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Teaching Guide: Teaching Writing in First-Year Seminars

As you anticipate teaching a first-year seminar—or any other course in which writing plays a significant role—how do you approach teaching writing? Do you remember your experience as a student writer, sweating over assignments, staying up all night wondering what your instructors wanted, and never quite determining "the point"? Perhaps you are fortunate enough to remember positive writing experiences, and you might even look forward to teaching writing in your own classes, but you wonder how to teach something that is apparently an inherent talent. If you've had an opportunity to assign writing in previous courses, you might be frustrated with the work you've received and you may have resigned yourself to more of the same.

This tutorial is designed to help you and your students enjoy the benefits of writing instruction and to feel more positive about the writing students produce. The tutorial promotes a definition of academic writing that involves both instructor and students in a process that begins with formulation of course goals and preparation of related assignments and continues far beyond the last day of class. Units within this guide address the following frequently asked questions:

How do I integrate writing into my classroom?

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Frustration with academic writing often stems from our understanding of what writing involves. Students tend to view academic writing as a grueling but necessary task performed for a grade and disconnected from the rest of their lives. As instructors we might lament the quality of student writing while approaching our own writing with the same distaste our students experience. This is generally because we share, at least to some degree, our students' definition of academic writing.

In contrast to a view of academic writing as an isolated task performed to satisfy the arbitrary demands of a single authority, this site promotes writing as an interactive and ongoing activity that engages a writer and an audience for a clear and significant purpose that helps determine the writer's focus. Purpose, audience, and focus are key elements of the rhetorical context for any piece of writing.

The links below offer a discussion of rhetorical context as a foundation for making students' writing matter, connecting writing to course content, and reconciling academic and "real world" writing.

Rhetorical Context

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Rhetorical context refers to the circumstances surrounding any writing situation and includes purpose, audience, and focus.

Think of a particularly troublesome writing assignment you've faced. You might have had trouble even knowing how to begin. Similarly, you may have heard students complain that they "don't know what to write." Such struggles frequently arise because the writer has not identified the assignment's rhetorical context. One of our jobs as instructors is to provide students with information that will help them identify an assignment's rhetorical context.

The following links will give you a better understanding of rhetorical context and help you to incorporate that understanding into your writing instruction.


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Purpose refers to why a piece of writing is being written. Paradoxically, if your students' sole purpose in completing a writing assignment is to receive a high grade by impressing you as an instructor, you will probably be disappointed in the work they turn in. More earnest students might accept the vague notion that engaging in writing will "be helpful later on," but general academic growth as a purpose does little to provide direction for a particular assignment. Students who write to gain a better grasp of class content, to further explore issues raised in class, to respond to class readings, or to add their voices to a debate surrounding a specific subject will find the writing process more satisfying and will likely produce writing that reflects their engagement. As instructors, we can structure classroom discussions and assignments to encourage such purposes for writing. It's important that we ask ourselves the purpose for any writing assignment and articulate that purpose to our students, both in class and in the assignment description.

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Audience, the for whom of any piece of writing, is closely connected to purpose. Consciously or unconsciously, writers use their knowledge of audience in determining purpose. Much academic writing is tailored to an audience of one—the instructor. Do you remember justifying a low grade on a paper by claiming you "didn't know what the instructor was looking for?" The reality is that the instructor is an important member of the audience for student writing. But when we can expand the audience to include classmates, other members of the academic community, Internet readers, and other real or imagined members of the community at large, we add significance to our students' writing—a purpose that extends beyond the exchange of a paper for a grade. Investing our students with a meaningful purpose for an interested audience will help them, in turn, to establish focus.

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Focus refers to what is being written about. It involves choosing and maintaining an appropriate topic and degree of detail for a particular purpose and audience. Lack of focus is a common complaint of instructors regarding student writing. If you have assigned writing in the past, you have probably encountered papers that stray from one idea to another without focusing on a single issue or claim. To help students establish focus, consider using an illustration from photography: In focusing a camera, the idea is to obtain a picture of something in particular, with sharp details and perhaps a little background or context. You might encourage students to imagine representing their writing in a photograph—or summarizing it in a single sentence. Remind them that since problems with focus often originate during the planning stage, they might begin the writing process by outlining or taking notes.

A caveat here is that many students entering college are quite familiar with the five-paragraph essay and will interpret focus as an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Emphasize to students that focus should be informed by purpose and audience and is not achieved through a formula. Remember that our purpose as instructors is to foster better writers, not to produce better papers or students who are proficient at reproducing only certain kinds of texts.

Even as students begin to consider purpose and audience, there's no guarantee they'll immediately achieve focused writing. In fact, they may initially lose focus as they depart from familiar blueprints. The suggestions in Making Rhetorical Context Work for You will help you help students through this process.

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Making Rhetorical Context Work for You

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Follow these links for advice, activities, and writing samples designed to help you and your students understand and effectively navigate rhetorical context.

Introducing Students to Rhetorical Context

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The following activities are designed to help students better understand purpose, audience, and focus and to prepare them to address rhetorical context in their writing.

Classroom Activity: Introduction to Rhetorical Context

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To supplement your introductory discussion of rhetorical context, divide students into four groups of approximately equal size. Inform the class that each group will be completing the same writing task—a grocery list—for a unique audience. For example, you might distribute slips of paper indicating the following:

As students complete their lists (about five minutes), post a chart on the chalkboard or wipeboard. Label the columns "Audience," "Purpose," and "Focus," and number the rows from 1 to 4. When groups have finished their lists, ask them to share with the class what they've written. Make notes of the audience, purpose, and focus for each list. For example, when the audience is a caterer, the writer's purpose might include getting the best quality for the group's money. The writer might list price ranges and quantities and probably would also focus on the event theme in choosing food items. In contrast, a writer preparing a grocery list for his or her own use would probably do so primarily as a memory aid (purpose) and might focus on categories—cereal, soda, ice cream—rather than listing specific brands or quantities. Discussing how each group decided what to include in their list will help students see how purpose, audience, and focus work together to inform all our writing choices.

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Classroom Activity: Identifying Purpose and Audience

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We learn to write by writing and also by reading the writing of others. To help students identify purpose and audience and appreciate how these factors shape writing, collect writing samples on the same topic from different sources. For a topic like diamonds, for example, you might find an encyclopedia article, an editorial on the political and/or environmental implications of diamond mining, a financial report on the diamond industry, and a piece of ad copy from the De Beers company. Depending on the length of your writing samples and the time you have in class, have students read the samples in class or study them as a take-home assignment. Ask students to identify the purpose and audience for each sample. While each sample focuses on diamonds, ask students to comment on how each writer established a narrower focus based on purpose and audience. In addition to enhancing students' understanding of rhetorical context, this activity will promote a definition of writing as an activity that extends beyond the classroom and will help them see connections between academic and other kinds of writing.

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Classroom Activity: Evaluating Focus

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Although students often struggle at first to achieve focus in their own writing, they are generally able to identify focus problems as readers. When classroom discussion is accompanied by concrete examples of effective and ineffective attempts at focused writing, students are better equipped to achieve focus in their own writing.

On an overhead screen, display examples of focused and unfocused sentences and paragraphs. Ask students to comment on the writing samples as a class, identifying what works and what doesn't work and how any of the samples might be improved. As a class, create a list of principles and considerations for achieving focused writing. Encourage students to apply these principles to their own writing.

Example Sentences

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Use these sentences or compose your own:

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Example Paragraphs

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Use these paragraphs or compose your own:

When I first brought my cat home from the humane society she was a mangy, pitiful animal. It cost a lot to adopt her: forty dollars. And then I had to buy litter, a litterbox, food, and dishes for her to eat out of. Two days after she came home with me she got taken to the pound by the animal warden. There's a leash law for cats in Fort Collins. If they're not in your yard they have to be on a leash. Anyway, my cat is my best friend. I'm glad I got her. She sleeps under the covers with me when it's cold. Sometimes she meows a lot in the middle of the night and wakes me up, though. (unfocused)

When I first brought my cat home from the Humane Society she was a mangy, pitiful animal. She was so thin that you could count her vertebrae just by looking at her. Apparently she was declawed by her previous owners, then abandoned or lost. Since she couldn't hunt, she nearly starved. Not only that, but she had an abscess on one hip. The vets at the Humane Society had drained it, but it was still scabby and without fur. She had a terrible cold, too. She was sneezing and sniffling and her meow was just a hoarse squeak. And she'd lost half her tail somewhere. Instead of tapering gracefully, it had a bony knob at the end. (focused)

View Identifying Your Rhetorical Context as an Assignment Writer

Identifying Your Rhetorical Context As an Assignment Writer

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As instructors, we engage in the writing process each time we prepare an assignment sheet for our students. The more effectively we communicate a writing assignment's rhetorical context to our students, the more satisfied we and our students will be with the writing process and the texts produced. This begins with our understanding of the rhetorical context for the assignment sheets we prepare.

A more detailed discussion of assignment writing appears under How Do I Write an Effective Assignment?. In this section, we briefly consider purpose, audience, and focus for assignment writing.

Purpose in Assignment Writing

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Perhaps the most important question we can ask ourselves as assignment writers is Why am I administering this assignment? We often overlook the fact that identifying our goals before preparing an assignment sheet will help us to create an assignment that is suited to those goals. Experienced composition instructors recommend starting with a list of goals—a detailed purpose statement—and working backward to design an assignment. For example, if my goal is to enhance students' understanding of a particular reading, I will specify that reading in my assignment sheet. I will probably discourage the use of outside sources and will indicate that students are to focus on the reading's content rather than the quality of writing and on summarizing rather than responding to ideas. It's important not only to determine an assignment's purpose as an instructor, but to communicate the purpose to students in the assignment sheet and in classroom discussion.

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Audience in Assignment Writing

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Since our students are the audience for any assignment sheet we create, it's important that we consider everything we know about them as we write the assignment. What is their collective exposure to the skills and ideas they will be practicing and exploring in this assignment? What information do they need in order to complete the assignment? What are their concerns as a class? What are their backgrounds and how might those backgrounds affect their understanding of and response to the assignment? Factors such as age, race, gender, religious belief, and economic background can have a significant impact on students' response to an assignment. Putting ourselves in the position of our students will help us to frame assignments more effectively.

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Focus in Assignment Writing

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Even if we've communicated an assignment's purpose to our students, they'll most likely assess the focus of our assignment sheets in determining what and how to write. If, for example, I explain that an assignment's purpose is to engage students in a debate about a subject but focus on citation formats in my assignment sheet, I am likely to receive more research papers than argument essays. Similarly, if I focus on format issues such as margins, font size, and word count, my students will probably focus as much attention on these issues as they do on the content of their writing. As with any kind of writing, the focus of an assignment sheet should reflect the purpose of the assignment.

