Well-designed Writing Assignments: Current Research

How Writing Contributes to Learning: New Findings from a National Study and Their Local Application

Research summarized in Peer Review (2017), published by AAC&U.

A key finding:

Results show that well-designed assignments can, indeed, increase learning, including learning about writing. In addition, the quality of assignments is more powerful in advancing learning than the amount of writing assigned, a finding that can reduce the reluctance of faculty who believe that including writing in their courses and curricula requires unreasonable amounts of class and grading time.

The study assessed a best-practice model for creating writing assignments that promote learning, one developed by the Council of Writing Program Administrators and NSSE. The model assumes three underlying elements for effective writing assignments:

  • Interactive Writing Processes, in which students communicate orally or in writing with others about an assignment at some point between receiving it and submitting the final draft.
  • ƒ Meaning-Making Writing Tasks, which require students to engage in some form of integrative, critical, or original thinking.
  • ƒ Clear Writing Expectations, which involve instructors communicating accurately what they want their students to do in an assignment and the criteria they will use to evaluate the students’ submissions.

For assessment, the study generated questions for each of these three elements. While this would be useful for assessment purposes in a course or program, it would also be helpful as a hueristic for developing writing assignments.

Interactive Writing Processes
For how many writing assignments have you:

  • Talked with your instructor to develop your ideas before you started drafting your assignment
  • Talked with a classmate, friend, or family member to develop your ideas before you started drafting your assignment
  • Received feedback from your instructor about a draft before turning in your final assignment
  • Received feedback from a classmate, friend, or family member about a draft before turning in your final assignment
  • Visited a campus-based writing or tutoring center to get help with your writing assignment before turning it in

In how many of your writing assignments has your instructor:

  • Asked you to give feedback to a classmate about a draft or outline the classmate had written

Meaning-Making Writing Tasks
In how many of your writing assignments did you:

  • Summarize something you read, such as an article, book, or online publication
  • Analyze or evaluate something you read, researched, or observed
  • Describe your methods or findings related to data you collected in lab or fieldwork, a survey project, etc.
  • Argue a position using evidence and reasoning
  • Explain in writing the meaning of numerical or statistical data
  • Write in the style and format of a specific field (engineering, history, psychology, etc.)

Clear Writing Expectations
In how many of your writing assignments has your instructor:

  • Provided clear instructions describing what he or she wanted you to do
  • Explained in advance what he or she wanted you to learn
  • Explained in advance the criteria he or she would use to grade your assignment


While these results are indirect measures of learning—as opposed to direct measures of outcomes—they demonstrate that writing assigned and carried out across the curriculum using the three constructs is associated with engagement in deep learning. Engagement has been shown to correlate with a variety of academic success outcomes (Kuh 2008), so these findings answer our original question: yes, well-designed writing assignments contribute to student learning.

Moreover, the three constructs can be used as heuristics by faculty in any discipline. For instance, the seven questions related to Meaning-Making Writing Tasks serve as a measure of the broader notion of meaning making. Faculty in any field can probably think of other cognitively challenging tasks to incorporate into their writing assignments.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s