Designing Informal Writing Assignments

Informal writing assignments are an excellent tool for instructors who teach writing at all levels. These assignments can be done in class or out of class, can be graded or ungraded, and commonly fall into two categories: writing to learn assignments and process-based assignments.

Informal writing assignments are a required component of approved writing-emphasis courses at WCU. Ideas for informal writing assignments are listed below, and a link to a helpful eBook is provided at the end of this page.

Writing to Learn - Informal Writings to Better Learn Course Content

The idea behind writing to learn assignments is that students can use writing as a tool to better understand a course concept or task they are completing in a given course. The writing process in writing to learn scenarios is not about testing student knowledge, or requiring an extended argument; rather, writing becomes an opportunity to explore students’ own thinking on a given issue and to share that thinking with peers or the professor as part of the learning process. Below are some common approaches:

Freewriting: This very common informal writing strategy helps students explore a concept by moving what’s in their mind to the page for closer examination. Typically, the instructor provides a question or theme upon which students will freewrite. The first goal in freewriting is continue writing until new ideas and considerations begin to emerge from the students’ mind onto the page, the second goal is to have students look back at what they’ve written and determine what’s worth formalizing and what’s not.

One Minute Papers: Another common informal writing, one-minute papers focus on student summary of a discussion or content covered during the class period. For these papers, the instructor typically reserves five or so minutes at the end of a period and asks students to summarize 2-3 main take-aways they have from the class as well as a carefully worded question they have about content covered. These papers are turned into instructors, and are then reviewed to determine whether students are grasping the course content as expected. 

Scenario Writings: Students have an opportunity to grapple more deeply with a complex topic when they have to perform deontic critical thinking, or determine an action to be taken in response to a scenario. For these informal writings, students can be given a course-related scenario and asked to write about how they would address the scenario. This can be done through in class or out of class writing. Class discussion about their planned actions can elucidate complexities or factors relating to a course concept that students may need to better understand; hence, this exercise helps them use writing to more deeply learn about course concepts by applying their knowledge to scenarios. 

Journals, Logs, or Blogs: Persistent reflection on course topics is one of the best ways to engage students outside of the classroom for the full course of the semester. Journals or Logs can be opportunities for students to reflect informally about course content at pre-determined moments, such as daily, bi-weekly, weekly, or by periodic prompting. These reflections can be turned into the professor after each entry, at mid-term and final, at final only, or never at all. Reflections can be read to see how students’ thoughts are developing or students can simply be required to share their reflections in class discussions. Blogs can act as a public-facing opportunity to reflect informally on course content as well, and this public element can encourage students to pay attention to style, grammar, and clarity more fully than they might in an informal journal reflection that won’t face public scrutiny.

Anonymous Confessions and Questions: An easy informal writing in which students can participate is to draft confessions or questions relating to course content anonymously at the end of a class meeting and submit those writings to the instructor. The anonymity helps encourage students who are shy or less confident to seek clarification on important class topics, and these informal writings help instructors see areas of content that may require further elaboration in-class.

Narration of a Process: Researchers in cognitive science and linguistics have theorized that our conceptual systems of understanding are largely based on story-telling and comparison-making. That is, human thinking tends to happen in terms of narrative and metaphor. One way to help students learn course content, and to measure lapses in understanding course content is to assign a narration of a process. Students can be asked to characterize the key components of a process, and explain that process through a short story or narrative. For example, Biology students might be asked to narrate the process of cellular energy production through the synthesis of ATP wherein electrons, protons, and other components get characterized as students work to tell the story of that process. Faculty can directly assess these narratives to see where students are lacking in understanding about a process, or narratives can be shared with peers in class to affirm, deny, and moderate understandings of a process. These informal writings often lead to excellent clarifying questions for the instructor.

Metaphor and Analogy Exercises: Like narrative, students must understand a concept completely in order to draw comparisons to other objects or concepts. Asking students to reflect through informal writing on a good metaphor, or asking students to explore that metaphor through an extended written analogy can be an excellent way to encourage high-order thinking about a course concept. For example, Education students can be asked to determine a metaphor for the teacher-parent or teacher-student relationship. Sharing these metaphors or analogies as a class can reveal productive and unproductive ways of conceptualizing important relationships in a field of study.