View Establishing Rhetorical Context Within Assignments

Establishing Rhetorical Context Within Assignments

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Having discussed rhetorical context in class, you may want to organize assignment sheets in terms of purpose, audience, and focus. This will reinforce rhetorical concepts discussed in class and will assist students in moving from those abstract concepts to concrete application. Students will be more likely to shape their writing according to purpose, audience, and focus than to start with a form (like the five-paragraph essay) and fill it with a set number of words or pages.

The sample assignment demonstrates how an assignment sheet can be arranged in terms of purpose, audience, and focus.

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Sample Assignment: Establishing Rhetorical Context

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Academic Response Essay

Unit 1 culminates in the Academic Response Essay. All of this unit's assignments have led you toward the ARE, and it represents the most significant portion of the Unit 1 portfolio grade. Write your ARE according to the following description:


The Writing Situation:

Thesis:Based on the writing situation defined above, make a clear, overall claim in response to the assigned reading you've done. Everything in your essay should relate to particular related ideas and decisions.

Development: Your response paragraphs will show how you've arrived at your main claim by agreeing/disagreeing with several related ideas and/or evaluating several related writing decisions made by the author.


After you have considered the above points, begin writing. Keep distractions to a minimum, and concentrate on making the separate parts of your essay add up to a focused, overall response. Your essay should contain several parts:

Summary: Begin by introducing your text and summarizing the main ideas. Do not simply use the same summary you or your group have already written. Write a summary that provides background for the overall claim you will make. Follow the summary guidelines we've practiced in class (discussed on p. 154 of the PHG).

Claim: Clearly state an overall claim in response to the essay you've read.

Response Paragraphs: Show how you've reached your overall claim by responding to related ideas and/or writing decisions. You should clearly and accurately identify the ideas/decisions to which you will respond and clearly state your response.

Evidence: Support each response with evidence. Follow the guidelines for using evidence, listed in handouts distributed Tuesday, February 7 and discussed in class.

Conclusion: Let your purpose and focus guide your paper from start to finish. Just like your summary, your conclusion should clearly connect to your paper as a whole.

Organization: This is not a separate part of your essay but instead refers to how you choose to put all those parts together into a coherent whole. Make sure your organization supports your main point and makes it easy for the reader to follow your argument.

Style/Tone/Mechanics: Remember that you're writing for an academic audience. CO150 students will be aware of guidelines for academic writing and will receive your essay favorably or unfavorably based partly on your own observation of these guildelines. Just like any other writing decision, make choices in style, tone, and mechanics that are appropriate for the writing situation you've defined.


Format: Your essay should be double-spaced in computer-generated 12-point font.

Topic proposal due date: You will be assigned a topic proposal to bring to your conference on February 16 or 17. This proposal will be worth 5 homework points.

First ARE draft due date: You should bring 2 copies of the first draft of your ARE to class on Tuesday, February 22. You will exchange these with members of your workshop group for peer review. Completeness of your first draft will be factored into your Unit 1 portfolio grade, so don't simply write a few rough paragraphs assuming you'll come up with something better by the final draft due date.

Final draft due date: Your final draft is due with your Unit 1 portfolio on Tuesday, February 29 by 5:00 p.m. You will receive a list of required portfolio contents and an explanation of grading criteria before that time.

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Making Students' Writing Matter

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Students are busy people. Many are trying to balance a full course load, extracurricular activities, an on- or off-campus job, and relationships with family and friends. Competing responsibilities require them to prioritize, and students are not likely to invest much time or energy in something for which they see little long-term significance. Our challenge as instructors is to make students' writing matter. When the rhetorical context of a writing assignment extends beyond the exchange of a paper for a grade, students see that their writing matters beyond an individual assignment or class. Consider the following suggestions for making students' writing matter:

Beginning with Course Objectives

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Just as the best place to start designing an individual writing assignment is by identifying assignment goals, the best place to start making course writing matter is by identifying course objectives. Why does your course matter? Make writing matter for the same reasons. For example, if I am teaching a course called Science and Society, my objectives might be to encourage students to analyze what the media reports about science, rather than receiving all coverage at face value. I might want students to recognize science as something we have created and to which we have assigned meaning, rather than accepting science as a universal and unchanging truth. In my course, then, I am encouraging students to think critically, analyze arguments, and challenge their own assumptions. These same skills contribute to and are fostered by the writing process. By communicating course objectives to students and tying writing to course goals, we can help students see how writing supports lasting academic and intellectual growth.

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Designing Rhetorical Contexts That Reflect the Real World

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Tying writing to course goals will only motivate students if they accept the value of the course. Generally, this means seeing a connection between the course and the "real world." A well-designed writing assignment is one of the most effective tools instructors can use to connect course goals to the world at large. The rhetorical context of a writing assignment can demonstrate practical applications of course content and of skills developed through course activities, including writing. Our challenge is to design rhetorical contexts for writing assignments that reflect the outside world. Here are some examples of rhetorical contexts that connect various academic disciplines to the world at large:

View Assigning Writing That Will Reach a Wide Audience

Assigning Writing That Will Reach a Wide Audience

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In addition to creating "real world" rhetorical contexts for writing assignments that will in reality be read by a classroom audience, we can give students' writing even greater immediate significance by submitting it to outside audiences. Depending on the nature of your course and assignment and on practical factors such as time and geography, you might assign specific audiences or allow students to select their own. Students might work individually or in groups to write letters to an editor or official, grant proposals for use by local organizations, articles for campus or community newspapers, reference guides for the web, or public service announcements for television or radio broadcast. Cooperation with outside audiences will require advanced preparation on our part as instructors, but the benefit in advancing course and writing goals will generally far outweigh our investment.

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Connecting Writing to Course Content

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To make students' writing matter, an instructor must connect it to the content of a course and communicate to students why the course matters. Most instructors, particularly those with little experience teaching writing, have given more thought to why their courses matter than to connecting writing to course objectives. The distinctions we tend to draw between academic disciplines might make it difficult to see any connection between teaching writing and teaching a specific subject, and requirements to assign writing might be intimidating or frustrating. While it might be tempting to avoid teaching writing, remember that well-designed writing assignments are among the most effective means of advancing course goals and connecting those goals to the world at large. The following questions are provided, therefore, to offer guidance in connecting writing to course content.

Where do I encounter writing as a practitioner in my field?

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The writing we encounter relating to our fields can provide rhetorical context for writing assignments, particularly if we think beyond academic journals and other academic publications to sources students might encounter in everyday life. For example, consider writing that relates to your field in the news media, in advertising, on the Internet, and in brochures and pamphlets. Integrating these sources into the rhetorical context of writing assignments (having students write a letter to an editor, say, or a user's guide of some sort) not only shows students how writing matters outside the classroom, but it demonstrates how course content and overall course goals relate to students' everyday life.

Who in My Field Needs Writing?

Who in My Field Needs Writing?

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In almost any field, there is a need for writing that is not easily funded by existing sources. For example, if I'm teaching a human development course I might know of a family services agency that needs someone to write a grant proposal or an informational booklet for clients. If I teach an environmental science course, I might know of an activist group that needs support in a letter-writing campaign. If an issue related to my course has been misrepresented in the media, I might see a need for editorial letters offering a more accurate representation. If I have noted the lack of a general reference site related to my subject on the Internet, I might recognize the need for a comprehensive website. Any of these real needs can translate into a real audience for student writing, while enhancing students' respect for the significance of course content.

Caveats in Assigning Writing for Real Audiences

Caveats in Assigning Writing for Real Audiences

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Assigning writing for real audiences is extremely effective in making writing and overall course content matter to students. However, several caveats should be considered before administering such an assignment:

What Am I Asking Students to Read?

What Am I Asking Students to Read?

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The reading you assign in class might provide a model for the writing you ask students to complete. Additionally, it will give students a better understanding of the complexities and implications of course content and can itself provide the focus for a writing assignment—writing about reading. Probably the most common type of academic writing assignment, writing about reading can enhance students' understanding of course concepts, can promote critical reading skills, and can prepare students for assignments that will require them to select their own topics. When assigning writing about reading, however, be careful to communicate the purpose of the assignment. Are they to summarize the reading? Respond to its content by agreeing or disagreeing? Compare the author's perspective to other perspectives discussed in the course? Also, don't neglect to communicate the rhetorical context of even such a traditional assignment. Consider asking students to summarize the reading for a future group of students or a campus publication. If they are responding to a reading, have them write a letter to the author or to another reviewer who has commented on the reading. For further advice on assigning writing about reading, see the Writing Center's guide to helping students summarize and respond to texts.

Challenging the Dichotomy Between Academic and "Real World" Writing

Challenging the Dichotomy Between Academic and Real World Writing

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Much of this guide addresses connections between academic and "real world" writing. Students, like many of the rest of us, will often subscribe to a dichotomy between academia and the rest of the world that includes sharp distinctions between academic and real world writing. In addition to the suggestions offered in previous sections of this unit, the following ideas will help you challenge these distinctions.

Examining the Dichotomy

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College undergraduates might not be consciously aware that a dichotomy exists between academia and the rest of the world. When asked to examine their assumptions about academia, they might be surprised to discover such a dichotomy in their thinking. Awareness of assumptions allows us to examine them, questioning their source and validity. Join students in asking where our distinctions come from and whether it's necessary or beneficial to conceive of academic and "real world" endeavors as separate. These questions might lead to conclusions that dispel invalid and unproductive distinctions.

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Assigning Multiple Writing Forms

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Many of the writing assignment ideas referred to in this guide offer students opportunities to write in multiple forms. While research papers and writing about reading remain among the most common forms assigned in college courses, forms such as Web writing, public service announcements, letters, brochures, and editorials can bridge the perceived gap between our course and real life, between academic and real world writing. Because these forms tend to involve rhetorical contexts that extend beyond the classroom, they invite students to consider that our courses are real life and academic writing is real world writing.

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Integrating Journal Writing

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Like other forms that provide alternatives to traditional academic papers, journal entries can help students see how their writing matters, connect writing to course content, and resist distinctions between academia and the rest of the world. The difference between journal writing and other forms is that students are more inclined to see themselves as a significant audience for journal writing, while the audience will generally not include persons outside the classroom. Without the expectation that journal entries will be polished and turned in for a grade, students are freer to reflect on course topics, departing from one train of thought to another as they develop a fuller understanding of issues and concepts. Often described as "personal" writing, journal writing invites students to make personal connections with course content and demonstrates how course content, writing, and personal concerns overlap.

