Information Sheet # 145

September 30, 2004


Why Should I Use Writing Assignments in My Teaching?

By Brad Hughes, Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at the University of Wisconsin.

That's a good question, actually. Let's be honest--there are, after all, many reasons why we might not want to assign writing in our courses. And many of those reasons have to do with the limited time we all can devote to teaching. Designing writing assignments and responding to student writing take valuable time-lots of time if we do them carefully. The more students in our classes, the more time responding to student papers takes. . . .

Writing also takes time for students to do. Not all students are well prepared to succeed with the writing we assign. This list could go on; the challenges are indeed formidable.

Yet countless faculty make writing an integral part of their teaching and reap benefits from doing so. Why? Among the many reasons writing is an especially effective means for students to learn:· Writing deepens thinking and increases students' engagement with course material. Good writing assignments prompt students to think more deeply about what they're learning. Writing a book review, for example, forces students to read more thoroughly and critically. As an old saying goes, "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"

In fact, research done by Richard Light at Harvard confirms that "students relate writing to intensity of courses. The relationship between the amount of writing for a course and students' level of engagement--whether engagement is measured by time spent on the course, or the intellectual challenge it presents, or students' self-reported level of interest in it--is stronger than any relationship we found between student engagement and any other course characteristic" (The Harvard Assessment Seminars, Second Report, 1992, 25).· Writing can improve our relationship with our students. When students write papers, we get to know them and their thinking better; they're more likely to talk with us after class, or come to our office hours to share a draft or seek advice.· Writing gives us a window into our students' thinking and learning. Through our students' writing, we can take pleasure in discovering that students see things in course readings or discussion we didn't see; students make connections we ourselves hadn't made. And through our students' writing, we also discover what confuses our students. Admittedly, we're not always eager to discover the gaps in our students' knowledge, but it's our job to expand that knowledge and improve students' thinking. Writing assignments can improve our classroom discussions. By forcing students to keep up with readings, regular writing assignments can prepare students to participate in discussion. Writing assignments provide us with an opportunity to teach students to organize ideas, develop points logically, make explicit connections, elaborate ideas, argue points, and situate an argument in the context of previous research-all skills valued in higher education. Students remember what they write about-because writing slows thinking down and requires careful, sustained analysis of a subject. No matter how many years it's been, most of us can remember some paper we wrote as undergraduates, the writing of which deepened our knowledge of a particular subject.

Our students and we remember what we've written, in part, because writing individualizes learning. When a student becomes really engaged with a writing assignment, she has to make countless choices particular to her paper: how to focus the topic, what to read, what to make the central argument, how to organize ideas, how to marshal evidence, which general points to make, how to develop and support general ideas with particulars, how to introduce the topic, what to include and what to omit, which style and tone to adopt. . . .

· Finally, though it's much more than this, writing is a skill--a skill that atrophies when it isn't practiced regularly. Because learning to write well is difficult and because it requires sustained and repeated practice, we need to ensure our undergraduates write regularly, throughout the curriculum, in all majors. It's the responsibility of all of us to ensure that students learn to think and write clearly and deeply.

Adapted from the WAC Web Site for the University of Wisconsin, Reprinted with permission. This text is on Coe's WAC Web Site at

* * * * *

"Did I Miss Anything"
by Tom Wayman

Question frequently asked by students after missing a class

Nothing. When we realized you weren't here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

Everything. I gave an exam worth
40 per cent of the grade for this term
and assigned some reading due today
on which I'm about to hand out a quiz
worth 50 per cent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
a shaft of light descended and an angel
or other heavenly being appeared
and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
to attain divine wisdom in this life and
the hereafter
This is the last time the class will meet
before we disperse to bring this good news to all people
on earth

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human existence
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been

but it was one place

And you weren't here

[Poem originally appeared in The Astonishing Weight of the Dead (Polestar, 1994). Reproduced from a Canadian Poets web site,, maintained by the University of Toronto.]

* * * * * *

A Dragon Foe of Ancient Lineage

In 1914, Walter Bronson published a history of Brown University in which he observed that he had found student prose from 100 years earlier (when Brown was called Rhode Island College), "far from impeccable." Bronson went on to observe (as quoted by Robert Scholes in The Rise and Fall of English) that "modern teachers of English, when weary with cropping the hydra heads of bad spelling and bad grammar, may at least comfort themselves with the thought that their dragon foe is of ancient lineage."

On the Decline of Writing Skills Among College Students

Whenever you hear people complain about the inability of students to write, you might share with critics some of these observations on students' writing:

In this Day . . . School-Boys are expected to be led, sooth'd, and entic'd to their studies by the Easiness and Pleasure of the Practice, rather than by Force or harsh Discipline drove, as in days of Yore. For while some of them are too Copious in Things not so immediately the Concern of Boys at School, most are too Brief in Things really necessary for Youth to be inform'd of, and none at all so happy or methodical as to distinguish between One and T'Other. [John Holmes, The Art of Rhetoric Made Easy, 1739]


In 1874, Harvard University introduced an entrance examination featuring, for the first time, a writing requirement. When the English faculty at Harvard received this first test of candidates' writing ability, they were deeply shocked. Punctuation, capitalization, spelling, syntax at every level, error abounded. [Robert J. Connors, College Composition and Communication. 1985]

Those of us who have been doomed to read manuscripts written in an examination room . . . have found the work of even good scholars disfigured by bad spelling, confusing punctuation, ungrammatical, obscure, ambiguous, or inelegant expressions. Everyone who has had much to do with the graduating classes of our best colleges has known men who could not write a letter describing their own Commencement without making blunders which would disgrace a boy 12 years old. [Harvard University Professor Adams Sherman Hill, 1879]


A great outcry has been made lately, on every side, about the inability of the students admitted to Harvard College to write English clearly and correctly. The schools are today paying more attention to composition than they did twenty or thirty years ago; and yet, notwithstanding this increased study and practice, the writing of schoolboys has been growing steadily worse. . . . With all this practice in writing and time devoted to English, why do we not obtain better results? [James Jay Greenough writing in the Atlantic Monthly, May 1893]

In their complaints about student writing, academics hark back nostalgically to a golden age of academic community where Johnny could both read and write the "plain English" that purists enshrine. But that golden age never existed in the modern university (and writing per se was not valued or even evaluated in the old college). As Daniel P. And Lauren B. Resnick have observed [in a 1977 article in the Harvard Educational Review], "There is little to go back to in terms of pedagogical methods, curriculum, or school organization. The old tried and true approaches, which nostalgia today prompts us to believe might solve current problems, were designed neither to achieve the literacy standards sought today nor to assure successful literacy for everyone. There is no simple past to which we can return." [David R. Russell, Writing in the Academic Disciplines, 1870-1990.]


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