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Teaching Multimodal Composition

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More and more, instructors recognize that multimodal composition assignments can offer students valuable learning opportunities, especially when it comes to building rhetorical skills. An assignment that asks students to plan, script and record their own podcasts, for example, might deepen their understanding of audience and tone. Along similar lines, asking students to create an infographic instead of a traditional lab report might offer new insight into the potential for data to influence public opinion. An assignment that challenges students to “translate” a text-based ethnography into a photo essay might lead to interesting new discoveries about research ethics and representation. In all of these examples and more, students are encouraged to develop the following skills, which the authors of the textbook Writer/Designer point out are fundamentally similar across a variety of contexts:

  • “To think critically about the kinds of communication that are needed in any given situation

  • To choose sources and assets that will help create an effective text

  • To work within and fulfill your audience’s needs and goals

  • To improve communication through the finished text

  • To create change or encourage positive action through a text” (Ball et al. 6)

However, teaching multimodal composition presents challenges that may be unfamiliar to many instructors. How do we sequence and scaffold multimodal assignments? How do we introduce students to the technological tools they need to compose in audio, visual, or web-based formats? What do we do with students who arrive in class already familiar with (or talented at) some of these modes of composition? How do we grade something like a photo essay? What is a photo essay, anyway?

This resource offers guidance on most of these questions—and yet, it’s important to acknowledge that the questions themselves represent a major benefit of teaching multimodal composition. Our framework encourages instructors to engage students in conversation around these questions by analyzing models, developing definitions, and articulating evaluative criteria. Indeed, part of the process of composing a photo essay involves exploring what a photo essay is and can be; by inviting students to participate in this exploration, we are training them to be more flexible, conscientious communicators, capable of adapting to any rhetorical situation they may encounter down the line.


How to Use These Resources

We recommend beginning with our Basic Framework for Sequencing and Scaffolding Multimodal Composition Assignments (below). This framework is flexible enough that instructors can adapt it to many genres and media. Instructors can make minor adjustments (depending on the amount of time they want students to spend on the project, for example) while still keeping the basic structure intact.

For two examples of how instructors might adapt the framework to fit specific multimodal composition assignments, see our resources on podcasts and infographics. Our hope is that these two additional resources will not only offer guidance for instructors who wish to assign podcast and infographic projects, but also provide helpful models of how to adapt the overarching framework to fit any multimodal composition assignment. For further examples of the kinds of questions you might ask when analyzing other multimodal genres to assign, see our Beyond Infographics and Podcasts: Further Applications resource.


Basic Framework for Sequencing and Scaffolding Multimodal Composition Assignments

Structuring multimodal composition assignments can seem unwieldy or intimidating, especially for instructors who may be unfamiliar with the various technologies involved. Here we suggest a basic framework for sequencing and scaffolding multimodal composition assignments, presented below in a series of steps that can be adapted to a variety of course contexts.


Step 1: Help students analyze models that you provide:

Whatever kind of media work you want your students to create, it’s useful to find examples of work in that media. (Both good and bad examples can be equally helpful!) Then you can guide students in identifying the features of the genre, the audience(s) it appeals to, where and how it’s used, and how it makes its points. This process helps students “reverse engineer” the models to see how they work.

As with any writing assignment, a great place to start is with a discussion of audience, purpose and context. That means asking questions such as:

  • Who is this composition for, and what are the signs that it’s aimed at this particular audience? What stakes does this audience have in the content of the composition?

  • What is the purpose of this composition? Does it aim to educate, entertain, persuade?

  • What is the context of this composition? Who writes/records/makes it? How is it distributed? What similar compositions exist, if any? How do these factors inform our analysis of this composition’s content?

Sweetland’s resources on Supporting Multimodal Literacy offer useful concepts and vocabulary for analyzing multimodal texts.


Step 2: Have students find and analyze models they want to base their own projects on:

After working with students to guide them through the analysis process, let them find and analyze their own samples, with particular attention to work they want to emulate (or avoid!).