If you choose to incorporate journal writing into your course, be sure to identify in advance how you will use this form. When will you as an instructor read entries and how will you keep students accountable for participating? Will other students read any or all of the entries? Will journal writing take place during class, as a take-home assignment, or a combination of both? How restrictive will you be in assigning journal topics? For additional advice on integrating journal writing, see the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Teaching with Journals guide. (This link will take you to another site.)

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Introducing Opportunities for Ungraded Writing

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Journal writing frees students to make personal connections to course content in part because it is ungraded. Consider introducing additional opportunities for ungraded writing to foster student reflection and to reconcile course writing and content with the world beyond the classroom. Here are some ideas:

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How do I write an effective assignment?

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Students' successful completion of a writing assignment begins with an assignment for the instructor: the creation of a detailed assignment description. It is not enough to announce in class that students should write "a paper about one aspect of the Roman Empire" or to list in the syllabus: "Turn in research paper on Renaissance artist of your choice." Students' response to such vague instructions will be varied at best. At worst, students and instructor will be frustrated over the time spent writing and reading scores of pages that contribute little to course goals.

An effective assignment description contains as much detail as is necessary to communicate to students the assignment's purpose and the steps students must take to achieve that purpose and to receive a favorable evaluation. The following links detail the assignment writing process and direct instructors to additional assistance and resources.

Assignment Writing Process: Working Backward from Goals

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To create an assignment that is likely to produce strong student writing, composition instructors recommend starting with the ideal response to the assignment and working backward from those model papers. Although the process may seem awkward at first, students will welcome the specificity of the resulting assignment description and instructors will welcome the papers students produce in response. The following questions will help facilitate the process of working backward from goals:

What do I want my students' papers to look like?

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Before designing a writing assignment, it is essential to articulate goals for the assignment as clearly and concretely as possible. For example, will the assignment help students learn course material or writing conventions in the discipline—or both?

Assignment goals will guide every choice regarding assignment design. A preliminary list of goals allows us to address such questions as:

You will notice that these questions suggest a broader understanding of writing assignments than we usually consider. A writing assignment can be understood as a series of stages that enhance larger course goals while moving students toward a final product that demonstrates progress toward some of those goals. This understanding is further explored in the following section on positioning an assignment within the class.

View Where Will This Assignment Fit Among Other Parts of the Class?

Where will this assignment fit among other parts of the class?

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There are two major benefits to understanding a writing assignment as a series of stages that enhance larger course goals while moving students toward a final product that demonstrates progress toward some of those goals: 1) Greater appreciation of the relationship between course and assignment goals and 2) Closer attention to specific assignment details and their combined role in advancing goals.

The following steps will guide you in positioning assignments within your class.

View How Can I Translate Goals into an Effective Assignment?

How can I translate goals into an effective assignment?

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A key step in translating goals into an effective assignment is to communicate goals to students. The assignment description should include a statement of assignment goals and should indicate how those goals relate to overall course goals. In addition to instructions for assignment stages (notes, drafts, etc.) and clear statements of due dates, the description should explain how all stages work together to support assignment and course goals.

Having articulated goals to students, you can further develop an effective assignment by identifying a rhetorical context for students' writing. Imagine a real setting and a real audience for writing that achieves assignment goals. For example, if my goal is to deepen students' understanding of a controversial issue and to foster analytical and persuasive writing skills, I might ask students to write a hypothetical editorial column for a national magazine. If available, I might even provide a real audience for student writing—perhaps readers of a local or campus newspaper that publishes editorials.

To read more about rhetorical context for writing assignments, see the Rhetorical Context section of this guide.

View What Choices in Style and Format Will Contribute to the Purpose of the Assignment?

What choices in style and format will contribute to the purpose of the assignment?

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As instructors we are familiar with conventions of academic writing and writing in our fields. It's easy to assume that students will observe the conventions we take for granted, but such assumptions generally leave students floundering with style and format concerns that compromise their attention to larger assignment goals. The following questions will help you create an assignment description that details every element of the writing task.

Though it's important to inform students of style and format requirements, we want to avoid emphasizing the cosmetic over the substantive. Working backwards from assignment and course goals will naturally shift our focus from cosmetic concerns. The assignments we design should maintain a global focus by highlighting the process that will advance overall goals and downplaying style and format requirements. If the specifications we've indicated don't advance assignment or course goals, we might consider revising our specifications.

View How Will I Evaluate Students' Completed Writing?

How will I evaluate students' completed writing?

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The section of this guide devoted to responding to student writing addresses this question in greater detail. For the purposes of this section, remember that our evaluations should assess students' progress toward the goals we've established for the assignment. In addition to communicating goals, our assignment description should tell students how their work will be evaluated and how this particular assignment will contribute to their overall course evaluation.

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Support from the Writing Center

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In addition to hosting workshops and online tutorials, the Writing Center at Colorado State University offers the following services, tailored to individual instructors' needs:

To participate in these and other services, please e-mail Associate Professor of English and Writing Center Director Sarah Sloane at or call the Writing Center at (970) 491-0222.

To access additional online resources, view the list of resources on our home page.

View Instructor Resources

Instructor Resources

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The checklists and models accessed through the following links are offered as additional guidance in designing effective writing assignments.

Assignment Writing Checklists

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Select from the following list to view assignment writing checklists designed by CSU composition faculty and other writing professionals.

CSU Writing Center Checklist 1

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Visitors to this site are welcome to download and print these guidelines.

Have I:

Thanks to Kate Kiefer and Donna LeCourt for providing this checklist.

View CSU Writing Center Checklist #2

CSU Writing Center Checklist 2

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Visitors to this site are welcome to download and print these guidelines.

  1. Is the assignment written clearly on a handout?
  2. Do the instructions explain the purpose(s) of the assignment?
  3. Does the assignment fit the purpose?
  4. Is the assignment stated in precise language that cannot be misunderstood?
  5. If choices are possible, are these options clearly marked?
  6. Are there instructions for the appropriate format? (examples: length, typed, cover sheet, size of paper)
  7. Are there any special instructions, such as use of a particular citation format or kinds of headings? If so, are these clearly stated?
  8. Is the due date clearly visible? Are late assignments accepted? If so, any penalty?
  9. Are any potential problems anticipated and explained?
  10. Are the grading criteria spelled out as specifically as possible? How much does content count? Organization? Writing skills? One grade or separate grades on form and content?
  11. Does the grading criteria section specifically indicate which writing skills the teacher considers important as well as the various aspects of content?
  12. What part of the course grade is this assignment?
  13. Does the assignment include use of models (strong, average, weak) or sample outlines?

Thanks to Jean Wyrick for providing this checklist.

View Sample Assignments

Sample Assignments

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The links below highlight sample assignments from a variety of disciplines.

Sample Agricultural Economics Assignment

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Note: This assignment was designed for a 400-level class.

Good analytical writing is a rigorous and difficult task. It involves a process of editing and rewriting, and it is common to do a half dozen or more drafts. Because of the difficulty of analytical writing and the need for drafting, we will be completing the assignment in four stages. A draft of each of the sections described below is due when we finish the class unit related to that topic (see due dates on syllabus). I will read the drafts of each section and provide comments; these drafts will not be graded but failure to pass in a complete version of a section will result in a deduction in your final paper grade. Because of the time both you and I are investing in the project, it will constitute one-half of your semester grade.

Content, Concepts and Substance

  1. Population—Developing countries have undergone large changes in population. Explain the dynamic nature of this continuing change in your country or region and the forces underlying the changes. Better papers will go beyond description and analyze the situation at hand. That is, go behind the numbers to explain what is happening in your country with respect to the underlying population dynamics: structure of growth, population momentum, rural/urban migration, age structure of population, unanticipated populations shocks, etc. DUE: WEEK 4.
  2. Papers will focus on the peoples and policies related to population, food, and the environment of your chosen country. As well as exploring each of these subsets, papers need to highlight the interrelations among them. These interrelations should form part of your revision focus for the final draft. Important concepts relevant to the papers will be covered in class; therefore, your research should be focused on the collection of information on your chosen country or region to substantiate your themes. Specifically, the paper needs to address the following questions.
  3. Food—What is the nature of food consumption in your country or region? Is the average daily consumption below recommended levels? Is food consumption increasing with economic growth? What is the income elasticity of demand? Use Engel's law to discuss this behavior. Is production able to stay abreast with demand given these trends? What is the nature of agricultural production: traditional agriculture or green revolution technology? Is the trend in food production towards self-sufficiency? If not, can comparative advantage explain this? Does the country import or export food? Is the politico-economic regime supportive of a progressive agricultural sector? DUE: WEEK 8.
  4. Environment—This is the third issue to be covered in class. It is crucial to show in your paper the environmental impact of agricultural production techniques as well as any direct impacts from population changes. This is especially true in countries that have evolved from traditional agriculture to green revolution techniques in the wake of population pressures. While there are private benefits to increased production, the use of petroleum-based inputs leads to environmental and human health related social costs which are exacerbated by poorly defined property rights. Use the concepts of technological externalities, assimilative capacity, property rights, etc. to explain the nature of this situation in your country or region. What other environmental problems are evident? Discuss the problems and methods for economically measuring environmental degradation. DUE: WEEK 12.
  5. Final Draft—The final draft of the project should consider the economic situation of agriculture in your specified country or region from the three perspectives outlined above. Key to such an analysis are the interrelationships of the three perspectives. How does each factor contribute to an overall analysis of the successes and problems in agricultural policy and production of your chosen country or region? The paper may conclude with recommendations, but, at the very least, it should provide a clear summary statement about the challenges facing your country or region. DUE: WEEK15.

View Sample Landscape Architecture Assignment

Sample Landscape Architecture Assignment

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Note: This assignment was designed for a 300-level class.

Critical yet often overlooked components of the landscape architect's professional skills are the ability to critically evaluate existing designs and the ability to eloquently express him/herself in writing. To develop your skills at these fundamental components, you are to professionally critique a built project with which you are personally and directly familiar. The critique is intended for the "informed public" as might be expected to be read in such features in the New York Times or Columbus Monthly; therefore, it should be insightful and professionally valid, yet also entertaining and eloquent. It should reflect a sophisticated knowledge of the subject without being burdened with professional jargon.

As in most critiques or reviews, you are attempting not only to identify the project's good and bad features but also to interpret the project's significance and meaning. As such, the critique should have a clear "point of view" or thesis that is then supported by evidence (your description of the place) that persuades the reader that your thesis is valid. Note, however, that your primary goal is not to force the reader to agree with your point of view but rather to present a valid discussion that enriches and broadens the reader's understanding of the project.

