The Weekly Teaching Note

From the Cal Poly Pomona Faculty Center for Professional Development

Writing Your Own Assignments

Posted by weeklyteachingnote on January 14, 2009

If you’re staring down the barrel of a quarter full of grading less-than-compelling student papers – instead of writing your own research and scholarship – here’s a fresh idea that might help with both problems.

One professor of sociology got tired of receiving bland, ill-written papers in return for assignments that she thought should have been interesting. To help address this problem, she started writing responses to her own assignments and giving them to the students as examples of the type and quality of writing that she wanted from them.

She says, “I give students a series of brief writing assignments for the first few weeks of the semester.  For the course I taught [recently], I posted my own responses to these brief writing assignments on the class BlackBoard site.  This served two initial purposes: one was to model for the students the kind of writing I wanted them to do; the other was to reveal some aspects of myself to them.

“That strategy proved so successful that I expanded the practice to a more significant assignment.  I expect students to undertake a piece of empirical research appropriate to their developmental level.  This assignment includes a research proposal and one or more focused research reports.  Most students have not had an assignment like this before and many clamor for a sample to guide their work.  So, I wrote a research proposal and two research reports based on the work I had outlined in the proposal.

“The results were incredible in terms of the improved quality of student writing, the relative ease with which they incorporated their own experiences into their narratives, and the ways that my writing about myself made them feel more in tune with me as a person.

“Buoyed by the success of my trial run, I’ve already started to implement this practice in both of the [upcoming] courses I am teaching.  Because I’ve started writing the assignments while my course syllabi are still in draft form, I’ve been able to make minor adjustments in the wording of the assignments themselves as I discover ambiguities or unnecessary limitations in the options I’ve given the students.

“Remarkably, the research proposals I’m writing for the [upcoming] classes are of a caliber that I can and will turn them into pieces of scholarship.  This was a totally unexpected outcome—and the semester hasn’t even started yet!”

This is a great way to have your teaching contribute to your research scholarship, complete with built-in deadlines. Of course, students may need some reassurance that you don’t expect them to write just like you!

This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.


Donna C. Bird, Ph.D.
Director of Faculty Development Initiatives
University of Southern Maine
Portland, ME

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