Create writing assignments that engage students in deep learning

September 12, 2017 | Claudia Stanny

Create writing assignments that engage students in deep learning

Why do we assign writing in our courses? One good reason to assign writing is to give students practice and constructive feedback on their writing to help them learn to communicate more effectively. A second, perhaps more compelling reason, is that well-constructed writing assignments engage students with course content and deepen disciplinary learning. This tip addresses these two reasons in turn and offers advice for how to create an effective writing assignment.

Writing assignments develop writing skill. Writing is an essential skill and is an increasingly important skill for the 21st Century workplace, which relies on email, social media, text messages, web content, and other written communication. Anderson et al. (2017) note that recent surveys of employers highlight the value placed on competent professional writing. They note that many employers complain that university graduates frequently fail to meet expectations for entry-level skill with writing.

Writing assignments engage students with disciplinary content and improve learning. Faculty often write to clarify their thinking about disciplinary content. Similarly, writing assignments can require students to engage in the meaning of disciplinary content. The structure and expectations for a writing assignment will determine how deeply students engage with content meaning and how effectively the assignment will facilitate student learning. Anderson et al. (2017) identify three characteristics of writing assignments that create effective disciplinary learning experiences (as well as help students write better).

Characteristics of effective writing assignments

Assignment creates an interactive writing process. Interactivity can be achieved in several ways. The following structures will increase interactivity:

  • Writing conferences with the instructor (before submitting the assignment),
  • Pre-writing peer discussions of the assignment and ideas to be discussed,
  • Feedback from the instructor on an early draft to clarify logic of the argument, feedback from a peer review (or even a friend or family member),
  • Consultation with the campus writing center on an early draft.

All of these interactions require that students reflect on their writing and revise their work before submitting the final paper. Instructors with small class enrollments might be able to manage one-on-one writing conferences with students. Instructors with large enrollment classes will prefer to create small-group writing discussions, peer review of an early draft, or required consultation with the writing center on an early draft.

Structure assignments to require students to engage in meaning-making as part of the writing process. Writing prompts are important. The following prompts direct students to engage in a meaning-making activity to complete the writing assignment:

  • Students must paraphrase and integrate ideas from multiple sources (if only from multiple locations in an assigned reading).
  • Students must critically evaluate disciplinary content, or describe a novel example or application of a disciplinary principle from their everyday life, which required original thinking about content.

Writing that engages students and deepens learning need not require extensive writing. Write meaning-making prompts for very short writing assignments (e.g., in-class minute papers or reflective writing on assigned reading) to engage students with disciplinary content (Stanny & Duer, 2013). The following are eamples of prompts for short writing assignments:

  • Summarize an assigned reading or explain how a concept in the reading applies to or predicts a real-world phenomenon (1 or 2 pages).
  • Explain the meaning of numerical or statistical data (1 or 2 paragraphs).
  • Ask students to apply a concept discussed during lecture to a specific scenario (1 or 2 paragraphs).
  • Require that students use the format and editorial style of the discipline when they write for your class.

Set clear expectations about student writing in the assignment. Assignment guidelines should clearly describe what the student should do (e.g., use at least three primary resources, compare two different models and reach a conclusion about which one best explains a particular observation, support assertions with evidence – and identify what “counts” as acceptable evidence). A well-crafted rubric does a great job establishing clear expectations for written assignments because it describes the criteria you will use to evaluate and grade students’ work.

Explain what students should learn from the assignment to discourage students from treating an assignment as “make work.” For example, students will learn to use a professional editorial style, build a logical argument based on high-quality evidence, apply disciplinary concepts to a practical problem, or evaluate artistic products using appropriate disciplinary criteria.


Anderson, P., Anson, C. M., Fish, T., Gonyea, R. M., Marshall, M., Menefee-Libey, W., Paine, C., Blake, L. P., & Weaver, S. (2017). How writing contributes to learning: New findings from a national study and their local application. Peer Review, 19 (1), 4-8.

Stanny, C. J., & Duer, J. D.  (2013). Authentic assessment in psychology: Using rubrics and embedded assessments to improve student learning.  In D. S. Dunn, S. C. Baker, C. M. Mehrotra, R. E. Landrum, & M. A. McCarthy, Assessing teaching and learning in psychology:  Current and future perspectives (pp. 19-34)Belmont, CA:  Cengage.