To assist in the development of the best possible paper, you are to submit a typed draft by 1:00 pm, Monday, February 10th. The drafts will be reviewed as a set and will then serve as a basis of an in-class writing improvement seminar on Friday, February 14th. The seminar will focus on problems identified in the set of drafts, so individual papers will not have been commented on or marked. You may also submit a typed draft of your paper to the course instructor for review and comment at any time prior to the final submission.

Final papers are due at 2:00 pm, Friday, February 23rd.

View Sample Comparative Animal Nutrition Assignment

Sample Comparative Animal Nutrition Assignment

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Note: This assignment was designed for a 200-level class.

Purpose: Students should be able to integrate lecture and laboratory material, relate class material to industry situations, and improve their problem-solving abilities.

Assignment 1: Weekly laboratory reports (50 points)

For the first laboratory, students will be expected to provide depth and breadth of knowledge, creativity, and proper writing format in a one-page, typed, double-spaced report. Thus, conciseness will be stressed. Five points total will be possible for the first draft, another five points possible will be given to a student peer-reviewer of the draft, and five final points will be available for a second draft. This assignment, in its entirety, will be due before the first midterm (class 20). Any major writing flaws will be addressed early so that students can grasp concepts stressed by the instructors without major impact on their grades. Additional objectives are to provide students with skills in critically reviewing papers and to acquaint writers and reviewers of the instructors' expectations for assignments 2 and 3, which are weighted much more heavily.

Students will submit seven one-page handwritten reports from each week's previous laboratory. These reports will cover laboratory classes 2-9; note that one report can be dropped and week 10 has no laboratory. Reports will be graded (5 points each) by the instructors for integration of relevant lecture material or prior experience with the current laboratory.

Assignment 2: Group problem-solving approach to a nutritional problem in the animal industry (50 points)

Students will be divided into groups of four. Several problems will be offered by the instructors, but a group can choose an alternative, approved topic. Students should propose a solution to the problem. Because most real-life problems are solved by groups of employees and (or) consultants, this exercise should provide students an opportunity to practice skills they will need after graduation. Groups will divide the assignment as they see fit. However, 25 points will be based on an individual's separate assignment (1-2 typed pages), and 25 points will be based on the group's total document. Thus, it is assumed that papers will be peer-reviewed. The audience intended will be marketing directors, who will need suitable background, illustrations, etc., to help their salespersons sell more products. This assignment will be started in about the second week of class and will be due by class 28.

Assignment 3: Students will develop a topic of their own choosing (approved by instructors) to be written for two audiences (100 points).

The first assignment (25 points) will be written in "common language," e.g., to farmers or salespersons. High clarity of presentation will be expected. It also will be graded for content to assure that the student has developed the topic adequately. This assignment will be due by class 38.

Concomitant with this assignment will be a first draft of a scientific term paper on the same subject. Ten scientific articles and five typed, double-spaced pages are minimum requirements. Basic knowledge of scientific principles will be incorporated into this term paper written to an audience of alumni of this course working in a nutrition-related field. This draft (25 points) will be due by class 38. It will be reviewed by a peer who will receive up to 25 points for his/her critique. It will be returned to the student and instructor by class 43. The final draft, worth an additional 25 points, will be due before class 50 and will be returned to the student during the final exam period.

View Sample Human Development Assignment

Sample Human Development Assignment

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Note: This assignment was designed for a 300-level class.

Two papers will be assigned for the semester, each to be no more than three typewritten pages in length. Each paper will be worth 50 points.

Purpose: The purpose of this assignment is to aid the student in learning skills necessary in forming policy-making decisions and to encourage the student to consider the integral relationship between theory, research, and social policy.

Format: The student may choose any issue of interest that is appropriate to the socialization focus of the course, but the issue must be clearly stated and the student is advised to carefully limit the scope of the issue question.

There are three sections to the paper:

First: One page will summarize two conflicting theoretical approaches to the chosen issue. Summarize only what the selected theories may or would say about the particular question you've posed; do not try to summarize the entire theory. Make clear to a reader in what way the two theories disagree or contrast. Your text should provide you with the basic information to do this section.

Second: On the second page, summarize (abstract) one relevant piece of current research. The research article must be chosen from a professional journal (not a secondary source) written within the last five years. The article should be abstracted and then the student should clearly show how the research relates to the theoretical position(s) stated earlier, in particular, and to the socialization issue chosen in general. Be sure the subjects used, methodology, and assumptions can be reasonably extended to your concern.

Third: On the third page, the student will present a policy guideline (for example, the Colorado courts should be required to include, on the child's behalf, a child development specialist's testimony at all custody hearings) that can be supported by the information gained and presented in the first two pages. My advice is that you picture a specific audience and the final purpose or use of such a policy guideline. For example, perhaps as a child development specialist you have been requested to present an informed opinion to a federal or state committee whose charge is to develop a particular type of human development program or service. Be specific about your hypothetical situation and this will help you write a realistic policy guideline.

Sample papers will be available in the department reading room.

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How do I assign research?

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College-level instructors of all disciplines often choose—and, in the case of many first-year seminars, might be required—to assign research papers. Students and instructors alike are tempted to regard the research paper as a species entirely different from other writing assignments. While the research paper introduces additional skills such as library navigation and source documentation, designing a research assignment still requires instructors to work backwards from goals and to establish a rhetorical context that addresses goals and connects the assignment to the class as a whole.

That being said, an awareness of the particular challenges students might encounter in conducting and communicating research will help us address those challenges and enhance students' research writing experience.

The following sections contain suggestions on guiding students through the research writing process.

Framing the Assignment

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In addition to establishing rhetorical context and positioning the assignment within the course as a whole, consider the following suggestions for framing a research assignment.

Outlining Objectives

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Creating any assignment requires us as instructors to outline our objectives. In a research assignment, it is important that we communicate to students our research objectives, as well as objectives for more general writing and academic skills. For example, would we like students to learn to frame a research question? Would we like them to acquire library research skills, using online databases and other Internet sources? When research objectives are communicated among other assignment goals, students are less likely to approach research as the summarizing of collected information.

View Establishing Research Questions

Establishing Research Questions

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Most students entering college will understand research as collecting information on a topic and reporting their findings to an instructor. We can encourage students to engage in their research by prompting them to think in terms of a research question. Rather than starting with a topic and then conducting a search for any relevant information, ask students to start with a question that will guide the entire research process. For example, rather than researching the topic of inclusive education, a student might start with the question: Does inclusive education best serve students with disabilities? Even a research assignment that is primarily informative in purpose can start with a research question. Rather than starting with the topic of Elizabethan drama, for example, a student might ask: How was Elizabethan drama shaped by culture?

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Helping Students Focus Their Research

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Because the vastness of available information often intimidates students, it is particularly challenging for college writers to narrow their focus for research assignments. The research questions suggested on the Establishing Research Questions page, for example, are a step away from the topical approach, but they are too broad for most college writing assignments.

How do we move students from Does inclusive education best serve students with disabilities? and How was Elizabethan drama shaped by culture? to, say, Does inclusive education in high school prepare developmentally disabled students for future vocational pursuits? and How did Elizabethan religious thought shape the tragedies of William Shakespeare? First, a clear communication of the assignment's rhetorical context will help students define a focus. In addition, we can emphasize the importance of such factors as accessibility of research sources, time allowed for research, and suitability of available sources to rhetorical context. Consideration of these factors will steer students away from preliminary research questions that are too narrow as well as those that are too broad. The reference librarians at CSU Libraries have prepared a comprehensive guide entitled How to Do Library Research. Direct your students to the topic selection tips for discussion of the factors listed above. (These links will take you to another CSU site.)

As instructors, we can help students focus their research by not limiting their choices more than is necessary. For example, if we've limited the kinds of sources students can use, we should be certain that there are plenty of allowable sources available that are appropriate to the rhetorical context. If the rhetorical context asks students to engage in a current debate, we are unfair to require that students use only books as their research sources. With instruction on assessing source reliability, students can find information in an online database or on the World Wide Web that is more appropriate to some rhetorical contexts than what they can find in books.

View Introducing Library Research

Introducing Library Research

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The following links discuss suggestions on introducing your students to library research.

Bringing Students to the Library

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The size of an academic library can inhibit students from even entering the building. Students are far more likely to access the library on their own if they have first visited and learned to navigate it as part of a class. As instructors, we can facilitate student library use by conducting tours and planning class sessions—research days, for example—that take place in the library.

The librarians at CSU Libraries offer tours and orientation sessions tailored specifically to individual courses. To arrange a class tour of Morgan Library, submit a Library Instruction Request Form at least two weeks in advance of the date you wish to visit. (This link will take you to another CSU site.)

View Recognizing the Library As More Than Just Books

Recognizing the Library As More Than Just Books

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Though the physical space of most libraries might still consist primarily of books and other print sources, these sources represent an ever decreasing portion of the information available to library users. In addition to physical book and periodical collections, academic libraries offer users access to the following sources of information that are essential to many research projects.

Electronic Databases

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Thanks to electronic sources, researchers can quickly locate and evaluate articles relevant to their areas of inquiry and can often download the full text of articles not contained in their library's physical periodicals collection. CSU Libraries subscribes to a wide variety of databases indexing academic journals from multiple disciplines. These electronic collections provide timely access to current information that cannot be matched by physical collections. For a list of databases available at CSU and a guide to using them, visit the Libraries' database main page. (This link will take you to another CSU site).

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Electronic Books

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Through netLibrary, users of member academic libraries can check out electronic versions of books not contained in their institutions' physical collections. CSU Libraries participates in the netLibrary program, providing users electronic access to thousands of scholarly, reference, and professional books from major commercial publishers and university presses.

To check out electronic books, visit netLibrary from a CSU computer or visit Morgan Library to set up an account for access from a remote computer. (The link will take you to another site.)

View Interlibrary Loan

Interlibrary Loan

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An early introduction to interlibrary loan programs will allow students to take advantage of these programs in the preliminary stages of research, when they can experience the greatest benefit. Although CSU Libraries has two excellent programs allowing users to request books from collections located throughout the state and nation, students who wait until a few days before a draft is due to gather information will not benefit from interlibrary loan.

CSU’s direct access to that second excellent program referred to above, Prospector, is on a little hiatus while Prospector’s delicate system settles into the Morgan Library’s new operating system. In the meantime, CSU students, staff, and faculty CAN take advantage of the Poudre River Public Library District’s Prospector service (Prospector materials will need to be picked up from one, but returned to any of the three PRPLD’s Library locations).

