Designing Effective Writing Prompts for English 101
Fourteen weeks as a teacher of English 101 at SIUC have passed and in retrospect I have to say that it is not the students, the heavy work load nor the tight curriculum that has been the most daunting task for me as the course instructor, but rather the monthly introduction of a new unit assignment and the students’ overwhelmed, yet frustrated facial expressions when we read through the relevant unit prompt. I perceived the feeling that my students never really understood what the unit prompt asked them to do, but at the same time none of the students did really want to ask for even further explanation or concede their cluelessness although I can say we had an extremely good and friendly classroom atmosphere. At the same time being their course instructor, I sensed that my students had problems understanding their task. Thus, I tried to further engage in explaining exercises and felt that my students, in the course of the unit, came to grasp the assignment which was basically indicated by their classroom participation and the quality of the homework I corrected. The classroom atmosphere drastically improved as soon as we approached the end of a unit’s second week since this seemed to be the time when the students were fully aware of their writing task, when they had a structure in their mind and were ready to go and start writing their paper. This, however, could only happen thanks to many supporting activities that very slowly guided the students into the right direction to be able to successfully write their paper. On the other side, this awakening of the students was always way too late since the preparatory assignments usually lacked in quality which showed that the students were still very helpless in regard to their final draft assignment and what they actually had to write. This did not only harm the quality of their progress writing assignments that were supposed to lead them to the final product but also their notion that all the little assignments are connected with each other and built on each other. This progress could not have become obvious for the students since at the time these progress assignments were due, they had little to no understanding for the actual writing task of the relevant unit, which made it very hard for them to start “wallowing in complexity” (Ramage, Bean, and Johnson 29) instead of drowning in the waves of work. At the end of each unit, the students became very confident in mastering the task that seemed impossible at first, but at the same time, as their instructor, I could feel how the feeling of anxiousness and helplessness inundated their joyful construction of 101 sandcastles as soon as the new writing assignment was to be announced and to ruin their built up confidence. This scheduled disaster was, however, not only awaited with fear by my students but also by me with a feeling of guilt and heavy burden on my shoulders. I knew that the task was on me to stop the bulldozing of their newly built-up confidence and to create an approach to the new unit that did not have the same devastating effects as the ones before. Every time I prepared myself for the introductory session of a new unit, I was scared and felt somewhat helpless at the same time. I knew that I, again, am going to confront them with a task that will foster their self-consciousness as writers, students or even persons attending a school and, at the same time, I doubted myself as a good teacher since I did not seem to be able to make the assignment easy to digest. I am of the opinion that it is not always the students’ fault if they do not understand what is being taught but rather search the problem on my side and try to improve my approaches and methods to help the students understand the matter. Consequently, I can fully agree with Lindenman when she says that “[b]ecause each composition represents a response to a specific ‘invitation’ to write, the problems in many papers may be the fault, not of the writer, but of the assignment” (211). Every time, I tried to break up the prompt in small, easy to understand tasks, pointed out each step they need to go towards the final stage, and explained how they were connected so that the students gain a holistic overview and see their progress. I still felt that my students were not able to fully understand the writing assignments, that there were many open questions even after we read and discussed the prompts and that they had little to no idea what they were asked to do. Various methods such as referring to their common knowledge, sharing experiences, group discussions, even auditory and visual materials seemed sometimes to be not effective or fruitful. The major problem, however, was not only that it was very time guzzling when I had to explain their task over and over again, but it was also very frustrating and discouraging for the students. Many of them put their ability to attend this class into question, doubted themselves as apt students and were scared to fail the course; that this was not helpful to create a learning friendly environment seemed to be obvious for me since I agree with Edlund when he says that “[t]he atmosphere in the classroom should be positive and comfortable, so that anxiety is diminished” (384). The standardized writing prompts, definitely thoroughly developed and adapted to the university requirements, are in my opinion and from what I can tell due to my experience not adequate for their audience. When we design a writing prompt we need to keep the students as an audience in mind and need to shape the prompts to their needs. That this is easier said than done is self-speaking since it unavoidably marginalizes so many different characters of students that have such different abilities. Furthermore, we need to contextualize and sequence the prompt and “we must decide its function as a teaching tool, assess its relation to other assignments and plan other kinds of instruction-class discussion and group-work to support the assignment” (Lindenman 220). On the administrative side, we have to bring university requirements, program standards, complexity and clarity together and on the other hand we simultaneously have to be aware of all the different levels of skills our students have, their different socio-educational background and even their personal interests when we form a writing prompt. This list of requirements alone makes it a very daunting task, which then needs to fit in the writing program’s pedagogical and methodological framework, so that it seems impossible to fit the needs of each student and elicit their best piece of work and steady interest in the course matter. Within the last thirteen weeks, however, I have become sensitive to the needs of my students and sensed in which direction they would wish the writing assignments to head and which pedagogical tweaks and changes in methodology could help them to improve their writing and to get them more engaged. This is the reason why I made the improvement and the design of writing prompts that, on the one hand, fit the university’s requirements, but also appeal to the students and ease their understanding of the prompts, the focal point of my final paper in ENG 502.
The aim of this paper is to explain, why the standardized 101 writing prompts at SIUC are not adequate for their audience, how they can be improved in order to fulfill their aims and to show which little changes can make the standardized prompts more effective. I especially want to focus how we can design writing prompts to facilitate the students’ understanding for the connections between the units and the course progression. I obviously do not regard myself as the experienced scholar or instructor who can create the one and only writing assignment that completely fulfills its task and elicits perfect student essays. I do think, however, that I have gained the necessary experience to assume what my students need in regard to effective writing assignments that yield the fruits expected by the course syllabus. Furthermore, I have asked my students in a free-write to point out their problems with the 101 writing assignments and to evaluate a writing assignment I have created. This empirical data will influence and be referred to in this paper.
One of the most crucial problems that teachers face when constructing a writing prompt is, that their assumption of an effective writing prompt most of the times strongly diverges from the student’s assumption of a good writing prompt. The teacher might think of a good writing prompt as one that explores the students’ abilities to write, to apply the knowledge gained in previous courses or the antecedent course weeks, that the students show critical engagement with the subject matter, answer all the teacher’s question adequately and finally prove their ability to progress to the next unit or next higher course level.
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- Sebastian Meindl (Author), 2010, Designing Effective Writing Prompts for English , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/164328