Step 3: Provide a list of resources that students can use to seek help with technologies/platforms they’ll need to work with:

You should plan enough time for students to build competency in the technologies/platforms you are asking them to use. The ISS Media Center offers a variety of personal assistance, access to technology, and tutorials. Sweetland also works with students on multimodal composition projects of any kind in our Writing Workshop and Peer Writing Centers.


Step 4: Have students formally propose their projects:

Proposals provide an opportunity for students to articulate what they want to accomplish with a project as well as generate feedback from you and/or their peers. For instructors, proposals offer a chance to course-correct if students’ plans seem unviable or off-task, or to offer guidance about potential resources, strategies for success, etc. A good proposal includes:

  • An overview of the project’s topic, genre, and goals (including a working thesis, hypothesis, or line of inquiry)

  • A plan detailing how the project will create and support the argument, what technologies it requires, where help with those technologies is available, and how those technologies will illuminate the research/line of inquiry

  • A justification for why and how the chosen media and genre are appropriate to the goal and audience of the project

  • A timeline for completion

This proposal could be formally written, and you could provide feedback in writing, in class, or in face-to-face conferences. Alternately, you could have students “pitch” their projects to the class for on-the-spot feedback.


Step 5: Have students create mock-ups or storyboards for their projects:

Mock-ups and storyboards are two forms of early rough drafts (what you might call sketch drafts) for multimodal composition projects.

  • Mock-ups are visual representation of static pieces, such as web pages or posters. They should provide a sense of the visual design choices and organization of the project.

  • Storyboards (a term you may recognize from film and TV) are a sequence of drawings to represent the progression of movement- or time-based pieces, such as videos, podcasts, or animations. They should include visual sequences and descriptions of actions or sounds for each major shift in the project.

Both mock-ups and storyboards allow students to seek and incorporate feedback before they go through the painstaking process of editing their material.


Step 6: Have students create rough cuts:

Rough cuts are one step further in development than mock-ups and storyboards. Like mock-ups and storyboards, they provide an early draft of most of the project’s basic elements, in order, but without everything yet in place. A rough cut provides what some people might call a “prototype” of the project--complete enough to understand, but still early enough to allow students to seek feedback and fine-tune their work as they go.


Step 7: Have students peer review each other’s mock-ups, storyboards, and rough cuts along the way:

As with any writing project, peer review of multimodal compositions can provide students with helpful insight into how their project is working, and where they may need to make adjustments.

For more on peer review, see Sweetland’s Using Peer Review to Improve Student Writing resource.


Step 8: Have students create final cuts:

Ask students to revise their projects, to the extent that they can given the time and resources available, incorporating feedback they’ve received along the way.


Step 9: Assign a final reflection:

Because few students’ multimodal composition work is likely to be at an expert level in the short time they have to create it, it can be useful to ask students to submit reflections with their final cuts. These reflections should explain and justify the rhetorical choices they made as they planned, researched, designed, executed, and revised their projects. In other words, this step asks students to make an evidence-based argument about what they were doing and how it met or didn’t meet their aims for the project. You can then use this reflection to inform your own assessment of their projects.

For more on reflection, see Sweetland’s Cultivating Reflection and Metacognition resource.


Step 10: Assessment:

As Step 9 suggests, assessing multimodal composition assignments presents special challenges--are you grading based on who made the best multimodal composition, or whose composition best reflects the learning goals of the class? Once again, we recommend using consistent terminology throughout this 10-step process; for example, you can crowdsource evaluative criteria from students’ analyses of models in Step 2, use these criteria during peer review, and then use them again in a final assessment rubric.

For a broader consideration of effective multimodal assessment practices, see Sweetland’s Some Considerations for Multimodal Assessment resource.


Works Cited

Ball, Cheryl E., et al. Writer/Designer: a Guide to Making Multimodal Projects. 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018.