Skip navigation
Degree Programs

University Writing Program

Working Online with Student Writers

Making assignments

Students will probably do more writing in online courses than in face to face, simply as a matter of circumstance. Students will need to transact through writing many of the questions or ideas they might  do orally in f2f settings. 

1. Many professors find it beneficial to engage students by having them write brief discussion posts: an answer to a focused question, a reading summary, an application of a reading/theory to a particular situation, or so on. This kind of writing, done many times throughout the course, has the powerful effect of helping students learn course material by active engagement. In fact, the practice long ago acquired the name Writing-to-Learn. If the practice helps students  acquire some better skills, that's a great side benefit, but it's incidental. The main purpose of these assignments is to facilitate thinking and learning.

In Canvas, you can either assign these short exercises as private assignments, visible only to you as the professor, or you can assign them as discussions, visible to the entire class. That latter has some advantages of allowing you to point out particularly good examples, raising the bar for other students. Either way, you can develop rubrics or response templates to reply quickly.

2. For more formal assignments, consider making a few shorter assignments rather than a single long one. Although the term paper is a venerable tradition, students online  will likely benefit more from three 1000-word assignments, carefully made and deployed, than they will from a single 5000-word. More short writings get them feedback throughout the course rather than only once, at the end. Repetition helps them not only learn your standards and polish their writing from project to project but also keeps them engaged.

3. Make your assignments focused rather than open, certainly more focused than you might in f2f settings. As tempting as it is to ask students to "write a paper on a topic significant to this course," that's a recipe both for trouble—and for lots of your time. If you keep things open, you should expect—practically and ethically—needing to do lots of explaining, intervening, and coaching.  You'll find yourself approving topics, suggesting foci, suggesting readings, and so on. If you have the desire and ability to invest that kind of time, you certainly may choose that approach. Alternatively, you might frame assignments much more directly, as can be seen in this example.

Open (and challenging, both to students and professors):
"Write a paper on governmental actions needed in our present economic situation."

Focused (desirable because of amount of scaffolding built in):
"Consider two possible responses to mitigating the current economic effects of the coronavirus. One, advocated by Engleson, is to cut payroll taxes in half immediately. Another, advocated by Stacks, is to provide direct payments of $1000. Based on the principles we've been studying, write an op ed of 750 words or so, for the Denver Post in which you argue thoughtfully that one of these actions will be more successful than the other."

Note that the second assignment frames the question precisely, identifies the source materials students are to use, and specifies a genre (op ed), audience (Denver Post readers), and purpose (argue for one action). Even at this, students face a complex (and, one hopes, interesting) challenge.

4. Provide examples. If you ask students to do a certain kind of writing, try to give them one or two examples of what that writing looks like. Good work by former students can be effective for this purpose, taking care to obscure identifying information and asking the student's permission to share. Published models can work well, too, although the moves that professionals make in their writing can be daunting to students.

If the assignment is short enough, investing the time to write an example yourself up front can pay off in less time grading on the back end. If you can go a step further and annotate feature of the model (perhaps by inserting a few comments via Track Changes in Word), you'll help students better understand the nature of the task. Sometimes professors worry that students will slavishly follow models. Two replies: Most writing tasks are sufficiently challenging that good models at best provide guidance; they don't do the writing for students. And following a model has considerable pedagogical benefit.