CSU students, staff & faculty can also Power Up (their) RamCard for Public Library Access.Visit Morgan Library’s website where you can link to dandy, succinct info about Prospector access, and RamCard public library access and the benefits therein. CSU Libraries' Interlibrary Loan program, known as Illiad, delivers books to users best case scenario... within a week - but it can take longer. In addition, full-text articles and chapters of books from other Libraries are sent to users electronically. For more information about ILLiad, or to request materials, click here.

While Prospector is being adapted to Morgan Library's operating system, to borrow books from other libraries in Colorado and Wyoming, take advantage of the Poudre River Public Library District’s Prospector service (Prospector materials will need to be picked up from one, but returned to any of the three PRPLD’s Library locations).

View Assigning Web Research

Assigning Web Research

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Awareness of the lack of controls and resulting unreliability of much of what is published on the World Wide Web might incline us toward prohibiting Web research altogether. However, some types of information are more readily found on the web than anywhere else. Rather than precluding Web research, we can set parameters that will promote the use of reliable sources. For example, we might require that all websites consulted be connected to a reliable print source (such as Time or Newsweek), organization (like the Alzheimer's Association or PETA), government agency (such as the USDA or National Park Service), or institution (a school or medical research facility, for example). We might assign students to submit a source list for our approval before paper drafts are due, allowing us to review the appropriateness of sources and to redirect students if necessary.

In addition to the above suggestions, we can provide instruction to build students' Web research skills. The following links contain suggestions for providing Web instruction.

Conducting a Web Tutorial

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If possible, arrange to a conduct a class session in a computer lab or bring a laptop and projector into class (available from the Office of Instructional Services at (970) 491-5466). Before class, prepare a list of links to good, average, and poor Web sources. Ask students to evaluate pre-selected websites in class, focusing on their appropriateness as research sources. When students have completed their evaluations individually or in groups, lead a discussion highlighting various indicators of a Web source's reliability, such as: connection to a reputable print source or affiliation, the site's citation of other sources, links to other reliable sites, and endorsements by professional organizations or Web monitoring groups.

As an alternative to designing your own tutorial, consider scheduling a Web evaluation session through CSU Libraries. To arrange a customized instructional session at Morgan Library, submit a Library Instruction Request Form at least two weeks in advance of your anticipated class date. (Links on this page will take you to other CSU sites.)

View Referring Students to Guides on Evaluating Sources

Referring Students to Guides on Evaluating Sources

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Both Writing@CSU and the CSU Libraries have created online guides to assist students in using and evaluating Web sources. To make these guides available to students, provide them with the links listed below.

View Administering Source Evaluation Assignments

Administering Source Evaluation Assignments

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To provide additional practice in evaluating Web sources, prepare a list of sources and design an assignment requiring students to evaluate them. The assignment might ask students to rank the sources, evaluate them in terms of certain criteria, or answer true or false, fill-in-the-blank, or short-answer questions regarding the sources' reliability. Whether or not the assignment receives a grade, provide feedback regarding each students' responses. Those responses might be used to facilitate further classroom discussion on evaluating sources.

View Introducing Documentation

Introducing Documentation

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Before we ask students to observe the conventions of any documentation style, it is important that they understand why documentation is necessary and how to determine what to document. Without this background, many students will approach documentation either as a pointless activity designed to increase grading opportunities or as an entirely new language indecipherable to unpublished writers. With sufficient background, on the other hand, students will more readily grasp the mechanics of source documentation. Visit the links below for suggestions on increasing your students' fluency in documentation.

Teaching Students Why to Document

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Perhaps the best way to familiarize students with the importance of documentation is to call their attention to the use of documentation in course readings. As they read, ask students to note reasons the author might have had for documenting his or her sources. Possible reasons might be to give proper credit, to create a context for his or her ideas, to demonstrate the quality and quantity of his or her research, to build credibility with readers, to distinguish his or her original ideas from the ideas of others, and to avoid plagiarism. (For further discussion of these reasons, see Reasons for Documenting Sources.) Allow students to complete their own lists and then ask them to share their observations as a class. Supplement the class list with suggestions from above or with ideas from your own list.

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Teaching Students What to Document

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Just as reading the writing of others can help students appreciate the importance of documentation, engaging in such reading also familiarizes students with general documentation protocol. In addition to noting authors' reasons for documenting, ask students to list the kinds of information documented—information such as quotations, paraphrased or summarized ideas, debatable or little known facts, statistics and other quantifiable data, unique phrasing or terminology, and others' opinions or assertions. (For further discussion of these types of information, see What to Document.) Again, lead a classroom conversation on students' findings.

Point out to students that the reasons for documenting and decisions regarding what to document are closely related. As students better appreciate this relationship through exposure to and practice with documentation, they will more easily avoid common mistakes such as dropping quotes into their papers without context. They will also move more readily toward mastery of a particular documentation style.

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Teaching Students How to Document

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Once students have a general understanding of the need for documentation, the criteria used in determining what to document, and the way the relationship between these two factors guides the incorporation of documentation into their writing, they are ready to practice their understanding through the use of a particular documentation style. Select from the links below for suggestions on teaching specific documentation styles.

Documentation Styles

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Just as our overall course goals guide our designing of assignments and other course materials, our goals for students as they relate to documentation will guide our decisions regarding particular documentation styles. If all or most of our students have chosen similar majors, one of our goals might be to acquaint them with the documentation style most commonly used in their discipline. In that case, we might require all students to use MLA, APA, Chicago, or another specific style. This approach has the additional benefit of allowing us to evaluate a style with which we are familiar and to utilize one set of standards in evaluating students' use of documentation.

If, on the other hand, our students represent a variety of academic backgrounds and potential majors, our goal might be to provide further practice with a documentation style to which they've already been introduced and/or to equip them for their individual academic and professional writing goals. In this case, students will benefit from our willingness to allow them to choose the documentation style with which they are most comfortable and that they are most likely to encounter in future writing situations.

Whatever our decision regarding documentation style, it's important that we make our students aware of the various styles available and of the importance of audience in selecting a style. Encourage them to ascertain the style required by whatever situation they're writing for and show them how to find guidelines for each style. The online guides referred to later in this unit are a good place to start.

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In-Text Documentation

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In general, documentation consists of two parts: in-text documentation and end documentation.

In-text documentation alerts readers to the referencing of borrowed information. Common methods of in-text documentation are parenthetical references, footnotes, and endnotes. Students should know which method is appropriate to their chosen documentation style.

Classroom assignments can help students practice the use of in-text documentation. Giving students a paragraph or two of text and a list of research gathered from various sources, ask them to incorporate documentation into the prepared text. This same assignment can help students practice end documentation (discussed in the next section) by completing a works cited or references page corresponding to the sources they've documented in the text.

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End Documentation

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End documentation usually appears in the form of a works cited, literature cited, or references list page. Again, students will need to know which method is required for the documentation style they've selected. We should also help students to see the correspondence between in-text and end documentation. An assignment like the one described in the previous section will help students see this connection and practice the conventions of their style.

Students are likely to be particularly concerned about documenting Internet sources, information retrieved from online databases, and other alternatives to traditional print sources. As instructors, we should be sure to include these kinds of sources in practice activities and to familiarize ourselves with corresponding documentation conventions. A print or online guide (such as those listed in the next section) can help us and our students properly document alternative sources.

View Documentation Guides

Documentation Guides

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The following documentation guides are available online to help us and our students apply and evaluate documentation conventions:

View Discouraging Plagiarism

Discouraging Plagiarism

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Discussion of documentation creates an opportunity for us as instructors to discourage plagiarism in our students' work. Students often plagiarize because they are unaware that what they are doing qualifies as academic dishonesty, and our introduction to documentation—emphasizing why and what to document—can increase their appreciation of intellectual integrity.

Plagiarism might also occur when students are intimidated by an assignment. The suggestions contained throughout this guide will help you to create an environment in which students feel confident in their ability to respond to a writing situation. In addition, the following ideas will further discourage plagiarism:

All links listed on this page will take you to other sites.

For additional advice to instructors, visit Penn State University Libraries' Plagiarism Resource Guide for Faculty.

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What is peer review and how do I use it?

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One way for instructors to move beyond assigning writing to teaching writing is to allow students to read and discuss each other's writing in peer-review workshops. As you create writing assignments, plan for peer review. As suggested in the discussion on assignment writing, preparing peer review guides along with the assignment sheet itself will allow both to work together to promote the same goals.

Peer Review Why

Peer-review workshops serve many useful functions for student writers, most notably:

Peer Review How

Use the strategies and sample worksheets provided through the following links to help your students get the most out of peer review.

Specifying Peer-Review Tasks

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Open review sessions, in which students imagine themselves as members of the target audience and give "reader response" reactions, are not recommended. It's most effective to have students review particular features of a paper. As instructors, we need to make sure those tasks are clear and precise. Although tasks can be listed on an overhead or board, students often prefer a worksheet that notes specific objectives. If students can compose their commentary on a word processor, they are likely to write more extensive comments. Take advantage of computer supports whenever possible.

The following links provide sample handouts to help specify peer-review tasks.

Sample Worksheet

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Note how the following worksheet specifies tasks for both the student writer and the peer reviewer:

Essay 1 Workshop

Writer's Name_______________________
Reader's Name_______________________

Writer: If you have any specific questions you want your reader to answer, or places in your essay you want your reader to respond to, list them below:

Reader: Read through the essay once without marking on it or making any notes. Read through it a second time and respond to the following questions:

  1. After reading the entire essay, summarize in your own words the writer's reaction, including the main idea they're reacting to. Is the reaction narrow enough for you to easily follow? Do you have any suggestions for how the writer might narrow the focus of the reaction further?
  2. Mark a (?) in any places in the text that seem tangential or unrelated to the overall focus of the reaction and explain in the text why you think this section may stray from that focus.
  3. Mark at least one effective piece of evidence (example, personal experience, personal observation, etc.) with a (*), and then explain below why you found that evidence effective.
  4. Write (MORE) in at least one place where the essay could use more evidence, and then explain below what those places could use to allow the reader to more easily relate to and understand the author's reaction.
  5. List below at least 2 strengths of the essay, and explain why these aspects of the paper are working well.
  6. List your three main suggestions for revision.

View Sample Backwards Outline

Sample Backwards Outline

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A backwards outline identifies the main points and progression of ideas in an essay after the essay is written. Backwards outlines can help students:

The following sample instructions show how you can teach students to make backwards outlines to assist them in reviewing their peers' essays. These instructions can be adapted to assist students in reviewing and revising their own essays.

