What Does Research Say about the Kind of Writing Assignments that Support Student Learning?

Posted on January 29th, 2016

Lindsay Clare Matsumura, an associate professor in the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education and a research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center, describes the features of text-based writing assignments that build students' reading and analytic writing skills."

[Video Transcript] So what does research say about the kinds of writing assignments that support learning and reading comprehension? Well, first of all, writing about text is a very power tool for learning, because when you write about something it forces you to really transform and manipulate ideas in text and also because the permanence of writing really provides a way for – to make thinking visible, so it invites people to reflect, to connect to, to critique the ideas of others. So writing about text can be a really powerful way to create communities of learners in classrooms. So in terms of the assignments that support reading comprehension and learning, when you're developing these kinds of assignments, the first thing to think about is: what are students going to be writing about?

Texts are critically important because they're the springboard for the assignment. They create the entire context for student writing. So when you're choosing your text, you want to think about: is there content in here that is not just engaging for students, not just interesting for students, but that has something substantive that students can dig into? Are there problems in the text that need to be solved? Are there characters that are neither all good nor all bad? Are there moral dilemmas that don't have clear resolutions or right or wrong answers?

And it's important to remember also that this kind of substantiveness I'm talking about or grist can be shown both in fiction, in novels, but also in nonfiction, so where you might see it in nonfiction, for example, could be in having students read different short articles which represent different positions on an issue that doesn't have a clear resolution. Like, should we be investing money in space travel when people are living in poverty, for example? Or should students be allowed to play video games? There's different positions for or against that could be – that could be reasonably argued, so this again presents or provides content that students can dig into in their own writing.

Okay, once you've selected your text or your sequence of texts, then it is important to make sure that the writing task guides students to apply higher-level processes when they're thinking about what it is that they've read or that the task is cognitively demanding. So one way to think about how cognitively demanding a task is is: is it guiding students to construct knowledge versus reproduce knowledge? So by constructing knowledge, I mean that students are being guided to generate original insights, to have original thinking about what it is they're writing, to come up with their own analyses, their own interpretations. Reproducing knowledge means that you're simply describing the content that's in a text or you're just recalling or retrieving information from the text.

Working to develop a cognitively demanding task can be kind of confusing because there are a lot of terms out there that are meant to signal that something is cognitively demanding or not, so you'll see terms like students should be comparing characters or comparing information across texts or students should be evaluating text, but the thing is, is that you could have an assignment where students are comparing or evaluating things and those assignments can be more or less cognitively demanding. So, for example, let's say you have an assignment where you're asking students to compare two characters. If the students are comparing the characters on things like their appearance or on particular actions that occurred in the text, that's not necessarily going to be a very cognitively demanding assignment. That's quite different than if you're having students compare characters – their motivations or comparing sort of the bigger ideas that those characters represent in a text.

Another example would be evaluation. An assignment can be really rigorous if students are being guided to write from a perspective of what makes a novel good or what makes an argument believable and then to consider how a particular text does or does not meet those expectations. But if what you're asking students to do is just to say whether or not you liked a book and give a few reasons, that's not going to – that's not a very cognitively demanding assignment. So it can be tricky because just because you're doing these processes like comparing, evaluating, analyzing, it doesn't necessarily mean that the assignment is cognitively demanding.

So when we think about creating a cognitively demanding assignment – all right? – it's not just thinking about construction of knowledge versus reproducing knowledge, but it's also important to consider the extent to which students are being held accountable to explain their thinking. So oftentimes assignments that are cognitively demanding really require students to produce multiple-paragraph responses then and really ask students to explain what it is that they're – their assertions that they're making. But the other side of is they also hold students accountable to really sticking closely to the text that they're responding to.

One rule of thumb I use when I'm looking at an assignment is: would students need to have read this text in order to complete this assignment successfully? If the answer is no, then I would consider redesigning the assignment. So one example from a seventh grade classroom I visited is that the teacher had the students read the book Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, and then she had them complete an assignment where they wrote about what does my – a family – what is a family. So on one hand this assignment makes sense because there are rich themes about families that's in that text, but the truth is is that you wouldn't have had to read Maniac Magee in order to write about what a family means to you. So one way that I might consider redesigning this assignment would have had students to actually write about what were the messages or images of families that were portrayed in the novel and think about how were those messages similar or dissimilar from students' own experiences or to connect the ideas around family in that book to other books that students might have read that talked about families. So the important thing is to keep assignments close to the text that students are reading. And sticking close to the text means not just engaging with the ideas in the text but pulling multiple pieces from the text to support your ideas.

The last thing to consider when you're developing writing assignments that support learning and reading comprehension are the criteria that you develop for student work, and this is important because students are unlikely to go beyond the requirements of an assignment. So, for example, even though your goal may be that you want kids to be constructing information from text or be providing evidence, if students are being graded on neatness, on grammar, on – you know - punctuation, that's what they're going to be focusing on in their writing. So it's really important when you're developing criteria for good student work that it focus on the things that are most important about the assignment, that those criteria focus on the most important learning goals.

So if it matters to you, for example, that students are using lots of evidence and appropriate evidence, that should definitely be one of the criteria that you use when you grade students' work. Or if it's important to you that students are generating original insight, then that's what is important to include in the criteria that you give to students for what they need to do in order to be successful on the task.

Lindsay Clare Matsumura

Lindsay Clare Matsumura Lindsay Clare Matsumura is an associate professor in the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education and a research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center, .

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