Broadening Formal Writing Assignments

As the semester draws to a close, most of us are busy wrapping up our courses and guiding our students through their final papers and exams. Reflecting on my own experience as an instructor and how my teaching style has evolved over the years, I realized that no greater change has occurred than in the final formal paper I assign my students.

As a new instructor, I originally believed it best to give my students highly regimented assignments with defined topics (e.g., perform a close reading on text A; compose a comparative analysis on text B and text C; etc.). My reasoning was that my students, as freshmen and novice writers, would flounder and ultimately fail at more open-ended assignments. There was also some sense in my mind that these assignments would level the playing field in the classroom and allow me to more quickly assess and grade essays.

It didn’t take me long to realize that my plan had the opposite effect I intended: grading was actually far more laborious and monotonous than I could have imagined, as I had to read through 20+ papers on identical topics. Furthermore, my belief that my students would produce better quality writing on predetermined topics proved to be untrue, as I realized that not all of my students necessarily enjoyed or connected with the assigned texts. If grading these papers was a chore, I could only imagine what it was like for my students to write them.

I knew I had to alter my assignment design in some way so as to allow my students to write on topics they truly enjoyed, but I was still concerned about overwhelming them with unlimited choices. How then could I offer students a solid framework for their writing assignments while still permitting them room to express their individuality?

Through trial and error, I discovered that the most effective method was to gradually give students more and more freedom in their writing assignments as the semester progresses. Just as one begins riding a bike with training wheels and eventually learns to successfully ride without them, I see the trajectory of my formal writing assignments as gradually taking the “training wheels” off so that my students may confidently ride on their own.

For their first formal assignment, I still provide my students with the kind of tightly constrained assignments I used to—usually a close reading or rhetorical analysis of one of our assigned texts. I do this so as to ease my students into the writing process and the conventions of academic discourse. Additionally, since this first assignment is on a text that we have read and discussed as a class, students are somewhat more comfortable and confident writing about the topic.

For their second formal assignment, I remove one of the training wheels by opening up the topic options: I instruct my students to compose a comparative analysis on one of our course readings and on another “text” of their choosing—an essay, story, poem, or book we have not read together in class; a movie, TV show, or music video; song lyrics, album covers, or really whatever they like (so long as they run it by me first).

For the final formal assignment, the training wheels come off completely: I allow my students to compose an argumentative research paper on any topic they’re interested in. I’ve found that assigning a more open-ended final writing assignment with an undefined topic produces much more exciting and higher quality essays. Whereas the earlier, more defined formal assignments are used to gauge my students’ understanding of the course content, this final undefined-topic assignment is a way for students to demonstrate the skills they’ve learned over the semester: the ability to formulate a strong, coherent argument, synthesize ideas, and perform academic research. Additionally, allowing students to choose their own topic makes the assignment more interesting and relevant to their lives. Students have actually told me that they find the research and writing process exciting because they are writing about something they truly care about. Lastly, from the perspective of the instructor, these open-topic essays eliminate the monotony of grading 20+ identical papers. I’ve read well-researched and well-argued student papers on a multitude of interesting topics ranging from the rehabilitation of convicted felons to the evolution of Kanye West’s musical style. A prospect that I originally feared—broadening the topic options and guidelines for my formal assignments—has actually proved to be an exciting and effective way to get students writing.

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