Syllabus and Assignment Design

Designing your Syllabus: Backward Design

When you design a syllabus for any course, you begin with the outcomes that you intend for your students to achieve, and you work backwards from these to particular readings and writing assignments. This method, formalized, is called the method of backward design. Backward design is a useful method for any professor in that it ensures that all assignments, readings, and activities will connect students with the outcomes that the professor deems essential to the course.

At the first stage of backward design, writing instructors should consider two issues: what they want their students to know/experience in their courses, and what they want them to be able to do, in these courses and afterwards.  Put another way, instructors need to think both about their focusing questions and their course outcomes. 

You'll note that the first issue—what instructors want their students to know/experience—distinguishes between knowledge and experience. Indeed, this distinction is significant in a writing class, where course content (while important) does not drive the course. The best writing classes consider the students' experiential learning in their course design. To accomplish the aims of experiential learning, it's important to come up with a course question that can bring together the many smaller questions of the course and that can engage students intellectually and experientially. For instance: What is happiness? What are the roots of violence? What is the nature of the self? Technology: friend or foe? 

These are the kinds of questions that can focus course readings and class discussions. They are also the kinds of questions that students can engage with outside of the context of the writing classroom. Finally, they are the kinds of questions around which professors can build a course that is intellectually coherent. 

Even more important the the course questions, however, are the course outcomesin other words, what students should be able to do when the course comes to an end.  In the first-year writing classes, an instructor's set of outcomes will be informed by the course outcomes (see the outcomes for Writing 2-3, Writing 5, or the First-Year Seminar). Take some time to review these outcomes, and to consider how every assignment and classroom activity might work to help students achieve them. 

Designing Your Assignment

As you design your assignments, you'll want first to determine the outcomes that each assignment will work to accomplish. If your aim is to ensure, for instance, that students learn how to shape good academic questions, you might ask them to compose, share, and then revise their questions.  If you want them to develop their research capabilities, have them take these questions to the library databases in order to look for appropriate sources.  If you want to ensure that students learn how to work with sources, ask them to compose a summary and synthesis document, in which they nutshell their sources and show how these sources are in conversation with one another.  Finally, if you want to ensure that they learn how to compose and revise, assign drafts and give them feedback.  Have their peers offer feedback as well.  Whatever you decide to assign, use the outcomes to guide you. 

Second, you'll want to scaffold your assignments, so that students can build on their capabilities.  You'll see in the examples cited in the paragraph above that each assignment builds on the one before.  Students work on one step in the process and get feedback on it (from the instructor or their peers) before moving on to the next challenge.  By scaffolding, instructors can be sure that students know how to successfully complete the final assignment.  Students can also track the evolution and transfer of their skills. 

Third, writing instructors frequently comment that Dartmouth's ten-week term is very short.  Assignments must therefore be designed to achieve multiple outcomes. Consider the first step of the assignment sequence outlined above: "Ask students to compose, share, and then revise their questions."  Several outcomes are achieved here:  students are composing, they are collaborating, and they are revising.  If you design your assignments to achieve multiple outcomes, you'll be surprised at how much your students can accomplish.  

Whatever assignments you design, do understand that simply making an assignment does not ensure that students will acquire the desired skills. For an assignment to succeed it should be transparent and progressive—that is, your students should understand your goals for the assignment, and they should be able to chart their own development in relation to these goals. The better students understand your assignments and your vision for your course, the better they'll be able to meet the course aims.

Spacing Your Assignments

When designing your syllabus, you will want to consider carefully the spacing of your writing assignments. It's important that students are given enough time to write and to revise their papers. Professors who use a writing assistant will also want to be sure that they provide the writing assistant enough time to read and respond to students' papers.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Give students time to move through the writing process. If you are teaching a first-year course whose purpose is to make students able writers, you will have to give them time to move through the various inventions, composing, and revision processes. One way of making room for these various steps in the writing process is by assigning a paper in three parts: the pre-draft (which could consist of crafting questions, writing a discovery draft, creating an outline, and so on), the first draft, and the revised final draft.
  • Give students time to revise. If we want our students to revise their papers substantively, we must give them adequate time. This means that we need to get their papers back on time, particularly the first drafts. Consider whether you'll need two days, four days, or a full week to return an assignment. Also consider whether or not you expect the student to see a writing assistant or to meet with you between drafts.
  • Try not to make a reading assignment on the day a major paper is due. Let your students focus their attention fully on their writing. Schedule writing workshops the day that a paper is due instead.
  • Long assignments (particularly those that involve research) work better if you break them up into smaller assignments. Ask students to bring in an annotated bibliography, a working thesis, an outline, etc. Scheduling these shorter assignments ensures that students remain engaged in the writing process. It also prevents them from writing the paper at the last minute.
  • Consider what's best for you. Many students and instructors like Monday due dates: students get the weekend to work on their papers, and professors keep their weekends free. Other instructors prefer for papers to come in on Thursday or Friday, so that they can use the weekends to respond.  Think of your own rhythms as you plan.

Crafting Your Assignments

Professors often wonder, when creating writing assignments, how detailed the assignments should be. Some professors don't use prompts, requiring students to come up with the topics and questions themselves. Others create detailed writing assignments, arguing that this allows students to save energy for writing their papers (as opposed to generating topics and questions). Still others craft writing prompts that offer students ideas for writing but that leave plenty of room for students to come up with ideas of their own. We'll consider the options of prompting and not prompting here.

