Professors often wonder, when creating writing assignments, how detailed the assignments should be. Some professors don't use prompts, requiring students to come up with the topics and questions themselves. Others create detailed writing assignments, arguing that this allows students to save energy for writing their papers (as opposed to generating topics and questions). Still others craft writing prompts that offer students ideas for writing but that leave plenty of room for students to come up with ideas of their own. We'll consider the options of prompting and not prompting here.
The Open Writing Assignment
Professors who don't use writing prompts believe that an important part of scholarship is learning to raise questions that will yield a good academic argument. Instead of creating a writing prompt, these professors craft an assignment process that supports students as they work through the various challenges of scholarly inquiry. In a sense, these professors are asking students to craft their own prompts, and to write the paper that will answer the questions that they outline there. The obvious pedagogical advantage of the open assignment is that it allows students to learn to develop topics on their own. In the open assignment, students are not only permitted to pursue intellectual questions that are of interest to them, they also gain some experience in framing a topic that is neither too narrow nor too broad.
If you elect not to use prompts, you should intend to devote class and conference time to assisting students in this process. For instance, you might ask students to come up with three good academic questions about the course's reading materials. Students can post these questions on the Canvas discussion board. You can then workshop these questions, using class time to talk about which questions will (or won't) yield a good academic argument, and why. You should also comment thoroughly on the questions submitted, raising further questions for the student to consider. You might also invite students to comment on one another's questions on the Canvas site. Students can then revise their questions and resubmit them for another round of feedback before they write.
Some professors find it useful to offer students models of good academic questions. Other professors give explicit instruction regarding what the paper shouldn't do and leave it to the students to determine what they want to do within these parameters. All professors ask students to submit their prompts in advance of drafting so that they can determine, before the students proceed too far, whether or not these topics are appropriate and promising.
Whatever you decide, do note that a prompt-less writing assignment needs a good infrastructure in order to succeed. Indeed, Karen Gocsik's research assignment for Writing 2-3 has twelve steps, indicating the many moments of support and feedback that first-year students require as they work through the process of writing a research paper Your assignment need not have twelve steps to be effective; it may have four steps, for instance, or five. Craft your assignment steps according to the aims of your assignment.
Crafting a Good Prompt
Writing a good prompt for a writing assignment is a difficult task. Too often, professors write prompts for writing assignments knowing exactly what sorts of essays they want their students to produce, only to get papers that miss the mark. How can you produce writing assignments that clearly convey the tasks and questions you want your students to undertake?
Before writing your prompts, you will want to consider a few matters.
- Consider what you want the assignment to require the students to do, in relation to the course outcomes. What outcomes are most important at this point in your course? How can the assignment move students closer to achieving these outcomes?
- Consider what you want the assignment to do, in terms of the larger questions of your course. What questions, in particular, do you want your students to consider? Are these questions related closely or peripherally to topics you've been discussing in class?
- Consider what kinds of thinking you want students to do. Do you want your students to define, illustrate, compare, analyze, or evaluate? You will want to come up with prompts that clearly direct students as to the kind of thinking they will have to do.
- Consider your students' writing processes. Are you focusing on teaching students to place their arguments within a larger conversation or context? If so, your prompt should address the importance of context and suggest things that you want students to consider as they write. Are you hoping to get your students to understand the mechanics of the paragraph? Your prompt might ask students to write paragraphs that summarize, then analyze, then synthesize, so that they can see how different tasks require different paragraph development.
- If the paper involves research, consider outlining your research requirements in a way that educates students about the research process. You may want to require students to use a variety of sources, or to use certain sources that you've either put on reserve or listed in the course syllabus. Understand that students may need help with finding sources, evaluating them, and incorporating them successfully into their arguments. Craft your prompt accordingly.
Once you've determined the outcomes for your writing assignment, you're ready to craft the prompt. Here are some things to consider:
- Break the assignment down into specific tasks. If, for example, you want students to compare the effectiveness of two political movements, you might first ask students to define the goals of each movement; then to consider the history of each movement; then to discuss how the history of the movement affected the creation of its goals; and finally, to consider how history influenced the movement's ultimate success (or failure).
- Break the assignment down into specific questions. For example, if you want students to discuss the formal elements of a particular painting, you might, as Art Historian Joy Kenseth does, ask the students: What is the focus of the painting? How does the artist treat such things as light and shadow, line, space, and composition? How does this treatment communicate the painting's ideas? If you don't want students to answer all of the questions you put to them, but want them simply to consider these questions before writing their responses, make that clear.
- Provide context. A writing prompt that asks students to discuss whether or not the films of Leni Riefenstahl are propagandistic does not point students to the interesting controversy surrounding Riefenstahl's work. Nor does it indicate whether they should limit themselves to discussing the formal elements of Riefenstahl's films, or whether they should include biographical detail. The more contextual information you give your students, the more precise their responses will be.