Backwards Outline Workshop Instructions

  1. For each paragraph of your partner's essay:
  2. Considering the overall organization of your partner's essay, answer the following:
  3. Considering the overall organization within paragraphs:

View Sample Posted Guidelines

Sample Posted Guidelines

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The following is an example of a list of workshop guidelines you might post on an overhead, asking students to address workshop questions on their own notebook paper.

  1. Read through the essay once.
  2. Circle the thesis of the essay.
  3. Does the essay maintain its focus on proving the thesis? If not, where does it stray?
  4. Indicate the evidence the writer uses to support the different parts of the claim.

View Sequencing Peer-Review Tasks

Sequencing Peer-Review Tasks

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When asked to examine particular features of a paper, students often feel most comfortable moving through a sequence from simply identifying a feature to evaluating it to suggesting revisions. Especially if you give students multiple peer-review opportunities, consider using progressive workshop sheets, building on tasks required in previous workshop sheets. Label the level of each task clearly so that students know if they are to identify features or suggest revisions.

The following items appear in sequence on a peer-review worksheet distributed to a freshman composition class. Notice how the instructions move students from identifying a thesis to evaluating it to suggesting revisions:

  1. Mark and label the writer's thesis in the draft. In the space below, "unpack" the thesis.
  2. Is the thesis clearly debatable? Suggest one way the thesis might be narrowed or focused, if necessary.

(Click here to view this entire worksheet.)

View Modeling How to Use Workshop Criteria

Freshman Composition Workshop

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Education Inquiry Paper

Writer's Name:
What concerns do you have about your paper?

Reader's Name:

Instructions to the reader: Before answering the questions below, read the essay once and do a "backwards outline" by marking next to each paragraph its main idea and primary purpose (appeal, opposing argument, etc.).

  1. Mark and label the writer's thesis in the draft. In the space below, "unpack" the thesis.
  2. Is the thesis clearly debatable? Suggest one way the thesis might be narrowed or focused, if necessary.
  3. Based on your reading, who do you think is the writer's target audience? Why? Do you think this is the best choice of audience for this thesis? Why or why not?
  4. Identify all appeals in the essay (next to them on the essay, write "R" for reason, "C" for character, or "E" for emotion"). Is each appeal effective, given the audience? Note any that you think might not work for this audience.
  5. Are all claims supported with detailed explanation and/or evidence? Make a note of any places in the essay where you feel the audience might need more evidence.
  6. Note on the essay where the writer refutes potential opposing arguments (mark with an "O"). Does the writer do an effective job of refuting the opposing arguments s/he mentions? What other possible opposing arguments did the writer neglect or ignore?
  7. Do you feel the order of points is effective? Suggest a reorganization that might make the essay stronger (because some point must logically come before another, because opposing arguments should be dealt with earlier, because the last argument is weak, etc.).
  8. Look at the introduction and conclusion. Does the introduction capture your interest and attention? If not, suggest an attention-getting lead-in. Does the paper conclude with a memorable thought or image, rather than strictly rehashing the argument?
  9. Overall, if you were a member of this paper's target audience, would you be convinced? Why or why not? What one element of this essay would you suggest as the most important area for the writer to focus on in revision?

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Modeling How to Use Workshop Criteria

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Although most students will have had experience with peer review in writing classes in high school and freshman composition, students can still benefit from understanding each teacher's expectations of the peer-review session. One of the most effective techniques is to provide a sample student paper (either as a handout or on overhead transparencies) and to elicit class comments on each point on your workshop sheet. Instructors can then elaborate on points students bring up or clarify the writing skills the points on the workshop sheet are designed to help students review.

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Modeling Effective Commenting

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The least helpful comment to receive from a peer reviewer is "It looks OK to me." We want students to find strengths or positive features in a draft, but we need to encourage them to be as specific as possible, about both strengths and weaknesses.

Other points of which you should remind students as you model giving effective commentary in peer review:

View Modeling How to Handle Divergent Advice

Modeling How to Handle Divergent Advice

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Remind students that they are responsible for the final drafts they submit to you, but that they should carefully weigh each comment they receive from a peer reviewer. Comments that suggest radically different revisions of the same part of a paper generally help writers see various ways to revise but may confuse students about what to do. Students need not choose one of the suggested revisions, but they should note that multiple suggestions pointed at the same part of a paper typically highlight a place where some revision is necessary.

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Thinking About Logistics

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The logistics of peer review are generally simple, but they do require some forethought. If you want students to read papers in a round-robin exercise or to exchange papers with one other student, you don't need to require any photocopying. But if you want each student to read three other papers, make sure you remind students to bring three copies of their papers to class on the day of the exchange.

You can let students pick their own peer-review partners or group members, but you might also consider assigning peer reviewers based on your knowledge of students' writing and editing skills.

If you hold in-class peer-review sessions, circulate during the session to make sure students are on track and to intervene as necessary. Also, save a few minutes at the end of the session to discuss common problems facing the class as a whole.

The instructions below are part of a worksheet distributed during a freshman composition peer-review workshop. Note how these instructions address logistics:

Directions: Write your name at the top of a separate sheet of paper. On one side, list "Reader Response," and on the other "Reading for Focus and Development," depending on which reading task you did for Part II.

PART I Responding as a Reader

Read through the writer's draft, noting in the margins any questions that occur to you. Do NOT proofread for grammar, etc. That's not your job. When finished reading, offer a written response detailing what you like about the paper and any suggestions you would offer based on your first read-through.

PART II Reading for Focus or Development

Choose to read either for focus or development. If you are a second reader, read for whichever purpose the first reader did not. Answer the following questions for "focus" or "development" on the opposite side of the paper as your reader response. Use an additional sheet if necessary.

(Click here to view this entire worksheet.)

View Providing Adequate Time

Peer Review Worksheet for Media Analysis Paper

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Directions: Write your name at the top of a separate sheet of paper. On one side, list "Reader Response," and on the other "Reading for Focus and Development," depending on which reading task you did for Part II.

PART I Responding as a Reader

Read through the writer's draft, noting in the margins any questions that occur to you. Do NOT proofread for grammar, etc. That's not your job. When finished reading, offer a written response detailing what you like about the paper and any suggestions you would offer based on your first read-through.

PART II Reading for Focus or Development

Choose to read either for focus or development. If you are a second reader, read for whichever purpose the first reader did not. Answer the following questions for "focus" or "development" on the opposite side of the paper as your reader response. Use an additional sheet if necessary.

Reading for Focus

  1. Find the thesis paragraph/statements and rewrite it on the top of your response sheet.
  2. Do a descriptive outline of the rest of the paper on the left-hand side (i.e., a list of each point made in the paper, remembering that a paragraph may make more than one point).
  3. Which points in your descriptive outline have a connection back to the thesis? Write what that connection seems to be on the right-hand side.
  4. Which points have no relation to the thesis that you can see? Mark these with a "?" in the right-hand column.
  5. Make recommendations about focus to the writer. Are there ways to revise the thesis to include the unrelated points in #5? Are they better off cutting those sections? Are the connections in #4 apparent to the reader, or should they write clearer transitions to make these connections obvious?

Reading for Development

  1. Find the thesis paragraph/statements and recopy on your response sheet.
  2. Break the thesis paragraph/statements down into sub-claims. That is, list each element which will need to be developed or proven in order for this paper to fulfill the "promise" it makes to readers in the introductory sections. Number each sub-claim.
  3. Read through the rest of the paper for where each claim gets developed. Mark the writer's draft in the margins with the number of which claim seems to be addressed where.
  4. Look back through your markings and list all sub-claims in the thesis which do NOT get any development at all. Make suggestions about what needs to be added here and/or how the thesis might be revised so that these issues aren't expected to be addressed.
  5. Look back through the sections marked. Does each receive adequate support/development? Which ones would you suggest adding more support to? Any ideas for that support?
  6. Finally, look at the order of your markings and suggest any re-organization. Does #2 appear, for example, in three different places in the paper? Should these be moved/combined?

View Providing Adequate Time

Providing Adequate Time

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The longer the paper or the more complex the criteria, the longer students will take to complete a thorough peer review. If you assign shorter papers, you can easily devote a part of a class to peer review or ask students to complete the peer review outside of class. But if you assign long, complex papers, consider breaking the peer review into several short sections. For instance, students might complete one peer reading looking just for problems with focus, another for weaknesses in organization and development, and still another on assignment-specific elements such as use of data or graphics. Finally, students might have an additional peer-review session devoted exclusively to mechanics.

Also, think about the big picture of your syllabus. Students need enough time to complete the peer review and revise before the paper is due, so work backwards from your intended due date to schedule the peer workshops.

Visit the following links to view how peer-review instructions might vary according to the time you have allowed for the peer-review process:

Sample Workshop Checklist--for short, in-class workshops
Arguing Essay Peer-Review Sequence—a series of worksheets designed for multiple rounds of review on the same essay

View Building in Incentives for Helpful Comments

Sample Workshop Checklist

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The following checklist is an example of a peer-review sheet you might provide to accompany a short, in-class workshop:

Essay 2 Workshop Checklist

Writer's Name:
Reader's Name:

[ ] Is there a summary that focuses on ideas not events (events may be included as necessary?)
[ ] Is there a clear, focused thesis that establishes a focus for the paper?
[ ] Does the writer establish criteria and is the criteria relevant to the thesis?
[ ] Does the writer "prove" his/her point overall using evidence effectively?
[ ] Does the writer conclude the essay?
[ ] Does the writer meet the overall context of the assignment (recommending or not recommending the essay to a sociology professor based on criteria important to the purposes of the professor)?


View Arguing Essay Worksheet 1

Arguing Essay Worksheet 1

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Writer's Name:
Editor's Name and Phone Number:

The primary purpose of this worksheet is to insure that the writer has developed a convincing argument. Imagine, then, that you are the writer's opponent (and so be sure to identify the target audience). Try your best to spot the weaknesses in the essay you are reading. In effect, you will be helping the writer to make sure that s/he has a convincing argument BEFORE it is submitted in the portfolio.

  1. Read the essay and record your first impressions
  2. (Hard copy of worksheet provides space for responses solicited throughout.)

  3. If there is a thesis or claim, what is it?
  4. Any suggestions for improving the thesis or claim?
  5. What are the writer's main supporting arguments?

  6. a.
  7. What counter-arguments does the writer refute?

  8. a.
  9. What counter-arguments can you think of in addition to those above? (Remember, you are the writer's opponent.)

  10. a.
  11. What can you suggest about reordering or beefing up arguments? Would a mediating/negotiating approach be more successful for the target audience?
  12. Any last advice before the writer goes on to the next draft?