The Open Writing Assignment

Professors who don't use writing prompts believe that an important part of scholarship is learning to raise questions that will yield a good academic argument. Instead of creating a writing prompt, these professors craft an assignment process that supports students as they work through the various challenges of scholarly inquiry. In a sense, these professors are asking students to craft their own prompts, and to write the paper that will answer the questions that they outline there. The obvious pedagogical advantage of the open assignment is that it allows students to learn to develop topics on their own. In the open assignment, students are not only permitted to pursue intellectual questions that are of interest to them, they also gain some experience in framing a topic that is neither too narrow nor too broad.

If you elect not to use prompts, you should intend to devote class and conference time to assisting students in this process. For instance, you might ask students to come up with three good academic questions about the course's reading materials. Students can post these questions on the Canvas discussion board. You can then workshop these questions, using class time to talk about which questions will (or won't) yield a good academic argument, and why. You should also comment thoroughly on the questions submitted, raising further questions for the student to consider. You might also invite students to comment on one another's questions on the Canvas site. Students can then revise their questions and resubmit them for another round of feedback before they write.

Some professors find it useful to offer students models of good academic questions. Other professors give explicit instruction regarding what the paper shouldn't do and leave it to the students to determine what they want to do within these parameters. All professors ask students to submit their prompts in advance of drafting so that they can determine, before the students proceed too far, whether or not these topics are appropriate and promising.

Whatever you decide, do note that a prompt-less writing assignment needs a good infrastructure in order to succeed. Indeed, Karen Gocsik's research assignment for Writing 2-3 has twelve steps, indicating the many moments of support and feedback that first-year students require as they work through the process of writing a research paper Your assignment need not have twelve steps to be effective; it may have four steps, for instance, or five. Craft your assignment steps according to the aims of your assignment.

Crafting a Good Prompt

Writing a good prompt for a writing assignment is a difficult task. Too often, professors write prompts for writing assignments knowing exactly what sorts of essays they want their students to produce, only to get papers that miss the mark. How can you produce writing assignments that clearly convey the tasks and questions you want your students to undertake?

Before writing your prompts, you will want to consider a few matters.

  • Consider what you want the assignment to require the students to do, in relation to the course outcomes.  What outcomes are most important at this point in your course? How can the assignment move students closer to achieving these outcomes?  
  • Consider what you want the assignment to do, in terms of the larger questions of your course. What questions, in particular, do you want your students to consider? Are these questions related closely or peripherally to topics you've been discussing in class? 
  • Consider what kinds of thinking you want students to do. Do you want your students to define, illustrate, compare, analyze, or evaluate? You will want to come up with prompts that clearly direct students as to the kind of thinking they will have to do.
  • Consider your students' writing processes. Are you focusing on teaching students to place their arguments within a larger conversation or context? If so, your prompt should address the importance of context and suggest things that you want students to consider as they write. Are you hoping to get your students to understand the mechanics of the paragraph? Your prompt might ask students to write paragraphs that summarize, then analyze, then synthesize, so that they can see how different tasks require different paragraph development.
  • If the paper involves research, consider outlining your research requirements in a way that educates students about the research process. You may want to require students to use a variety of sources, or to use certain sources that you've either put on reserve or listed in the course syllabus. Understand that students may need help with finding sources, evaluating them, and incorporating them successfully into their arguments. Craft your prompt accordingly.

Once you've determined the outcomes for your writing assignment, you're ready to craft the prompt. Here are some things to consider:

  • Break the assignment down into specific tasks. If, for example, you want students to compare the effectiveness of two political movements, you might first ask students to define the goals of each movement; then to consider the history of each movement; then to discuss how the history of the movement affected the creation of its goals; and finally, to consider how history influenced the movement's ultimate success (or failure).
  • Break the assignment down into specific questions. For example, if you want students to discuss the formal elements of a particular painting, you might, as Art Historian Joy Kenseth does, ask the students: What is the focus of the painting? How does the artist treat such things as light and shadow, line, space, and composition? How does this treatment communicate the painting's ideas? If you don't want students to answer all of the questions you put to them, but want them simply to consider these questions before writing their responses, make that clear.
  • Provide context. A writing prompt that asks students to discuss whether or not the films of Leni Riefenstahl are propagandistic does not point students to the interesting controversy surrounding Riefenstahl's work. Nor does it indicate whether they should limit themselves to discussing the formal elements of Riefenstahl's films, or whether they should include biographical detail. The more contextual information you give your students, the more precise their responses will be.
  • Craft each sentence carefully. You will want to be sure that there is no room for misunderstanding the assignment. If you ask students to analyze how a myth informed paintings and sculptors during the first century of the Renaissance, do you want students to examine the works themselves or the artists that produced them? Sometimes a slip in word choice or the careless placement of a modifier can leave students confused as to what, precisely, you are asking them to do.
  • Be clear about what you don't want. If you don't want students to discuss Virginia Woolf's personal experiences as they relate to A Room of One's Own, then be sure to instruct them not to include biographical references. In addition, explaining why such information should be excluded will help students to understand better the questions and the desired response.
  • Be clear about the paper requirements. Have you indicated the paper's due date? How many pages you require? How many sources you require? What special criteria (if any) you will use when grading this paper? If your requirements are rigid, say so. If you're flexible, let the students know. This may be the aspect of the prompt that students are most anxious about, so offer as much detail as you think is necessary.
  • Try to write (or at least to outline) the assignment yourself. If you have trouble outlining a paper based on this prompt, your students will, too. You will want to think about ways of revising the assignment to make it clearer and more manageable.
  • Discuss the assignment with the class. When you distribute the assignment to the class, take time to go over it. Ask for their questions. Make notes as to where their understanding of the assignment differs from yours so that you can improve the prompt the next time you use it.