Sequencing Assignments Over the Course of a Semester

Rebecca Schoenike Nowacek
Brad Hughes
Writing Across the Curriculum

When sequencing or deciding on the order of your assignments for the semester, you may want to ask yourself two questions. First, what do you want your students to learn and be able to do by the end of the semester (that is, what are your goals)? Second, what do you anticipate your students will find difficult in achieving those goals? With answers to those questions in mind, you can then order your assignments to help your students build the skills and acquire the knowledge to meet your goals.

What follows are four of the most common sequences. Although each approach has its benefits and no one sequence is superior, assignment sequences are most effective when you explain your sequence and the purpose of your sequence to your students. Common sense tells us that students will be better able (and perhaps even more willing) to meet our expectations if they understand not only the requirements for individual papers but the purposes of those assignments as well. One way to share with students the “big picture” of your assignment sequence is to talk with them when you distribute a new paper assignment about how the new paper relates to the last paper. For example, you might recap the skills or concepts or knowledge that students focused on in their last paper and explain how those skills might be used or those ideas might be complicated in the next paper. You might also explain how working on this paper will help students meet your overall goals for them in the course. You can also make such connections explicit on the assignment sheet itself. In this way, your sequence of papers becomes not just one assignment after another, but is part of the process of learning to think and write in ways valued in your discipline.

  1. The Iterative Pattern: Repeating the Same Assignment, Varying it by Topic

    In this approach, students repeat the same type of assignment, varied by subject matter. For example, Professor Charles Cohen in the History Department sequences his “minor assignments” this way and asks students to write six 50-word analyses of various course readings. Similarly, a literature professor might have students compose several two-page “close readings” throughout the semester, each about a different literary text. Or a science or a social-science professor might have students write several experimental research reports. This approach to sequencing assumes that students will benefit from multiple opportunities to master a particular genre or skill, and that over time, that genre—the kind of writing assignment—becomes familiar, even transparent, to students. It also assumes that the genre is central to your discipline, and that therefore the genre offers one of the best ways for students to learn the content of the course.

  2. The Scaffolded Sequence: Moving from Simpler to More Complex Assignments

    In this approach, students begin with simpler, more fundamental genres or ways of thinking, then move to more difficult assignments. Over the course of a semester, you might, for example, build up to a six-page critical review of several sources by having students complete the following series of assignments: a one-page summary of one source; a two-page summary and critique of a single source; a four-page review of two sources (with revision); a six-page review of four sources (with revision). Or in a history or literature course, you might first ask students to write a close reading of a source, then later have them write a longer paper that includes close readings in support of a larger argument. This approach to sequencing assumes that students will be better equipped to write longer papers or undertake cognitively challenging tasks if they first have the opportunity to build their skills and their confidence.

  3. Divide and Conquer: Breaking a Complex Assignment into Smaller Parts

    In this approach, you choose to make a challenging, complex assignment one of the central activities of your course. You then break that complex assignment into a series of smaller assignments that all contribute to that final project. For example, Susan Munkres breaks down the research paper in an introductory sociology course into the following stages: Topic Area Statement; Library Assignment; Paper Prospectus; First Version of Paper for Peer Review; Peer Review Comments; Second Version of Paper; Peer Review Comments; Conferences; Paper Outlines; Final Version of Paper. This approach to sequencing assumes students’ writing and learning will improve if students have time to concentrate on and master various stages in the process of writing the paper. Students in Psychology 225, Experimental Psychology, follow a similar sequence as they learn to design and report original experimental research.

  4. The Grand Tour

    With this approach, you vary the genre with each new assignment. So in a public policy or urban planning course, for example, you might assign a book review, then a letter to the editor, and finally a policy analysis. Having a variety of assignments may make them more interesting to students and may make for more interesting reading for you. And different assignments may tap into students’ different strengths and interests. Remember, though, to ask yourself how familiar your students are with each genre and find ways to help them learn how to succeed with each.