CTE Tip: Two Approaches to Writing Assignments

Low-impact, high-yield writing assignments*

Writing that:

  • May have no response from anyone (see my handout "Why and How to Not Grade")
  • May only have response from peers
  • May be responded to by the instructor but not graded

Course Prep Assignments: Read - Think - Write - Discuss

An introduction: What is the issue?


Objective: What do you want the students to understand or analyze or describe? This objective provides the students with essential clues about what they are to look for in the assignment.

Background: Any additional information the students might need, from facts to graphs to timelines.

Assignment: What they need to read and questions they must answer in a written piece.** Those questions they will answer are the building blocks of the lecture/discussion. They will not only contain the basis of what has to be know in order to achieve sophistication in understanding the topic, but they will also be a springboard to more analytical and synthetic thinking.

Students hand in the assignment at the beginning of class and keep a copy for reference in the discussion.

These assignments can be graded in any way the instructor desires: pass/fail, points, as a portfolio. They do not need to become burdensome in grading because the students will be receiving input on their answers in the class discussion.

Conclusions or questions that arise in the class discussion can become the resource for the next assignment's objectives.

Other types:

  • Journals
  • Letters (written as Letters to the Editor, or letters to a friend or family member explaining what is going on in class.)
  • Discussion forum postings
  • Directed Paraphrasing*** (in class or out)


The important point is that these writing assignments are guided, they are responsive, and they become the students' own guides to graded material.

High-impact, graded writing assignments

Aside from the classic essay or research paper (which is only pedagogically strong if all of its components are directly tied to course learning objectives), there are other writing assignments that can be used to assess a student's knowledge, understanding, and critical thinking as it is expressed in written work. Here are a few from Classroom Assessment Techniques:

Invented dialogues: students choose historical or contemporary figures in a particular discipline and create a conversation these thinkers might have had on the topic.

Analytical Memos: students write a one or two page analysis of a problem or issue.

And another:

Opinion pieces on hot topics in the field, written as if for a newspaper (that way you get a real sense of knowledge base and synthetic thinking as the students need to know enough of the field to explain it to others not in the field.

These assignments also have the advantage of not being very susceptible to plagiarism, intentional or otherwise.

Use rubrics to assist in grading all high impact writing assignments - and let your students see the rubrics before they write the assignment. If these are used in conjunction with low-impact assignments, students will be comfortable with not receiving substantive feedback on the graded work. Rubrics can be as detailed or flexible as you choose.

*Peter Elbow and Mary Dean Sorcinelli, "How to Enhance Learning by Using High-Stakes and Low-Stakes Writing," in Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, ed. Wilbert McKeachie, 192-212. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin 192-212. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2006.

**David Yamane, "Course Preparation Assignments: A Strategy for Creating Discussion-Based Courses," Teaching Sociology 34, July, 2006, 236-248.

***Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross, Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993, 232

Contact Information

For more information about the Center for Teaching Excellence, please contact:

Becky Kasper, Ph.D., Director
SUNY Plattsburgh
301 Feinberg Library, Plattsburgh, NY 12901
Phone: (518) 564-3043
Fax: (518) 564-5100
Email: cte@plattsburgh.edu