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MWrite Resources

Creating a Writing-to-Learn Assignment

The Process of Building a Prompt

Figure 1: The MWrite WTL implementation process. Faculty and writing fellows interact collaboratively during the design and revision of the assignments. During the implementation, students encounter multiple WTL assignments throughout the semester and go through each stage–drafting, peer review, and revision–for each assignment. The writing fellows also serve as a resource for students during the writing process.

In order to successfully implement a writing-to-learn assignment, MWrite professors engage in the following steps

  • Identify key course concepts: Professors first identify key course concepts that are typically difficult for students to master. 
  • Design assignment
    • Working with the MWrite team, professors design an exigence that requires students to explain this concept in their own words using disciplinary language for a specific audience (i.e., a consultation client, a grant proposal).
      Some tips:
      • Encourage connecting concepts rather than defining them.
      • Use disciplinary terminology so students can become more familiar with the language of the discipline. 
      • Begin with an understanding of concepts and build to have students apply the concepts to more complex systems. 
      • Identify an appropriate scenario that requires disciplinary knowledge and knowledge of students. 
      • Present the assignment in a realistic genre that allows students to use disciplinary knowledge. 
    • Work with MWrite team, develop a rubric that students can use in peer review as they read drafts of each other’s work.
    • “Test drive” the prompt and potential responses.
  • Implementation in course: once the prompt is designed, faculty implement the assignment in the course. Students encounter the prompt, draft a response, engage in peer review, and revise. For more details on students’ engagement with the prompt, see below.
  • Finally, professors and the MW team assess student learning. Professors revise the prompt.

Student engagement with prompt

Figure 2: Stages of the MWrite WTL assignments for students.

The process of responding to writing-to-learn prompts has four steps. 

  • First, students encounter the prompt. This includes reviewing the prompt, considering the content of the prompt and course materials, and reading any additional materials that will support their response. 
  • Next, students draft a response to the prompt based on class materials and/or external resources and upload it to the automated peer review system. 
  • Then, students engage in peer review, commenting on classmates’ drafts and receiving feedback on their own. Students use a peer review rubric to facilitate this process. 
  • Finally, students revise their own drafts, drawing on additional learning from reading their peers’ responses and comments they received from peer review. 

The Prompts

The prompts offer students rhetorically rich content, gives them a role, specifies an audience, and focuses on exigence that resembles real-life problems or projects taken up by specialists in the field. Effective prompts have the following characteristics:

  • Interactive writing process: Writing, like all learning, is a social endeavor; asking students to engage with one another in peer review, directed by a rubric or clear set of guidelines, builds their understanding of course concepts and expectations of the writing task.

  • Clear expectations: Communicating clear expectations to students lets them know exactly what the instructor is looking for and how student work will be evaluated so that they don’t have to guess. This can include providing clear and detailed instructions (including those for peer review), explaining what students should learn, including explicit criteria for evaluation, and being explicit about what audience students are writing for.

  • Meaning-making activities: The most effective writing prompts “require students to engage in some form of integrative, critical, or original thinking[, which] includes asking students to apply a course concept to a real-life situation, provide concept-based evidence to support an argument, or to evaluate a claim using a course concept” (Gere et al., 2018). Students apply course concepts to spaces outside the course and draw on real-world writing genres that help them envision using the concept outside the course, imagining themselves in aspirational roles.

  • Opportunities for metacognitive development: Like meaning-making activities, promoting metacognition take many forms, but, as Bangert-Drowns et al. (2004) emphasize, a metacognitively rich prompt is one that “promotes planning, monitoring, evaluating, and adapting cognitive strategies during the process of learning” (p. 32). Metacognitive development is most clearly seen in peer review, when students explain their thinking on their own work and read their peers’ work and offer feedback. The act of reading each other’s work refines their own thinking on course concepts and reduces misconceptions.

The results / outcomes

Student engagement with the prompt 

  • Fosters deep conceptual learning and increases students’ understanding of concepts
  • Remediates misconceptions about the course concept
  • Increases self efficacy for students

Annotated prompts

Additional Resources

  • Finkenstaedt-Quinn, S. A.; Petterson, M. N.; Gere, A.R.; Shultz, G. V. “The Praxis of Writing-to-Learn: A Model for the Design and Propagation of Writing-to-Learn in STEM.” Journal of Chemical Education, Accepted.
  • Gere, A. R., Limlamai, N., Wilson, E., Saylor, K. M., & Pugh, R. (2019). Writing and Conceptual Learning in Science: An Analysis of Assignments. Written Communication, 36(1), 37.