Why Should You Use Writing Assignments in Your Teaching?

Brad Hughes, Director, Writing Across the Curriculum, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Why should you use writing assignments in your teaching? That’s an important question. Even though this is a Writing Across the Curriculum website, designed to encourage faculty to incorporate writing into their teaching, let’s be honest—there are many reasons why you might not want to assign writing in your courses. And many of those reasons have to do with limits on your time. Designing writing assignments and responding to student writing take valuable time—lots of time if you do them carefully. The larger the enrollment is in your classes, the more time responding to student papers takes. You have lots of important course content to cover, so you have limited time for building in a sequence of writing assignments and some instruction around those assignments. . . .

You also need to remember that writing assignments  take substantial time for your students to do well. And not all of your students are well prepared to succeed with the writing you assign. This list could go on; the challenges can be formidable.

Yet countless faculty—in every discipline across the university—make writing an integral part of their teaching and reap benefits from doing so. Why? Here are some of the many reasons writing is an especially effective means for students to learn.

  • Writing deepens thinking and increases students’ engagement with course material.
  • Well-designed writing assignments prompt students to think more deeply about what they’re learning. Writing a book review, for example, forces students to read more thoroughly and critically. As an old saying goes, “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say or see what I’ve written?”
  • In fact, research done by Richard Light at Harvard confirms that “students relate writing to intensity of courses. The relationship between the amount of writing for a course and students’ level of engagement—whether engagement is measured by time spent on the course, or the intellectual challenge it presents, or students’ self-reported level of interest in it—is stronger than any relationship we found between student engagement and any other course characteristic” (The Harvard Assessment Seminars, Second Report, 1992, 25).
  • Research done by the Association of American Colleges and Universities demonstrates that writing-intensive courses are a high-impact practice in undergraduate education (George D. Kuh, High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter, 2008).
  • Research done by Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, and Neal Lerner (The Meaningful Writing Project, 2017) demonstrates that certain writing projects can be especially meaningful parts of undergraduate education.
  • Writing can improve our relationship with our students. When students write papers, we get to know them and their thinking better; they’re more likely to talk with us after class, or come to our office hours to share a draft or seek advice.
  • Writing gives us a window into our students’ thinking and learning. Through our students’ writing, we can take pleasure in discovering that students see things in course readings or discussion we didn’t see; students make connections we ourselves hadn’t made. And through our students’ writing, we also discover what confuses our students. Admittedly, we’re not always eager to discover the gaps in our students’ knowledge or understanding, but it’s our job to expand that knowledge and improve students’ thinking.
  • Writing assignments can improve our classroom discussions. By helping students keep up with readings, regular writing assignments can prepare students to participate in discussion.
  • Writing assignments provide us with an opportunity to teach students to organize ideas, develop points logically, make explicit connections, elaborate ideas, argue points, and situate an argument in the context of previous research-all skills valued in higher education.
  • Students remember what they write about-because writing slows thinking down and requires careful, sustained analysis of a subject. No matter how many years it’s been, most of us can remember some paper we wrote as undergraduates, the writing of which deepened our knowledge of a particular subject.
  • Students and professors remember what they’ve written, in part, because writing individualizes learning. When a student becomes really engaged with a writing assignment, she has to make countless choices particular to her paper: how to focus the topic, what to read, what to make the central argument, how to organize ideas, how to marshal evidence, which general points to make, how to develop and support general ideas with particulars, how to introduce the topic, what to include and what to omit, which style and tone to adopt. . . .
  • Finally, though it’s much more than this, writing is a skill—a skill that atrophies when it isn’t practiced regularly. Because learning to write well is difficult and because it requires sustained and repeated practice, we need to ensure our undergraduates write regularly, throughout the curriculum, in all majors. It’s the responsibility of all of us to ensure that students learn to think and write clearly and deeply.