Examples of Assignments

Art History
Political Science
Visual Arts


The section following lists a series of assignments and sources for various disciplines. These sources can be found in the portfolio entitled "Writing Across the Curriculum" in the library or in various texts also to be found in the library. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list nor should readers feel compelled to stay in their own disciplines. Browsing through suggested assignments in other disciplines is encouraged. Where more than one assignment is described per discipline they are lettered. A, B, and C.

Art History

Barbara Filo, a Professor of Art History at Whitworth College, describes an assignment where her students are expected to review art exhibits. The assignment is notable for her detailed use of criteria to help students understand what it is critics need to look at in order to critique art intelligently (Whitworth College 54-8).


A) For a detailed description of peer critiquing and analysis of models in Biology laboratory reports see Elizabeth A. Flynn, George A. McCulley, and Ronald K. Gratz. "Writing in Biology" in Writing Across the Disciplines, Art Young and Toby Fulwiler Eds. The methodology used was as follows:

  1. A sample biology article was passed out to students who then read it, took notes, and discussed the function of each of its parts.
  2. The instructor then passed out a copy of the article specifying the sections of the piece and a description of the function of those sections in terms of the scientific method.
  3. Students then analyzed 3 more articles in small groups.
  4. Later, in a specific laboratory experiment, students were allowed class time for peer critiquing of their lab reports (162-163).

B) Lee Anne Chaney, Professor of Biology at Whitworth College, describes a detailed assignment for writing an abstract. She also outlines how students are allowed to rewrite the abstracts (Whitworth College 69-75). The description of the assignment is useful chiefly in terms of the explanations of conventions she provides on pages 74-75.

C) Virginia Johnson Anderson at Towson State University describes her methods of having students conduct and report on original scientific research in a second-year Biological Literature class. The article, one of many described by Barbara Walvoord, takes the reader through Anderson's teaching methods and how she changes them to improve student performance over several years. Described are specific assignments used in the classroom which include:

The article provides detailed analysis of Anderson's methodology, of her teaching methods and of data collection and the reactions and progress of two classes. The article is one of the best at showing how students perceive (and misperceive) the role of the scientist as writer. An excellent source for anyone attempting to teach biological report writing and the conventions of the scientific method (Walvoord et al. 177-227).

General Interest

Bonnie B. Spanier of the State University of New York provides an interesting look at the "discourse community" of the Biological Sciences. She posits that "writing-across-the-curriculum projects that address ideology in the discourse and practise of science [emphasis hers] are potentially transformative and may help to alleviate the exclusion of women and people of color in scientific literacy in the United States, and the vast gulf between scientific experts and the public in issues of science and society" (Spanier in Herrington and Moran 193-212).


A) George Weber, Professor of Economics at Whitworth College, describes a research/analysis position paper and an analysis of guests' presentations in class. Weber uses a step by step method for having students research and draft papers, incorporating conferences with students. (Whitworth College, p. 48) The description doesn't provide a great deal of detail but it is worth reading for Weber's change in emphasis between the two methods (Whitworth College 43-48).

B) Dean Drenk, a Finance Professor at an American university, uses process oriented writing in a finance class. He uses multiple trials (which many would call drafts), a detailed grading format, and a series of discussions or meetings with the students. The article is interesting for his description of his reasons for using written assignments in a finance course and his exploration of the process (Drenk in Griffin 53-58).

C) Andrew Moss and Carol Holder provide a format for generating effective writing assignments which will prepare students for the kind of collaborative writing they may face in the business world. An example of this method follows:

Assume that you and a partner have an accounting firm. You have just accepted a new client, Gordon Blue, who has provided the following information during several conferences.

Blue is 58 years old and has a wife and three grown children. He has been the maitre d' at a prominent restaurant for twenty years and is now opening his own place.

Blue has posed several questions he wants you and your partner to answer:

1) What form of business expertise should be set up for his new restaurant? ...

2) Should he lease or buy the equipment? ...

3) What kind of retirement plans are available for self-employed persons? ...

4) Can and should he sell his name to raise capital needed in the business? ...

5) Can he take a Nile cruise and claim some portion of the costs as business expenses as he plans to attend professional seminars en route? ...

6) How can he give some of his wealth to his children effective at his death without creating for them a heavy tax liability?