- Craft each sentence carefully. You will want to be sure that there is no room for misunderstanding the assignment. If you ask students to analyze how a myth informed paintings and sculptors during the first century of the Renaissance, do you want students to examine the works themselves or the artists that produced them? Sometimes a slip in word choice or the careless placement of a modifier can leave students confused as to what, precisely, you are asking them to do.
- Be clear about what you don't want. If you don't want students to discuss Virginia Woolf's personal experiences as they relate to A Room of One's Own, then be sure to instruct them not to include biographical references. In addition, explaining why such information should be excluded will help students to understand better the questions and the desired response.
- Be clear about the paper requirements. Have you indicated the paper's due date? How many pages you require? How many sources you require? What special criteria (if any) you will use when grading this paper? If your requirements are rigid, say so. If you're flexible, let the students know. This may be the aspect of the prompt that students are most anxious about, so offer as much detail as you think is necessary.
- Try to write (or at least to outline) the assignment yourself. If you have trouble outlining a paper based on this prompt, your students will, too. You will want to think about ways of revising the assignment to make it clearer and more manageable.
- Discuss the assignment with the class. When you distribute the assignment to the class, take time to go over it. Ask for their questions. Make notes as to where their understanding of the assignment differs from yours so that you can improve the prompt the next time you use it.
What is it?
Remediation is the re-presentation of material in one medium through another. In the context of the classroom, remediation assignments ask students to take a text in one form (either their own or by someone else) and transform it into another medium, preserving the essential features of the original while adapting it to the affordances and audience of the new form.
What have people said about it?
Remediation is often cited as one of the defining characteristics of new digital media (Bolter and Grusin). For this reason, many scholars in composition and rhetoric advocate teaching remediation as part of equipping students for success both in and beyond the university. Lillian Spina-Caza and Paul Booth posit that teaching students to write through both text and visual media “extends the [writing]process into one that involves multi-modal thinking, and therefore has greater elevance to students’ own lives” (“Video Unbound”). By requiring them first to organize their thoughts in words and then convey them in another, often hybrid form (such as graphic novels or videos), remediation encourages students to reflect on the process of both creating and conveying analytical ideas (Henry Jenkins). Jason Palmeri echoes this argument that remediation can enhance students’ rhetorical skills in the alphabetic realm as well; “once students have gained the experience of using composing as a method of reinvention,” he says in Remixing Composition, “they may be more willing to approach an alphabetic project as flexible, adaptive process of discovery” (133).
What kinds of things can I do with it?
Remediation assignments can be used alongside more traditional written assignments, pairing newer visual or digital composition techniques with textual writing practices. This helps a course such as FYC or other courses with university-mandated page requirements to balance a multimodal composing element with its textual responsibilities. Remediation can even be incorporated as part of the revision process, scaffolded in ways that present the task of converting a paper into a new form as a chance to reflect on the choices they made; a final draft of both the original assignment and the remediation can then be turned in together. [For example, students might be asked to storyboard a narrative essay using basic freehand drawings or a program like [storyboarding program or CL]; after experimenting with presenting the events and message of their writing through visuals, they could then apply those insights to revising the original text.] By asking students to view their writing from a different perspective, such remediation helps reveal qualities of the original written text that might otherwise be difficult to notice or articulate.
Students can also use apply the remediation process to existing texts – readings from the course, texts from popular culture, or other artifacts they encounter outside of class. As with asking students to remediate their own work, this engages them in active reflection on the choices made by the original writer in presenting their ideas, and requires them to decide which of those choices still apply in the new medium and which should be tweaked or altered to suit the new context.
Why might I want to use it in my classroom?
Remediation assignments are a great way to encourage students to think more actively about the rhetorical choices they make in communicating their ideas. Since they require students to translate ideas from one form to another, they are a great platform for discussing questions of audience, purpose and delivery. They can also serve as a starting point for conversations about the progression of communication in the digital age, as they can be used to connect more traditional forms of writing, such as the essay, with emerging and quickly growing ones such as short form video and podcasts.
Since remediation assignments are based on a starting text, grading them can be less daunting, as the rubric can be based around a specific purpose – how well the project translates the original. This can help alleviate concerns (both for students and instructors) about evaluating aesthetic ability, and can help provide a means of balancing intention and execution when assigning grades. And personally, I’ve found remediation assignments to be a great match for first-year composition courses, as they help me balance my desire to expose students to different and more contemporary forms of composing while also feeling I have enough time left to equip them for the more traditional college writing they’ll inevitably face in other courses. Since remediation pairs so well with a traditional assignment, it can be used in a unit that also covers written skills, as well as be used to heighten students’ awareness of rhetorical choices in all forms of media.
Remediation for FYC – Lori Beth De Hertogh
To help give a sense of how remediation assignments can be adapted to specific classes, instructors, and needs, Lori Beth De Hertogh generously agreed to share her experiences working with remediation in a first-year composition class recently. Lori is a PhD student at Washington State University, in the Composition and Rhetoric Program. You can find a copy of the assignment materials she used here.
