Why Should I Use Writing Assignments in My Teaching?
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. Furthermore, some of the best suggestions for designing effective assignments and helping students succeed with them (like the ones on this website) 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 at Madison and around the country 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; Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minda [Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2001], 64).
- 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. . . .
- For these reasons and more, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC+U) recommends writing-intensive courses as one of its high-impact practices--instructional methods proven to help students learn subject matters across the curriculum, at every level of higher education.
- 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.