7) How might he best take advantage of income averaging provisions of Federal tax law...

8) What does internal control of a business mean?

(Inside English 15)

Students are paired and told that the pairs must draft responses to any four of these questions and that their answers must be in clear non-technical language.

Also, students are grouped into larger teams which work on an oral response to one of the questions. During this presentation the teacher and class act as "Gordon Blue" asking questions. Then, there is drafting of final responses, criticism of the drafts on overheads, and final writing and grading of the finished product.

The original article contains much more detail. (Inside English 15)

D) A. Kimbough Sherman of Loyala College in Maryland describes his use of WAC principles and assignments in his production management course "which deals with the operational aspects of a business, such as what goods and services it provides, where it locates, and how it organizes resources, people, and processes. (50) (This chapter provides a detailed examination of expectations and methodology in a course.) Sherman tries to set up situations where students have to confront complex business situations and make decisions. He describes three assignments:

  1. An analytical assignment of one page where students make a decision about locating a new business.
  2. An analytical assignment where students evaluate layout and work designs of two restaurants. (1 page)
  3. A term paper about raising productivity in the U.S. (8 pages draft, 5 pages final) (52)

Sherman's experiences are interesting in particular because of the way students interpret (or misinterpret) assignment sheets, for example, in not using library resources unless explicitly told to do so. There is also a good discussion of the problems raised in insufficiently-controlled peer discussions and also of the importance of pre-draft writing (Walvoord et al. 50-96).

E) Chris Thaiss describes how a Professor of Business Administration, George Cole, at the College of William and Mary, "combines interviews and written reports to enhance the writing, speaking, and listening abilities of his students" (Thaiss in Griffin 51). Cole uses videotape to simulate situations such as job interviews which the students then analyze in writing. Thaiss also describes Barbara Belling's (of James Madison University) assignment of three, six, and twelve page case reports. She writes her own cases in order to ascertain that they are "do-able" and provides opportunities for feedback and revision (Thaiss in Griffin 51-52).


Donald F. Calbreath, Professor of Chemistry at Whitworth College, describes three assignments for a fourth-year course: an abstract, a comparison of methods, and a research paper. Calbreath provides the assignment sheets used in the first two of these assignments. (Whitworth College, 65-67) This description is a bit sketchy but worthwhile because of his criteria.


Brian Coulter at U F VC provides an outline for a term paper assignment in Economics (first year). He explains what a term paper is, how to do proper research, how to write a paper (he provides an outline or template for a typical paper); he also details what plagiarism is and provides a list of standard sources for each topic (Cooke 81- 87).


Math & Science

A) Judy Westerburg and Jack Whiting describe a project for a high school class (grade unspecified) combining a general mathematics class (i.e. non-matriculation) and a science class.

The project requires two 50 minute periods. Students are divided into groups to compare different brands of popcorn in terms of ratio of popped and unpopped kernels, weight and volume, size, colour, flavour, and texture. Then, the class compiles the information for averaging. Finally each student creates a magazine advertisement based on the brand they think is best. The advertisement must include a narrative giving at least four reasons (from the data) that their brand is the best. (Westerburg 9 and Whiting 306-08)

B) Diane Miller describes using writing prompts in high school mathematics classes. As students are beginning class, Diane Miller has them respond in writing to various "prompts." Students are given five minutes to write down their responses to set problems. The responses can be read quickly and teachers can respond in writing or, if time is a problem, verbally. They are not graded for content, spelling, or grammar.

Examples of prompts include:

General Mathematics. You have studied the commutative property for addition and multiplication of real numbers. Not all operators are commutative. If you were asked to explain to a friend why division is not commutative, what would you say?

Algebra. Suppose a friend asks you to check the answers to some homework problems. Would you mark the following problem correct or incorrect. Explain why....(a + b)² = a² + b²

Geometry. Suppose your younger sister or brother was working some problems that applied the Pythagorean theorem, that is, a² + b² = c². After working a few problems (s)he asked you, "How do we know that the sum of the squares of the legs of a right triangle equals the square of the hypotenuse?" What would you say?

