomplish it. 

But since that knowledge can be invisible to experts, it can help to consciously bring it to the fore by thinking through and listing everything you’d need to know and do to complete the task. For example, the knowledge and skills required to write a policy brief or another type of researched argument might include: define a problem/form an inquiry question, use research databases and productive search queries (or whatever research method you want them to use), evaluate sources, analyze the issue from multiple perspectives, evaluate solutions, make rhetorical appeals appropriate for the audience, integrate sources and cite appropriately for the discipline, follow genre conventions and structure, etc. 

After listing all the skills and knowledge students need to achieve the goals and complete the assignment(s), consider:

  • What do students already know?
  • What will you need to teach them?
  • Which skills or content have students had difficulty with in the past?
  • Are there other critical thinking skills, habits of mind, etc. that students will need to develop?

In the next step, you’ll design activities/scaffolds that will help your students learn, practice, and achieve your goals.

Identify scaffolded activities to help students learn and practice to achieve the goals.

Learning is a process. According to Ambrose et al, in order to learn and “develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned” (emphasis added, 2010). Notice all the verbs in that quote--developing, practicing, integrating, applying. Deep learning requires doing.

Writing (a form of doing) throughout your course can help students acquire, practice, and apply the skills and knowledge needed to successfully achieve your learning outcomes. Happily, much of this writing -- writing to learn and learning to write activities -- can be low stakes for the student (credit/no credit, a few points, etc.), take up little class time, and require minimal review by you, depending on the stage in learning. You can then assess what students have learned through a higher-stakes, more formal assignment (writing to be evaluated). 

Writing is a knowledge-making enterprise, not simply a knowledge-transcribing tool. As we draft and revise, ideas become clearer and new ideas emerge. We gain a deeper understanding of content and concepts when we have to describe them. Therefore,rather than being used only at the end to evaluate a student’s understanding, writing can be used throughout your course to help students learn content more deeply, practice skills, and learn to write in particular ways (e.g., disciplinary and professional genre conventions). Specifically, you can use writing to help students

  • learn and reflect on course content and readings (writing to learn, low stakes)
  • think about a problem more deeply
  • learn to write in particular ways (learning to write; low stakes while learning, then medium stakes)
  • make learning visible (writing to be evaluated; high stakes --your assessment tool)

Low stakes vs High stakes

Build in both low and high stakes writing assignments to encourage students to practice and develop their knowledge and skills as they work towards the larger assignment.

  • Writing to learn is often but not always low stakes writing so that students feel free to make mistakes, try out ideas, and experiment
  • Learning to write/communicate in particular ways is often but not always low or medium stakes writing as students progress
  • Writing for evaluation is high stakes

Note: Generally, low stakes writing is not evaluated for grammar, polish, fully developed thoughts, or correctness so that students can feel free to explore ideas, make mistakes, and focus on their ideas or the task. You can grade this as credit/no credit, check/check plus/check minus, or a few points. It’s not always necessary for you to review this type of writing -- peers can provide feedback or sometimes it doesn't need to be seen at all--it’s enough that the student thought and wrote about something, as in in-class freewrites.

How and where to build-in scaffolding

When determining how to break down a larger assignment, consider the following:

  • What often confuses students?
  • Where do students tend to get stuck?
  • Where can you encourage interactive processes? That is, where could students work with others to discuss or solve problems?
  • What do students need multiple opportunities to practice? When would this practice be most helpful? 
  • Where could students get feedback from their peers and from you (while allowing time to practice again or revise based on that feedback)?
  • How can you help students identify and activate prior knowledge in useful ways?
  • Where could you intervene during the writing  process?
    • Idea generation
    • Conducting research
    • Synthesizing research
    • Rough drafts or sections of a paper
    • Peer feedback & response
    • Teacher feedback
    • Revision
    • Editing
    • Reflection on the process

See our "Scaffolding Assignments" resource for additional ideas and resources for scaffolding activities and assignments.

Explain expectations clearly.

Research shows that providing clear expectations can improve student engagement and the quality of their final product (Anderson et al 2016). See “Providing Clear Expectations in Assignments” for the information students find most helpful. Try to include these in every assignment for improved clarity and to help students meet your expectations.

Name assignments appropriately.

Research also indicates that giving your assignments relevant, descriptive names (rather than “Paper 1”) can improve students’ disciplinary knowledge and knowledge transfer. For more on this research and the simple steps for naming your assignments to improve learning, see “Using Writing Assignment Names to Integrate Learning.”