Crafting Assignment Sequences

A well-designed writing assignment can give students the chance to engage course material in a deep, sustained, and individual way, and to learn essential aspects of writing in a particular discipline. A well-designed assignment can also prepare students for the ultimate challenge—writing on a topic of their own choosing with sources they’ve collected themselves—by exemplifying how to formulate an appropriate question and think fruitfully about course texts and ideas.

This page contains ideas about how to choose readings strategically in order to create the conditions for good writing experiences, and how to sequence assignments that ramp up the intellectual work required of students. 

We also highlight several approaches for crafting individual assignments with precision and foresight.

Using readings to stage writing assignments

Generative writing assignments are integral to course design: they’re conceived simultaneous with the course itself as essential to its shape and its goals. Such assignments do more than test students’ grasp of the material; they give students practice doing the intellectual work of the discipline, whether that’s interpreting data, situating an empirical study in the secondary literature, or making informed policy recommendations. They’re integral to the journey, and as such they typically allow for a variety of responses.

If you design your writing assignments in concert with your reading assignments, rather than after the fact, you’ll be in a position to create the best conditions for particular kinds of intellectual work to take place. In practical terms, staging a writing experience might mean assigning some readings that you hadn’t considered before in order to give students practice doing certain kinds of intellectual work, or it might mean not assigning some readings, because they “scoop” students—they risk doing too much of the work for them.

Let’s say, for example, that you think it’s important for students to learn to read the scientific literature critically. So you go beyond the textbook and include a few relevant journal articles in your syllabus for students to critique as a writing assignment, but you suppress a review article that already does the critique magnificently. (In fact, a helpful way to design writing assignments is to find articles you think are interesting, then to give students the sources cited in the article while withholding the article itself.) Or let’s say that early in your course you want students to learn how to apply a theory to a case—a typical analytical operation in the social sciences. So you move up a theoretical reading and also include a few extra cases, just to give students greater freedom of choice. In these examples, the reading and writing assignments are married; they work together to give students practice performing essential discipline-based work.

Writing assignments as sequenced intellectual work

Of course, different writing assignments require different intellectual work. In designing assignments, it’s therefore important to think about the different kinds of intellectual work you want your students to do and how you plan to sequence this work throughout the term.

While different disciplines require different kinds of intellectual work, we might usefully identify some of the most common types, as follows:

Critique a theory, position, or claim

Anthropology: Critique either the majority or dissenting opinion in U.S. v. Guzman in terms of the concept of “cultural heritage.”

Sociology: Use a work of reportage about war to critique or refine one of the sociological theories of war that we’ve studied this semester.

Assess or evaluate a source

Biology: Evaluate a claim about a conservation issue made in an article intended for a popular audience.

Psychology: Assess one of the models of attachment we’ve encountered in the course.

Analyze or interpret a text

Literary Studies: Choose a speech from Hamlet of at least twenty-five lines and offer an interpretation that challenges or complicates the standard reading. 

Sociology: Analyze an inconsistency, tension, or problem with Kunstler’s depiction of suburban community life in The Geography of Nowhere.

Define a concept

Biology: Make an argument about how a response to a problem in current medicine extends or redefines prevailing concepts of health and illness, medical ethics, or the role of medicine in society.

History: Drawing on your own close reading of the 1299 papal bull Scimus, Fili, make an argument that critiques and refines Collin Morris’ concept of “papal monarchy.”

Explain an event or phenomenon

Politics: Select a country that has chosen to develop nuclear weapons or that initially had a weapons program that it chose to end, and explain that country’s decisions with respect to nuclear weapons.

Take a stand on an issue (or recommend a course of action)

Biology: Argue for or against the claim that speciation by sexual selection is responsible for the observed sterility patterns encompassed by Haldane’s rule.

Sociology: Using course readings to help justify your argument, make a recommendation to the College Board that the category “Black or African American” be retained, eliminated, or altered on answer sheets for AP exams. 

