Author: Brad Hughes, Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum
program at the University of Wisconsin.
Why Should I Use Writing Assignments in my Teaching?
That's a good question, actually. Let's be honestthere
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 timelots of time if we do them
carefully. The more students in our classes, the more time responding
to student papers takes. Furthermore, some of the best suggestions for
designing effective assignments and helping students succeed with them
take more time.
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,
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 researchall skills valued in higher education.
Students remember what they write aboutbecause 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, http://mendota.english.wisc.edu/~WAC/. Reprinted with permission.