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Arguing Essay Worksheet 2

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Writer's Name:
Editor's Name and Phone Number:

Ask the writer what questions or concerns he or she has about the paper. Read the paper carefully and respond to those points before you complete the rest of this worksheet. The purpose of these questions is to examine the writer's awareness of audience and choice of focus and evidence for that audience.

  1. Note here the audience for the paper you're reviewing. Be as specific as possible. If the writer has not targeted a specific audience, brainstorm together for ways to specify the audience.
  2. What is the focus of this paper and why is that focus appropriate for the target audience? Look both at the focus and purpose as you consider ways to improve the match between writer, reader, and argument.
  3. Is the claim adequately focused—narrow within manageable/defensible limits? Why or why not?
  4. Do you feel the writer needs to add any qualifiers or exceptions to avoid over-generalizing the claim? If yes, explain.
  5. Are the writer's reasons sound in logic, and do they follow logically from the claim? Why or why not?
  6. Can you think of any additional refutations the writer could add?
  7. Where has the writer used effective evidence or detail? Where might the writer include more evidence? (Also, take a moment to jot questions on the paper that would help the writer see where and what detail to add.)
  8. Is the paper interesting to read? Why? (If you see gaps in the information provided, be sure to point out those gaps to the writer.)
  9. Has the writer cited appropriate and unbiased sources of information? Are quotations integrated into the text? Are the citations clear? Do you see any places where the writer needs to cite source but now doesn't? Point those out to the writer.

View Arguing Essay Worksheet 3

Arguing Essay Worksheet 3

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Writer's Name:
Editor's Name and Phone Number:

This workshop sheet will help you attend to stylistic matters as you polish close-to-final drafts. If the writer needs to make major changes in content or organization, do not use this sheet. If you notice stylistic matters that this sheet does not address but that the writer should work on, be sure to discuss those with the writer.

  1. Note here the audience for the paper you're reviewing.
  2. Now read the paper completely before you answer the remaining questions.
  3. What suggestions can you make for a stronger opening for the paper? Be sure to discuss a range of possibilities for the target audience or publication.
  4. Does the conclusion of the paper provide closure for the reader? Are you left dangling? Or are you offended by reading a summary of a short paper that you can clearly remember? Suggest improvements.
  5. Has the writer used headings to indicate major chunks of the paper? Would headings improve the reader's ease in following the logic or flow of the paper? Suggest specific changes.
  6. Does the writer use adequate transitions between and within paragraphs? If not, suggest specific revisions.
  7. Has the writer integrated appropriate visuals? If not, suggest places where the text would be supplemented or complemented by a graphic.
  8. Has the writer relied too often on short or simple sentences? Do you, as a reader, perceive adequate sentence variety? If not, choose a paragraph that seems particularly repetitive and work on sentence combining for greater variety in sentence length and structure.
  9. As you read through the paper, did any words, phrases, or sentences "sound" funny to you? We often "hear" mistakes that we cannot necessarily label. Circle any words that don't sound right. If you cannot suggest a way to fix the problem, be sure to ask me.
  10. Has the writer used precise language throughout the paper? In other words, has the writer chosen exactly the right word to convey his or her meaning? Choose any one paragraph and work on substituting more precise language appropriate for the audience.
  11. Has the writer used more words to convey an idea than he or she needs? Pick out any paragraph and work with the writer to remove deadwood. Then be sure to point out where else the writer might prune the text.

View Building in Incentives for Helpful Comments

Building in Incentives for Helpful Comments

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If students don't see the value of peer review, they are unlikely to spend much time reviewing others' papers or to take peer advice seriously. The most effective way to encourage students to take peer review seriously, both as the reviewer and as the writer, is to include effective peer review as part of the overall grade for the paper. As an instructor, skimming peer review comments will take just a few minutes (even for multiple reviews of complex papers), and you'll quickly see which students provided the most helpful commentary. Alternatively, you can ask students to rank their peer reviewers and base the peer review part of grade on peer ratings.

If you're uncomfortable weighing the quality of peer reviewing in the paper grade, consider dividing the course grade to include a separate class participation or peer-reviewing grade.

View Handout for Effective Peer Review

Handout for Effective Peer Review

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Consider distributing or adapting the following handout to share with students to encourage effective peer-review strategies:

All writers, even professional writers, need others to read and comment on their writing. As writers, we're often too close to our work to spot problems a helpful reader can point out. In order to benefit from the insight of such a reader, follow these strategies:

  1. Come to the workshop with your best possible draft.
  2. Alert your reader to any concerns you have before they begin to read.
  3. Ask questions and take notes as you're discussing your writing.
  4. Try not to get defensive. Be grateful for your reader's time and attention.
  5. At the same time, don't feel obligated to take all of your reader's advice. Remember that readers' opinions may differ and that you're ultimately responsible for your paper.

Remember that your role as a writer is only part of your workshop contribution. The above strategies are most effective when your paper is reviewed by a helpful reader. You have an opportunity to be that kind of reader for others by observing the following guidelines as you review their writing:

  1. Ask the writer what you can be looking for as you read their essay.
  2. Read the writer's essay carefully.
  3. Respond as a reader, pointing out where things don't make sense, read smoothly, etc.
  4. Be positive. Point out strengths as well as weaknesses, and be sensitive in how you phrase your criticism ("Could you clarify this section?" rather than "Your organization is a mess.")
  5. Be honest. Don't say something works when it doesn't. You're not helping the writer if you avoid mentioning a problem.
  6. Be specific. Rather than simply saying a paragraph is "confusing," for example, try to point to a specific phrase that confuses you and, if possible, explain why that phrase is problematic.
  7. Focus on one or two major areas for revision.

View Teaching Writing in First-Year Seminars

How do I respond to student writing?

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The prospect of responding to student writing might overwhelm us as instructors because we feel obligated to correct every conceivable error in every paper. This approach overwhelms our students as well and often denies us an opportunity to continue teaching writing through the evaluation process. The following links will help you make the most of the time you spend commenting on student writing, benefiting you by increasing your efficiency and benefiting your students by directing them toward areas in which they can experience the greatest growth as writers.

Emphasizing the Drafting Process

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Students and instructors alike tend to view a piece of writing as the final version, particularly if it will receive a grade. When commenting on an early draft it might be natural to emphasize changes that will produce more effective future drafts. But even when evaluating a so-called final draft, we can direct our comments toward future writing situations. Explain how the writing strategies that would have improved a particular paper will apply to other assignments and non-academic projects. It might also be beneficial to allow students to revise one or more papers for a potentially higher grade. While we don't want to stress the grade over the process, the prospect of a higher grade might be an incentive to engage in revision when students might otherwise abandon a piece of writing as soon as it's been evaluated.

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Becoming a Coach

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Many students are intimidated by having their writing evaluated because they've so often encountered evaluators who assume the role of a judge. Students will be encouraged to take risks in their writing, such as breaking free from the five-paragraph model and trying new approaches, if they come to trust their writing instructor as a coach. A coach recognizes that there are more and less effective ways to accomplish a task, but instead of simply docking a student who chooses a less effective approach, a coach will guide that student toward a better alternative.

At the other end of the spectrum is the writing instructor who functions like an indulgent parent. While a parent might applaud from the stands, providing encouragement without direction, a good coach challenges students to improve on their strengths and to grow beyond their weaknesses.

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Focusing Instructor Comments

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With the previously discussed perspectives in mind, visit the following links for practical suggestions on using comments as teaching opportunities.

Using Two Types of Comments

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In general, there are two main comment types that we can use in combination to direct our students toward more effective writing. The links below provide discussion of each comment type.

Marginal Comments

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As the label implies, marginal comments are those that are written in the margins and between the lines throughout the paper. Their primary purpose is to point out specific examples of effective and ineffective writing decisions emphasized in general by our overall evaluation. For this reason, it's a good idea to insert marginal comments after we've composed the end comments described in the following sections. Rather than marking up a paper on the first read, we can better formulate focused comments by reading it at least once with our pens laid aside.

Marginal comments might also mark errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. When this becomes their primary use, however, students will be confused about where to direct their energy toward growth as writers. For further discussion of addressing mechanical issues, see the section on avoiding the editor role.

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End Comments

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End comments are written in paragraph form and are used to direct students toward effective writing by highlighting one or two major areas on which they should focus their attention in future writing situations. The following components are suggested for end comments that will both encourage and direct students:

Descriptive Statement

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A descriptive statement is a non-evaluative observation that reinforces students' awareness of what they've done in a particular piece of writing. Young writers seldom look back over a piece of writing with a clear sense of what they've produced. Opening with a descriptive statement like "You've written a detailed summary of Steele's essay" reacquaints students with the writing they've accomplished and prepares them for an evaluation of that writing.

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Positive Statement

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Our evaluation of students' writing is best received when we call attention to strengths as well as weaknesses. A simple way to incorporate both praise and criticism is through the sandwich approach, in which criticism—the meat of our evaluation—is served between two positive statements.

The opening positive statement is a comment on the paper's greatest strength. Even the most floundering paper will exhibit at least one strong point on which we can comment. For example, we might open by noting that the writer demonstrates a clear understanding of course content, is passionate about his or her subject, or has a good sense of audience. We might applaud an area of improvement from previous writing. We, like our students, are so accustomed to targeting weaknesses in academic work that we tend to overlook the strengths. Helping students identify their strengths not only builds their confidence as writers, but it gives them valuable information for continued growth. Knowing their strengths motivates students to apply those strengths to other writing assignments and often suggests an approach for addressing weaknesses.

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Suggestions for Improvement

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The bulk of our end comments, the constructive criticism portion helps students identify areas in which they can improve their writing. Remember that while we're assessing a particular piece of writing, our main goal is to create better writers. Our suggestions should contribute to students' improvement as writers and not primarily focus on ways to improve a particular piece of writing.

Criticism should direct writers toward one or two areas on which to work. Generally, we'll want to accomplish this in one or two paragraphs, depending on the length of the paper. A concise discussion gives students a sharper sense of areas for concern.

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Closing Comment

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In closing, offer students a comment on the strengths demonstrated in this particular piece of writing that will prepare them for future writing situations. For example, "Your ability to articulate a claim will serve you well as you continue to work on developing an argument in future writing situations." This allows you to continue encouraging growth in areas identified in previous comment sections while building students' confidence in their readiness to work toward such growth.

