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“For me, writing is the only thing that passes the three tests of métier: (1) when I’m doing it, I don’t feel that I should be doing something else instead; (2) it produces a sense of accomplishment and, once in a while, pride; and (3) it’s frightening” -Gloria Steinman
Courses with writing requirements often necessitate a considerable amount of time for assessment. When course enrollment increases or is already large, writing assignments can become difficult to manage. These assignments though are frequently integral to a student’s learning. One frustration many faculty experience in courses with writing assignments is a disjuncture between what the teacher expects and what the student produces. Consideration to writing prompt design can begin to reduce this common learning obstruction. A writing prompt with clear directives and specified learning goals encourages writing that is on task and productive (see the National Assessment for Educational Progress/National Writing Project’s 2001 study discussion in Gardner 2008). Below is just one strategy to consider when drafting a writing prompt—audience.
A truly worthwhile assignment allows the student to be creative and invites the student to draw from personal experiences and interests. Every student is different. A student is more likely to even attempt an assignment, in my opinion, if it can be related to his or her personal life. Characteristics such as the major/minor, hobbies, and extracurricular activities can all play a role in the excitement one might feel about an assignment. I am more likely to have fun with an assignment and get much more out of it if it can relate it to my individual interests.
Objective tests have the advantages of allowing an instructor to assess a large and potentially representative sample of course material and allow for reliable and efficient scoring. The disadvantages of objective tests include a tendency to emphasize only “recognition” skills, the ease with which correct answers can be guessed on many item types, and the inability to measure students’ organization and synthesis of material.
In What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain describes how many of the teachers that he studied prepared to teach by devising a “big question,” one that their course would help students address. I use a big question to encourage students to reflect on what they have learned in a course. In the first class meeting of a semester, I present a big question that the course will address and ask the students to write a page or less in which they reflect on the question, and write a response to the question as they would answer it now and indicating what knowledge they used to formulate the answer. This provides me with an understanding of the knowledge base and potential misconceptions that the students bring to the course. At the end of the semester, I ask the students to address the original big question again. I encourage them to revisit their response paper from the first class.
Exams, particularly at the end of the semester, are a common occurrence for any university student. As faculty, we have all taken our share of exams, I suspect some with great results and at other times, not so great. But how many times, as a student, did a faculty member give YOU information to assist you with the actual taking of the exam. We all want our students to do well on exams, and we spend a great deal of time in class helping students to learn material, with the hope that they will not only acquire new knowledge, but also that they will do well on the test.