Writing assignments typically ask students to perform one (or more) of the above operations either (1) without the aid of other texts (without context) or (2) with the aid of other texts (with context). This may seem like a simple distinction, but in fact these two assignment types are realms apart when it comes to complexity. Each can be made more complex still when the focus of analysis is multiplied, as the examples below suggest.

Sequencing assignments

The assignments in your sequence will depend on the level of the course you’re teaching and the methodologies of your discipline. Sequences generally move from shorter, simpler, more circumscribed assignments that give students a chance to build skills and strategies, to longer, more complex, more open assignments that more closely resemble normative writing in the discipline. Sequences also generally include a strategic mix of low-stakes and high-stakes writing.

In literary studies, for example, students are likely to begin the semester practicing “close reading.” This assignment has a single focus (a text) and is performed without the aid of other texts; it’s the simplest of all assignments involving the interpretation of a text. Depending on the level of the course, students may build up to a more complex project by the end of the semester, such as interpreting several related texts in a larger context established with the aid of other sources. This is the most challenging of all assignments involving textual interpretation and, not surprisingly, is a good description of many Senior Theses in literary studies, to say nothing of articles and books by professional scholars. The leap between the first and last assignments is wide, so intermediate assignments would be necessary to bridge the gap. A sequence might look like this:

  1. Interpret a literary text (without context).
  2. Use a theory to reinterpret a literary text. Alternatively, interpret a literary text in the context of literary criticism—by disagreeing with or extending a critic’s interpretation.
  3. Interpret a set of related literary texts within a theoretical and/or critical context.

Or take another example: the Junior Paper in Economics. This JP, like most scientific and technical papers, asks students to explain a phenomenon with reference to other explanations. This is a more complicated assignment than may at first appear: students need to perform a sequence of tasks in order to accomplish it:

  1. Define a feasible research question or problem.
  2. Situate the question in the secondary literature.
  3. Propose a methodology for addressing the question or problem. n Characterize and analyze the data.

So complex is this assignment that the sequence of assignments leading up to it corresponds to the main parts of the paper itself: Introduction, Literature Review, Methods, and Results. Add an “Abstract,” “Conclusions,” and “References,” and the paper is finished.

Sample assignment sequences

Below are sample assignment sequences in courses across the disciplines and at various levels.

Introductory Literature Course

Phase I:

  1. One-page paper (ungraded): Analyze a short passage in a text
  2. One-page paper (ungraded): Analyze another short passage in a text 
  3. Paper #1 (5-7pp.; graded): Analyze a primary text

Phase II:

  1. One-page paper (ungraded): Summarize several socio-historical sources
  2. One-page paper (ungraded): Critique two secondary sources
  3. Paper #2 (6-8pp; graded): Interpret a primary text in a critical or socio-historical context

Science Course with a Research Paper

Phase I:

  1. One-page paper (ungraded): Critique a scientific article
  2. Two one-page papers (ungraded): Critique 2 scientific articles on a chosen topic (e.g. climate change)
  3. Paper (4-5pp.; graded): Analyze the scientific debate on the topic based on a critical reading of 4 to 5 scientific articles in the source book 

Phase II:

  1. One-page paper (ungraded): Analyze the public policy debate on the topic based on a critical reading of sources found through library research
  2. Research paper (8-10pp.; graded): Recommend policy changes based on the state of scientific knowledge

Advanced Course in Engineering

  1. Short paper (2-3pp.; graded): Identify a design problem and review current solutions
  2. Paper (10pp.; graded): Propose a new design
  3. Short paper (2pp.; graded): Recommend to a manager lacking a technical background whether another student’s design should be accepted

Two-Semester “Methods” Sequence in History

Fall Semester

  1. Paper #1 (graded): Analyze a primary document
  2. Paper #2 (graded): Analyze a primary document
  3. Paper #3 (graded): Analyze a primary document in the context of secondary sources
  4. Paper #4 (graded): Take a position in a historiographic debate

Spring Semester

  1. Short proposal for a research paper based on primary documents (ungraded)
  2. Annotated bibliography (ungraded)
  3. Outline (ungraded)
  4. Draft of the research paper (ungraded)
  5. Revision of the research paper (graded)