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Avoiding the Editor Role

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One way to send the message that we're more concerned with improving papers than writers is to become editors as we evaluate our students' work. Many of us remember receiving graded assignments that were completely covered in red ink. These marks were as often corrections as they were constructive comments, and they might have left us with little sense of how to grow as writers. We do want our students to have a command of mechanics, but we need to ask if this is should be the primary concern for each writer. A student who struggles to focus on a main topic, wandering from one idea to another without any apparent logic, should be encouraged to address broader issues before attending to word and sentence level concerns.

So how do we deal with mechanics? First, keep in mind that they're more appropriately addressed in the later drafts of a paper. If a student ends up omitting an entire paragraph in the restructuring of a paper, we've wasted much of the energy we spent editing that paragraph. Furthermore, mechanical errors generally decrease as students grasp the larger issues of academic writing. Finally, when we do comment on mechanics, it should be with the same goal that informs any other comment: to build stronger writers. Rather than simply correcting errors, we can look for the underlying problem these errors demonstrate. For example, if a student repeatedly shifts between past and present tense, we might indicate in the margin that there is inconsistency in tense throughout the paper. Emphasizing that such errors compromise a writer's effectiveness with almost any audience, we can assign reading from a grammar text (or provide photocopied pages) and require that the student correct the problem before receiving a grade. This will allow us to focus on larger issues in comments corresponding to the final grade.

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Focusing on Goals

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Our students are best served in the long run when we move from global to local in our evaluation of their writing. This means that the majority of our commenting time and energy is best spent addressing not mechanics, but larger goals for students' growth as writers. To identify the major writing skills to emphasize in our comments, it helps to read each paper at least twice. After the first read, we are less distracted by isolated errors and can better identify both a student's intent and the issues that are most significantly compromising that intent.

Consider some of the most common global issues student writers need to address. While this list is by no means comprehensive, the examples included illustrate an appropriate scope for our comments:

View Recognizing Stages in the Writing Process

Recognizing Stages in the Writing Process

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Our expectations and resulting comments should be informed by the stage of writing we're evaluating. If we're reading an early draft, we probably won't expect polished prose and generally won't comment at all on mechanical issues. Instead, our comments will emphasize one or two goals that will contribute to the student's growth as a writer while enhancing this paper in particular. In contrast, our comments on a final draft will use observations of the current work to direct the student toward future writing tasks. We will also have higher expectations regarding format and other conventions than we have of an early draft. We can address these in terms of how successfully the writer has assessed and addressed audience expectations, a concern that is present in any writing situation.

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Acknowledging Revisions

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Effective writing is a process of revision, yet as writers many of us are reluctant to engage in the revision process. In order to encourage students to revise their writing, it's important first of all to collect preliminary as well as final drafts of major assignments. Beyond simply collecting drafts, however, we should acknowledge the improvement we see from one draft to the next. After commenting on a particular area in a draft, we should always follow up on that area in later versions of the assignment. It's also appropriate to note areas not previously addressed in which the paper has improved since an earlier draft. This requires that we keep notes as we comment on drafts and/or ask students to turn in early drafts and attached comments along with the final version of their papers. The encouragement we can offer students more than makes up for the organization this demands on our part. Acknowledging revisions highlights improvement, reminding both students and instructors that even if problems still exist, the evidence of growth indicates a success.

View Starting and Staying Positive

Starting and Staying Positive

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In the role of coach, not judge, we have tremendous potential to encourage students to invest themselves in the writing process in our classes and beyond. Students' investment depends largely upon our approach. If we are condemning, students will have little desire to pursue growth as writers. If, on the other hand, we are positive—emphasizing what can be improved rather than where students have failed in completed drafts—our students will more likely be motivated toward the attainable goals we've helped them identify. Remember that most students have at some point been labeled as either good or bad writers, and they likely have accepted that label as a lifetime sentence. Our encouragement can help students understand writing as a process in which they are equipped to engage. No matter how skilled they are when they enter our classrooms, we can help them identify and build skills that will support their growth as writers.

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Determining Grades

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Even when we manage to focus our marginal and end comments on overall goals promoting students' growth as writers, our students' most immediate concern will often be their grades. We might become hung up on this letter or number as well, as we attempt to translate our carefully constructed comments into a grade.

It will help us to start with an idea of what an A paper, a B paper, a C paper, and so on will look like. We might create our own evaluation sheets or rubrics, or use one of those available in the sample materials section. However, we should observe a caveat in using these resources: Evaluation sheets and rubrics are not meant to replace marginal and end comments, and they are not foolproof. They should be general enough to accommodate all the variations we might encounter in students' writing.

However we choose to determine grades, it's important to communicate with students how their writing will be evaluated. Whether or not we are using a criteria sheet, students should know the general criteria upon which we will base our evaluations. On the other hand, it might be best to avoid distributing detailed rubrics as these can involve students in a numbers game when we want them to concentrate on writing. If we choose to use a rubric, we might decide to keep the numbers to ourselves and simply to inform students of the major writing skills we intend to evaluate.

The skills we evaluate should correspond to the goals communicated in the original assignment description. If the goal of an assignment is to practice writing a convincing argument, our evaluation will assess students' claims, their development of those claims, and the quality of the evidence they've used as support. Likewise, classroom instruction surrounding the assignment will emphasize these skills and provide additional opportunities to practice them.

Note: Letter grades are generally preferable to number grades in evaluating writing assignments, as it is difficult and often inappropriate to quantify writing skills. Because an A, a B, a C, and so on will represent a range of proficiency levels, we will have greater incentive as instructors to articulate in our comments our specific concerns for each writer.

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Working with the Writing Center

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Writing Center consultants are available not only to assist your students with their individual writing concerns, but they also work one-on-one with instructors to help them integrate writing instruction into their classrooms. One of their services to instructors is assistance in focusing evaluative comments. While the Writing Center offers general strategies such as those presented in this tutorial and in seminars and workshops, we recognize that general remarks might not prepare instructors for every question they will encounter as they comment on student papers. Particularly when applying these general concepts to early batches of papers, it can be helpful for instructors to work with someone as they walk through the process. To schedule an individual Writing Center consultation for this or another purpose, please e-mail Associate Professor of English and Writing Center Director Sarah Sloane at or call the Writing Center at (970) 491-0222.

View Sample Materials

Sample Materials

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The following materials are provided to illustrate the evaluation processes described in this guide. Instructors who choose to use criteria sheets or rubrics are strongly encouraged to develop versions tailored to their own course content and goals.

Sample Marginal Comments

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The following marginal comments might be written on a student's paper after composition of the end comments listed in the next section:

Student's Observation:
"Assignments in the well-funded school were more challenging than assignments in the poorly funded school I attended my final two years in elementary school."
Instructor's Marginal Comment:
"Here is a spot where a concrete example would strengthen your overall claim." (Corresponding section in student's paper is underlined or circled.)

Student's Observation:
"To further illustrate the accuracy of Anyon's observations, consider two actual instructors currently teaching in public schools. We'll call them Instructor A and Instructor B."
Instructor's Marginal Comment:
"Here, it might be better to identify these instructors as your parents, as you did in earlier drafts. This is appropriate given your audience and would further distinguish your summary from your agreement with the author, supported by personal observations."

Student Observation:
"For example, Instructor A reported that teachers at the well-funded school were given days off to attend professional development seminars. Instructor B was the only instructor from the poorly funded school to attend any outside seminar, and he had to use one of his two yearly personal days to do so."
Instructor's Marginal Comment:
"Here is a good example of successfully using concrete evidence."

View Sample End Comments

Sample End Comments

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The following sample end comments correspond to the marginal comments listed in the previous section:

You've done an excellent job combining all of what we've discussed in Unit 1 into a strong ARE. Your revisions, in particular, demonstrate your awareness of academic writing conventions and ability to apply them to your own writing. The final draft of your ARE is well-structured and clearly connected to Anyon's text. Focusing your essay on Anyon's progression from observations to ideas, you state clear responses to those ideas and support your responses with relevant evidence.

In regard to that evidence, keep one suggestion in mind as you continue to write for academic contexts. Wherever possible, provide specific details and examples, leaving your reader with an image that supports your claims. This specificity would strengthen your second paragraph in particular. Your background as a student in two different schools is clearly relevant and gives you authority to comment on class-based differences in teaching styles. Rather than general statements about these differences, however, consider how a specific illustration or two would lend stronger support to your claim. You might, for example, recall a specific assignment in one school compared to a same-subject assignment in the other school.

You provide more concrete evidence in your third and fourth paragraphs by identifying experienced educators as sources. Your parents' comments work well in supporting your response to Anyon's essay. Considering your writing situation (your fellow student audience) you might want to identify them as your parents, as you did in your first draft. Doing so would help you more clearly define your unique position regarding the subject of Anyon's essay. You might explain to your audience that as a student of public schools and the son of two parents involved in public school education, you have strong reasons to agree with Anyon's ideas and implications.

Again, your efforts in revision and throughout this unit have culminated in a superb ARE. Consider the suggestions above as you approach future writing assignments, and keep up the good work.

View Sample Criteria Sheet

Sample Criteria Sheet

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An A paper

Consistently, clearly and effectively communicates its purpose to its audience in all areas of writing: consistently clear focus, sufficient development, and coherent in terms of organization and style. The ideas are also well thought out and have significance within the rhetorical context.

A B paper

Is strong in most areas but intermittently deficient in one area or contains minor problems in more than one area. For instance, the essay may be strong in all areas but have some problems with audience, portions may lose focus or be underdeveloped, or there may be some distracting inconsistencies or errors in style (coherence).

A C paper

Generally accomplishes the main job of the assignment--so it maintains its purpose. But it's either intermittently deficient in two categories or consistently deficient in one. For instance, there may be intermittent problems with both audience and development, or the whole essay may be consistently underdeveloped.

A D paper

Is consistently deficient in two areas--for example, consistently unfocused and underdeveloped--to the degree that the deficiencies undermine the purpose of the essay. An unfocused and underdeveloped essay, for instance, would not be able to convey its message to a reader in any significant way. The essay could also have enough serious problems in a combination of areas that the purpose is undermined. It could also miss a major portion of the assignment--like an essay which has no connection to the assigned topic.

An F paper

Is an essay that either was not turned in or is severely deficient in almost all areas. Or it could be an essay that completely fails to address the assignment.

View Sample Rubric

Sample Rubric

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Evaluation of Written Report



Possible Points








relevant & important topic



objectives defined & possible



scope suitably restricted









amount of information



accuracy of information



value of information



analysis of data adequate



interpretation logical






Organization & Expression:









arrangement of information






Format (Specified Style):



citations and references in



correct style



tables and legends



figures and legends












Grammar & Usage:












word usage












adherence to schedule



initiative & originality



other comments




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