Can you tell us a little about the class in which you used this assignment? What was the atmosphere like?
I designed this project for a first-year writing course at Washington State University. The purpose of the course is to introduce students to writing processes appropriate for college-level reading and writing by identifying rhetorical contexts, conducting research, and reading academic texts. The course is also designed to equip students with transferable writing and reading skills which span a range of academic and professional contexts. In addition, students practice digital and multimodal writing by creating blogs, tweets, and research-based remediation projects.
I would describe the class as “typical” for a first-year writing course at a four-year, public institution. Students are sometimes reluctant to take the class as they see it as “just another required general education course,” but about halfway through the semester I see that reluctance transform into engagement and enjoyment. This is in large part because students begin to realize that a course like first-year writing is essential to helping them become proficient academic and professional communicators.
Tell us a bit about yourself as an instructor. How would you describe your experience/comfort teaching with digital/technology-based materials?
The first time I taught a digital assignment (which was a collaborative project that asked students to use a platform called WordPress to build websites) was in 2009. I wasn’t as tech-savvy then as I am now, and I was fairly convinced I would muck everything up. But the assignment went well, and both the students and I learned a lot from the experience. Because my first experience was so positive, I continued to assign digital and multimodal projects, and I now feel at ease assigning and assessing this type of work.
Another major influence on my comfort level with and commitment to teaching multimodal projects is my belief that students should develop digital literacies and that composition classrooms are appropriate places for that to happen. As research in computers and writing by such scholars as Kathleen Yancey, Danielle DeVoss, Troy Hicks, and Kristin Arola (among others) tells us, students need to develop digital literacies in order to thrive as citizens in our tech-driven society. By teaching digital and multimodal projects, I can play a role in ensuring that students have the rhetorical and technological skills and tools they need to succeed.
How did you develop and apply this assignment in your class? What were your specific objectives, and how did you customize it to fit your students and yourself as instructor?
I developed this project by talking with colleagues who teach similar assignments in their first-year writing classes. I asked them questions like “Why did you assign a remediation project?” “How did the assignment go?” “What would you do differently if you taught it again?” The process of thinking through their responses and reflecting on my own teaching experiences helped me develop the project.
In addition, I looked to Jody Shipka’s book Toward a Composition Made Whole for guidance. Shipka offers a compelling argument for why educators should assign digital and multimodal projects; she also provides numerous examples of these types of assignments as well as strategies for assessing them. One assessment strategy I was particularly attracted to was what Shipka calls a statement of goals and choices (SOGC) which asks students to “detail how, why, and under what conditions they made their rhetorical, technological, and methodological choices” in creating their compositions (113). As readers can see from my assignment handout, I asked students to complete an SOGC for their projects as well as a brief, but detailed timeline in which they tracked the work they engaged in during the remediation process. I also asked students to craft a blog post which explained their technological composing processes (or what Claire Lauer calls a “technological journey”). The combination of these assessment strategies gave me a wide-angle lens for evaluating and assessing students’ work
My overall objective for the assignment was to invite students to consider from a rhetorical perspective how remediation requires writers to rethink audience, purpose, mode, and delivery. I also wanted students to consider how the affordances and constraints of both print and digital media shape an author’s rhetorical choices as well as the kinds of products he or she can produce. Lastly, I wanted students to experiment with new technologies and to have fun creating their projects.
I tailored the project to my class in two ways: For one, I assigned it during mid-terms when students are getting fatigued. My thought was that this project, unlike a traditional essay, would pique students’ interest and motivate them to think about rhetoric and writing in a new (and perhaps unexpected) way. Secondly, I set up the project so students could approach it from both a process- and product-oriented perspective; this gave them the opportunity to conduct in-class peer review workshops, revise and present their projects, and ultimately include them in their final portfolios.
How did it go? What worked well, and what advice would you give instructors considering something similar?
The best thing to come out of this assignment was seeing how proud students were of their projects during our “Multimodal Fair Day.” On this day, I asked students to come to class prepared to talk to their classmates about their composing processes, rhetorical and technological choices, and to provide feedback to their peers. Rather than ask students to speak individually, I set up “booths” where students could walk around the room and experience each other’s projects. As students presented their work, we listened to music, ate food, and I generally annoyed them by making video documentaries on my ipad. The energy in the room was amazing, and I could tell that students got a lot out of both creating and presenting their work.
The overall advice I would give to another teacher considering a similar project would be to:
- Talk to other teachers about their experiences with remediation and/or multimodal projects
- Teach digital and multimodal projects with confidence (You really can’t mess up, I promise!)
- Develop clear learning outcomes and assignment guidelines
- Have an assessment strategy that reflects your learning goals and project guidelines
- Provide opportunities for students to revise and share their work