Informal Writings in the Process of Completing a Larger Assignment

The assignments described above are great for getting students to think more deeply about course content. The assignments described below serve a different function—to help students develop better final writing projects through small and concise informal writings.

Annotated Bibliographies: This popular assignment helps students get started on research that requires substantial use of secondary source material. Prior to drafting a full essay, instructors can assign an annotated bibliography assignment that asks for citations, summaries, and plans for two or more sources that the student intends to use in a larger work. These annotated bibliographies are a great opportunity for instructors to weed out poor or unacceptable sources before the student begins to integrate those sources into a larger work. Perhaps most importantly, the annotating and summarizing also helps students better understand the sources they intend to use in a final paper, which can lead to better synthesis of ideas in the final writing. Consider assigning an annotated bibliography that includes the drafting of complete one-paragraph summaries for each source that provides:

  • a complete source citation
  • the problem-premise/research question of the source
  • the methods or arrangement of the source
  • the key conclusions or findings of the source.

Project Proposals: Effectively conceptualizing a work that meets the spirit and scope of an assignment can be complicated for many students. Assigning an informal proposal of a potential project can be a great way to help students begin to conceptualize their project, and can also be a way for instructors to provide feedback or early intervention on a project plan before the student begins to implement the plan. Project proposals can be narrow or highly detailed. Some common elements of a proposal are:

  • a concise summary of the project as imagined
  • a reasoning for the students’ interest and motivation to pursue that project
  • a justification for why the project would be valuable or important
  • a timeline or plan for developing the project.

Outlines: Perhaps the most common genre in essay planning, outlines encourage students to list key topics, claims, and sources of evidence for an extensive written essay. It can be helpful to challenge students by requiring elements in an outline to which they may not be accustomed. For example, if you’re an instructor who is interested in having students write essays that balance claims and counter claims, consider an outline assignment that requires the listing of counter claims and their sources for each major body paragraph or section of the final essay. Faculty might think of many important writing moves they hope students make in an essay and build these expectations into an informal outline assignment as a guide for developing critical prose.

Reverse Outlines: It can be difficult for students to see how their writing unfolds once it begins to span more than four pages. Writing on computers, in particular, makes it difficult to see pages side by side; instead, students have to scroll from one page to the next, which can limit their ability to take a comprehensive look at a large written project they’re composing. Reverse outlining is a technique whereby students re-create an outline of a fully drafted paper by examining each paragraph and its focus. Students summarize in outline form what each paragraph or section of a paper is doing as well as its key sources of evidence. This allows the writer to see how an essay has unfolded in outline form after it’s been written, which can lead to insightful edits and revisions of the work. Consider assigning this as a peer-review exercise or as a final workshop before a large written project is due.

Sections In-Focus: Sophisticated academic writing often operates in terms of paper sections rather than paragraphs. For example, longer academic texts might have multi-paragraph introductions in an introduction section as opposed to a singular introductory paragraph. Informal writing assignments can be used to focus on student development of just one section of a paper, which instructors and peers can provide commentary on as a student writers work to complete a full draft. For example, there might be particular moves that a discipline or field makes in the conclusion section of a paper, such as a review of research limitations. Instructors can use class time to have students practice drafting just a concluding paragraph, which can then be shared or submitted to the instructor for feedback prior to the completion of a full draft. In-class time can even be used to have students informally draft specific sentences or statements, such as a thesis, articulation, juxtaposition, or known-unknown statement.

Online Working Draft: Using communal cloud storage applications like Google Docs can provide a unique opportunity for instructors to examine student writing as it unfolds in real time. It can also be an excellent tool for groups of students to work collaboratively on a writing project. Instructors can assign students to draft in an online working draft, and the instructor can check in periodically to provide feedback and commentary. Instructors can also make use of this informal writing task, by checking in on specific moments of development. For example, an instructor might ask the students to develop on online working draft of their “Methods” section of a particular paper, and the instructor can then check in on just that portion of the draft to provide feedback and suggestions.

For more ideas about designing and assigning powerful informal and exploratory writing activities, review Chapter 7 of this eBook available at WCU Libraries: John Bean’s Engaging Ideas.

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