(Miller 130)


C) Carol Hellar, Professor of Education at Whitworth College, writes about an Educational Foundations course: Modern American Education. She asks students to design an "ideal school". Students are allowed to pick an elementary, middle, or secondary school (the gradations used in Washington State). She gives clear, detailed questions which must be addressed. Students have to provide plans and present their vision to the class in a 12 page presentation. They must also hand in a 6 page (minimum) paper describing the school, its operations and philosophies. A good detailed description of an assignment (Whitworth College 62-64).


A) Elizabeth A. Flynn describes a method of using responses to literature as a stepping stone to more detailed writing. She draws on James Britton and Linda Flower to show how students move from expressive writing to essays. The steps are as follows:

  1. Journal responses to the story A & P by John Updike as an example.
  2. Drafting of an essay focussing on characterization.
  3. Peer review in class.
  4. Revised draft handed in for grading.

(Young and Fulwiler 208-214)

B) Susan Peck MacDonald and Charles R. Cooper, both at the University of California, San Diego, describe using writing in a Chinese literature course where students had already taken freshman composition. The instructors designed and oversaw a controlled experiment in different sections assigning academic journals in some sections and dialogic journals in other sections. Results clearly show that academic writing (i.e. writing that clearly answers set questions or explains aspects of the texts) seems to benefit students more than dialogic (expressive writing). However, both types of writing specifically improve student's results over those students who did no journal writing. An excellent article, one of the few in the area which attempts to use scientific method to evaluate writing assignments (MacDonald and Cooper in Herrington and Moran 137-155).

C) Toby Fulwiler describes an American literature course where the assignments use Britton's expressive, transactional, and poetic modes of writing. Fulwiler uses the following methods to encourage and assess his students' writing:

  1. Dialogue journal - 20% of grade. Students must hand in selected excerpts three times during the semester.
  2. Essays - three 2 page - 40% of grade - the essays are as follows:
    a) A critical essay
    b) An essay reflecting personal experience with readings in the course
    c) An imaginative essay
  3. Literature discussion group - 20%
  4. Final examination - written collaboratively by the group (20% of grade).

(Fulwiler in Herrington and Moran157-158)

Fulwiler provides details from the students' journals and examples of the kinds of questions he poses to them. He also provides guidelines for the group work. (Fulwiler in Herrington and Moran156-173).

D) A suggestion from Helen Heightsman Gordon of Bakersfield College is to have students copy short well-written compositions "changing each one in some meaningful way, such as from present to past, singular to plural, slang to standard English, and so on. Or they may combine selected sentences within the composition to term appositives, compound sentences, adjective clauses, adverbial clauses, etc. They learn the appropriate punctuation in context as they make these changes. In effect, they are 'playing the game as they learn the rules-learning by doing'" (Inside English 11).

E) Virginia Cooke provides a detailed assignment for a first-year English class. She provides examples from various plays, a step-by-step method of looking at the literature and doing research and information about such conventions as speaking in the present tense, quoting correctly, etc. (Cooke 76-80).

General Interest

In "Shallow Roots or Taproots for Writing Across the Curriculum" Edward M. White provides an excellent discussion as to how WAC programs, despite an initial surge of interest, have remained "Shallow" in many post-secondary institutions. His article concentrates on support for English faculty (i.e. training for lower- and upper-level writing courses) and for programs which have instituted upper-level writing courses that are program specific at California State University. Also, he describes how the Writing Centre at California State keeps copies of syllabi, sample texts, and successful writing assignments.


General Interest

Louise Dunlap writes an excellent overview of some of the issues facing those who teach writing to graduate students in urban and regional planning. It should be noted that this article has implications for economists, statisticians, sociologists, geographers, engineers, and historians, among others. She looks at particular types of writing: critical writing, neutral writing, fast writing. A fascinating analysis of the politics involved in this mode of discourse (Dunlap in Herrington and Moran 213-230).


A) Jim Hunt, Professor of History at Whitworth College, describes an evaluation sheet he uses for grading history papers and a brief description of writing a short essay (Whitworth College 76-79) & (Fulwiler192-207).

