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Writing Assignment Evolution

posted: 5.14.14 by Traci Gardner

I am quite picky about the writing assignments that I use. A good writing assignment should focus on critical thinking, have an authentic audience, give students some choice, and provide support for the writing students are to do. I want my writing assignments to do all that, but I also want them to be engaging and, if not fun, at least enjoyable.

Today I want to talk about how I am trying to improve an assignment for technical writing. In the fall, I used two, relatively wide assignments, one technical definitions and descriptions and another for instructions. Both offer plenty of choice, letting students select something related to their field of study for the former and anything they knew well for the latter. The results were okay, but not outstanding in any way. Students completed the work, but the whole endeavor felt a bit half-hearted. It didn’t feel as if students connected with the activities.

In January, just as I was rethinking the assignment for the spring semester, WPA was talking about practical research projects for first-year composition. One respondent talked about having students explore their intended career. Another spoke directly about technical writing:

One of my favorites: have students write instructions for international students: how to get an apartment, how to start utilities, how to open a local bank account, how to find a doctor, etc. etc.

Finally, I thought I had the perfect assignment for the technical definition, description, and instructions unit: I would ask students to write about something a new student would need to know to thrive on the campus.

Inspired by these ideas, I wrote up an assignment that asked students to create printable guides for new students. Because of my success with the recommendation reports in the fall, I wanted this assignment to have a public audience. I wanted to go beyond just saying that the readers would be students to publishing the work in a way that other students could (and hopefully would) actually read the work.

To meet my pedagogical goals, I set up the Help for Hokies website. It’s a simple WordPress site, using BuddyPress to manage the many authors. Though it’s not the best web design choice, I asked students to create PDFs of their assignment to publish on the site. Teaching students HTML and CSS isn’t in the departmental goals for Technical Writing, and there isn’t time to add it.

The assignment worked better than the version in the fall. Most students chose topics they knew very well, and many chose subjects they were personally engaged in (like how to join clubs they were members of or strategies they used in courses they were taking).

There were technical challenges however. Even with the explicit instructions that I provided for uploading their PDFs and embedding them in their blog posts, students had difficulty. Many resorted to creating links instead of embedding the posts. It didn’t help that many students finished their projects while I was in Indianapolis for CCCC.

In the end, I am happy with the way the assignment is evolving. It’s better than it was in the fall, though it still needs work. I’ll spend some time this summer cleaning up students’ posts on the site to fix broken embedded files, add tags and categories properly, and make things more web-friendly. When I’m done, I’ll have a good collection of models for students to explore as they work on documents to add to the site.

I know where students struggled with the posting process, and I want to provide more technical support, possibly some demonstration videos, to make publishing smoother for everyone. I also want to add some more guidance on choosing topics. Nearly all of the topics were fine, but that one sheet on “Fun Drinking Games” wasn’t what I had in mind. Evolving takes time, but I think I’m heading in the right direction with this project.

[Photo: Dinosaurs! by David Kryzaniak, on Flickr]

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