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The Value of a Real Audience and Purpose

posted: 12.5.13 by Traci Gardner

Students do better work when they are writing for a real audience and purpose. In the past, I’ve used assignments that ask students to write letters to the editor, to work in online forums that are read by everyone in the class, and reviews that are posted online. Students have a stronger understanding of their goals with these activities than they do when writing pieces with a less authentic audience, and as a result, I’ve had moderate success with them in the classroom.

No project I’ve used has been as successful as the final project I have technical writing students working on this term however. The introduction to the assignment explains the scenario and requirements:

You are a student at Virginia Tech and have been chosen for a web analysis project. The Division of Student Affairs (DSA) has decided to conduct a large-scale reevaluation of its web presence (http://www.dsa.vt.edu/). Your group has been directed to select a website for a department from the DSA, determine how effective it is, and then make specific recommendations to the project manager, Holli Drewry, the Assistant Director of Communications and Innovative Technologies, for improving the site.

Drewry oversees the Division’s web presence, and she is far too busy to sit in on your team meetings. When you asked her for guidance at the beginning of the project, she responded, “I don’t care how you do it; just make sure you can backup your recommendations with evidence. We need some concrete ideas for improving the site by the end of the term.” By the last week of classes, your team will deliver a written recommendation report to Drewry and give an oral presentation to the class highlighting your findings and recommendations.

The basics for the assignment are taken from a Team Research Proposal assignment by Quinn Warnick. What I changed was the source of the sites that students are reviewing. While Quinn’s assignment has students choose a Fortune 100 company, my version focuses on department websites from the Virginia Tech Division of Student Affairs. I hoped that the local focus would give the project more context. Students obviously know a great deal about the resources available on campus, so I felt they could spend more time on analyzing the content and design and less time having to learn about the company or organization.

Further, I was able to provide an authentic writing situation. The project manager mentioned in the assignment, Holli Drewry, happens to be my sister. I hear her talking frequently about the websites that she works on and how they love to get feedback, so I proposed the assignment to her. It gave her student feedback, and it gave me a real audience and purpose for the assignment.

What surprised me was how eagerly students dove right into the assignment when I presented it and how engaged they have remained as they work on it in class. A few of them thought it might be a trick. A student in one class asked, “So this Holli Drewry really exists?” Once I assured students that she existed, they asked savvy questions trying to figure out what they could about her in ways that demonstrated they understood the benefits of audience analysis. I ultimately wrote them a list of details about their project manager to help them understand who she is and what she does with the website.

Even more interesting to me, students have really taken personal interest and pride in the work. As they find errors and identify aspects of the site they want to improve, they aren’t just trying to complete an assignment. When I listen in on the groups at work, I hear them commenting on how the sites matter to other readers. They’re thinking about how the site presents the university to the public, to those of us at the university, and even to prospective students and their families. They are invested in Virginia Tech, and they care about the way the websites represent the university.

One student, after telling me about a mistake he had found, asked, “Your sister can really get these errors fixed?” When I confirmed that she could, he replied, “Good. Cuz this might confuse someone about Tech. It needs to be right.” I’m not sure I could ask for more engagement than that—and that’s the value of a real audience and purpose for student writing.

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