B) John R. Breihan, Professor of History at Loyola College, uses WAC principles in a first-year Modern Civilization course. Walvoord and Breihan evaluate how his teaching methods help or hinder students' understanding of historical principles and writing. Specific teaching methods include:

  1. An issue-oriented course plan, using issues as points of entry into the course.
  2. Three major argumentative essays about those issues; these essays formed the central assignments towards which much of the other course activities were pointed.
  3. A checksheet for evaluating/grading the essays that made [Breihan's] expectations very explicit.
  4. Daily, focused writings ("exercises") explicitly planned both to develop needed skills and information and to serve as pre-draft preparation for the essays.
  5. In-class discussions in which Breihan led his students through the modes of argument he wanted them to learn.
  6. Seven in-class debates on historical issues that also served as pre-draft preparation for the essays.
  7. Responses by Breihan on drafts of the essays, after which students revised (Walvoord et al. 98).

The article is interesting for methods Breihan used in encouraging students to formulate theses and provides a clear evaluation sheet (109). It is also good for his description of the use of argument and counter argument. Breihan and Walvoord also include questions on single readings and provide methods of guiding students through stages of debates and choosing positions and defending them. This chapter is not easily summarized and is best read in its entirety (Walvoord et al. 97-143).

C) Chris Thaiss outlines how historian Donald Holsinger of George Mason uses journal writing and in-class writing in an African history course. Holsinger provides an example of how he gives students two accounts of Stanley's encounter with hostile "natives". Students are asked to pose as newspaper columnists who must write using the two sources (Thaisss in Griffin 50-51).

D) Bill Breitenback at the University of Puget Sound describes assignments for a third-year history course in American Transcendentalism. This section of Cooke's work is interesting for the way it leads students through a series of assignments and editing and conferencing steps, building on the knowledge gained through the previous assignment (Cooke 88-95).


Note: Please look under "education" for other ideas for assignments. Although that section deals with primary and secondary students there may be some crossover possible as many of the assignments in that section deal with mathematics classes.

A) Arlo W. Schurle at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana assigns ten one or two page essays in "which they [students explained] some standard Calculus II topic." At the beginning of the year he provides a sample assignment and student response so students would have a model. Schurle also provides results from a questionnaire which shows that students do value writing as a tool for learning mathematics. Unfortunately Schurle doesn't give criteria for grading, although he says he does mark for mathematical correctness and completeness, grammar, spelling and style:

  1. Explain what a differential equation is and what a solution of a differential equation is. Give an example.
  2. Explain what a separable differential equation is and how to solve such an equation. What might prevent you from getting a solution in the form y=f(x)?
  3. Explain what a first order linear differential equation is and how to solve such an equation. Also, use an example to explain this process to your friend in another MA 201 section.
  4. Explain what an nth order linear differential equation is and what a general solution of such an equation looks like. Give an example.
  5. Explain how to solve an nth order constant coefficient homogeneous linear differential equation. Include all possible cases and how to deal with each of them.
  6. Explain how to find the general solution of an arbitrary nonhomogeneous linear differential equation. Then explain the method of undetermined coefficients.
  7. Explain when you must use the method of variation of parameters. Also, use an example to explain this method to your fellow MA 201 student.
  8. Explain what the Laplace transform of a function is and why the Laplace transform is so useful for solving differential equations. Also give and example with accompanying explanation.
  9. Explain the method of partial fractions and how it applied to the use of the Laplace transform.

(Schurle 134-135)

B) Barbara King at Rutgers University describes using James Britton's theories on expressive and transactional writing. She outlines six ways of getting students to use transactional writing (writing to explain, report, or persuade):

  1. Summaries - She asks students to summarize the previous day's material or summarize at the end of class. These can be reviewed by the instructor or used by the students as study notes.
  2. Questions - Students formulate and write down questions they have about problems. The questions can be collected by the instructor and used as a review of homework. Or, they may be discussed in groups.
  3. Explanations of mathematical concepts - Again, these can be handed in or discussed in groups.
  4. Definitions of concepts in the student's own words.
  5. Reports - Topics can include "the life of a famous mathematician, research on math anxiety, new developments in computer technology, and careers in mathematics"
  6. Word problems.

(King in Griffin 42)

King also describes using Journals and Free Writing to explore feelings about mathematical problems (King in Griffin 39-44).

C) Catherine Gorini provides the following essay assignment: "A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas" (G.H. Hardy qtd in Gorini 246). She prefers having students go through a detailed set of steps - outline/drafting - (5% of grade), feedback from instructors, or peer conferencing. She points out that instructor's comments should note what is good as well as correct mistakes in logic and grammar (Gorini 247).

