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Engaging Assignments: Steve Williams’ Problem-based Scenario



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Many professors worry that students need all of the content of a course before they can solve a real-world problem. In Dr. Williams’ assignment, which he gives at the first class meeting, students are invited to apply their own critical problem-solving skills by doing their own independent investigation using whatever sources they can find. When students bring a draft of their executive memo to class, Dr. Williams has them work in small groups to compare and critique each other’s work. In whole class discussions, the students consider standard features of the genre of memos, good and bad sources of information, strategies for getting tasks like this done, and the disciplinary conventions and Standard Written English expected in clear and professional communication. Dr. Williams allows the students to revise based on their work in class and grades only the revision. This process establishes many of the expectations for the course and encourages students to use peer review before submitting subsequent assignments. Because the assignment asks students to analyze, synthesize, and apply information it involves the students in higher order thinking. Using peer review not only saves Dr. Williams time, but fosters the interactions with peers that deepens their engagement.Auburn Professor Steve Williams created an engaging writing assignment for his students in his Executive Issues in Construction course that is overtly linked to skills they will need in their professional careers. Williams asks students to write a two-page memo for the executives of a construction company analyzing a common construction problem and offering possible solutions. Williams then invites industry experts into his course to respond to student work. Giving students a real audience for their writing, an audience that isn’t just the teacher of the course, gives students both motivation to do their best work and additional opportunities to learn the expectations they will encounter once they graduate. This assignment created the key elements of ENGAGEMENT: time on task and focused attention.

As we explained in an earlier post, this assignment includes many features that make it engaging. Here’s Professor Williams full assignment. The idea of creating a scenario that lets students apply information they’ve learned in a real-world setting similar to what they are likely to encounter in their careers can be adapted to different courses and majors. Many other Auburn Professors have developed engaging writing assignments and we’ll be featuring some of them in this spot in the months to come. Meanwhile, if you want to see other examples or learn about how faculty at Auburn are working with technology, creating innovative curriculum, or incorporating features of ePortfolios in their courses, join us for Conversations in Celebration of Teaching on September 20th 2-5 in the Auburn Hotel and Conference Center.


Learn more about engaging writing assignments:

Check out other writing resources in the Teaching Writing Library!

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