Workshop Recap: Effective Assignment Design, October 22, 2013

Last Tuesday, WAC Fellows Zachary Aidala and Justina Oliveira led an excellent workshop on effective assignment design and assignment scaffolding for City Tech faculty. We were so pleased to have faculty members from all across the college in attendance. Since reading and writing are so intimately linked when creating assignments, our WAC team was joined by Professor Juanita But from the English Department and the college’s reading initiative, Reading Effectively Across the Disciplines (READ). As writing professor Toby Fulwiler reminds us:

[Reading and writing] are interdependent, mutually supportive skills, both of which are “basic” to an individual’s capacity to generate critical, developed, independent thought.” [1]

Justina began by outlining two of the workshop’s major pedagogical theories: writing as active reading, and purposeful writing assignments. The first represents the idea that by assigning low-stakes writing assignments such as note-taking, summaries, or informal response papers, students will internalize and learn from readings more comprehensively. The second theory is something of a WAC mantra, the idea that student writing should not merely convey knowledge but also reinforce larger educational course objectives, be it critical thinking or doing discipline-specific work.

Prof. But covered a variety of techniques that utilize writing to encourage better reading comprehension. She showed us the two-column note-taking method, where students take notes on content in one column, and then annotate their notes in an adjacent column. This echoes another great WAC strategy: having students explain course material to a “new learner,” such as a friend or relative, forcing the student to put complex ideas into their own words.

Concept Map
Click on image for larger version

She also introduced us to the concept map, a visual aid for readers to organize major themes, subjects, hypotheses, and other material in a reading. A short exercise for attendees using an E.B. White paragraph later revealed the usefulness of this organizational tool.

Justina then covered some of the differences between low- and high-stakes writing. One of the many benefits to low-stakes writing is that it can be used as a purely pedagogical tool, or “writing to learn,” but it can also be part of a scaffold, a number of smaller writing exercises that lead to a longer, high-stakes paper. She concluded with a very handy checklist (available on handout at bottom of this article) of items instructors should remember to ask themselves when designing an assignment, things that all of us as instructors have probably forgotten at one point or another (e.g. “Have I expressed who the intended audience is for this paper?”). Finally, she presented a series of useful assignment types for low-stakes writing, including a variety of prompt types, summary assignments, or the “explain to a new learner” strategy.

Next, Zak Aidala covered high-stakes assignments, and how to better prepare students for writing these longer, more serious papers. He covered a variety of ideas for scaffolding larger assignments, or building up to the final paper with a series of shorter targeted papers. The workshop concluded with each group considering a traditional high-stakes assignment that had a number of flaws, and each table of faculty and fellows approached it with a variety of “fixes.” One table focused entirely on creating writing as reading assignments, another on low-stakes scaffolded assignments, and another on high-stakes scaffolded assignments.

If you missed our Effective Assignment Design Workshop, the PowerPoint is available here. Please feel free to download it and if you have questions, use the comments section below. We also have a concise Handout with directions for concept mapping, ideas for low-stakes writing assignments, and an assignment design checklist, all taken from the presentation.

Our next workshop will be on November 12 at 1pm, and covers Peer Review, another great tool that you can use in the classroom with low- or high-stakes assignments. We hope to see you there, and check back here for more information shortly.

 

[1] Toby Fulwiler, “Why We Teach Writing in the First Place,” fforum 4, no. 2 (1983): 123.

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