General Interest

For an excellent discussion of the uses and efficacy of journal writing in mathematics classes see Selfe, Peterson and Nahrging's "Journal Writing in Mathematics" in Writing Across the Disciplines (Young & Fulwiler 192-207). The authors discuss a research project involving mathematics students who were involved in journal writing. they summarize the results of their research (much of which points to how difficult it is to measure the value of such tools) and point the way to future research.


Richard Evans, Professor of Music at Whitworth College, describes a detailed, written assignment for music students which, because it involves detailed writing and clear research steps andinvolves listening to a piece of music at least six times, helps students to appreciate fully modern (Twentieth Century) music-an area where students are reluctant to understand what the composers had perhaps intended (Whitworth College 49-55).


Chris Thaiss describes how Moira Shine, a Nursing Professor at George Mason, has her upper-level and graduate nursing students go through a process whereby students write a letter which describes the point of a potential article, "the kinds of data that will support it, the writer's qualifications and the ways in which the audience can use the information" (44). Students then must work with other students who act as editors, asking questions and suggesting ideas for developing the topic. Because her students are at a high level, some of the articles which result from this process have actually been published (Thaiss in Griffin 49).


John C. Bean, Dean Drenk, and F.D. Lee describe using short writing assignments called "microthemes" in physics classes. They emphasize that the assignments don't add a heavy grading load on the instructor. Microthemes are essays so short they can be typed on one 5 X 8 note card. One type of microtheme is described where students summarize an article in 1 - 200 words. The authors provide detailed criteria for grading in the article. The article also contains some other types of microthemes which might have more relevance to Finance and Philosophy (Bean et al. in Griffin 34-37).

Political Science

A clear description by John Yoder , Professor of Political Science at Whitworth College, of a step-by-step method he uses to get students to write better researched, better organized research papers. He has students follow eight steps:

1) Background reading

2) A key question

3) A web of ideas

4) An annotated bibliography

5) Notes on reading and research

6) An outline

7) A rough draft

8) A final draft

Each step is handed in to the instructor for grading. Yoder points out that the detailed comments he has provided along the way free him from making detailed notes on the final paper (Whitworth College 37-44).


A) Michael E. Gorman, Margaret Gorman and Art Young describe a process by which creative writing was introduced into an introductory psychology class. The authors draw heavily on James Britton's theoretical base. The assignments are structured as follows:

1) Students were asked to write a poem about schizophrenia before they had read anything about it, to give them a chance to explore their feelings and impressions. They were told this poem would not be graded...

2) The students were then assigned a draft essay, worth 4 points (out of a total of 100 for the course), in which they had to discuss how the bio-medical and learning models, two of the perspectives on schizophrenia in the course, could be applied to Maili's cases [Mark Vonnegut's The Eden Express, an account of schizophrenia which students had been asked to read]. They were told this essay would help them with their final papers and that it would not be graded critically.

3) Next, students had to write a draft short story on roughly the same topic as their draft essay. The idea here was to compare transactional and poetic approaches to the same assignment. The story was also worth 4 points and again, students knew it would not be graded critically.

4) Toward the end of the course, students were asked to write a poem about how the humanistic-existential perspective could be applied to Mark's case, the same assignments as had been used in a previous class. This poem was expected to be closer to a final product...and was worth two points... .

5) At the end of the course, the students had to hand in a formal paper in which they compared the bio-medical and humanistic-existential approaches to Mark's schizophrenia. This paper was worth ten points and students knew it would be graded more critically than their first draft.

6) Students were asked to keep journals throughout the quarter, making two entries a week...We intended to use the journal to help us gauge student's reactions to the assignments-particularly the case-study students. But the focus of our study was on the contrast between transactional and poetic writing; therefore, we did not attempt a detailed study of the impact of the journals (Gorman, Gorman, and Young in Writing Across the Disciplines 139-141).

The article includes details from three student's work and comments on how students felt about the process.

(Gorman, Gorman, and Young in

Writing Across the Disciplines 139-160)

B) Barbara Walvoord and Susan Miller Robison, a psychology instructor at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, describe Robison's attempts to use WAC principles in a first-year Human Sexuality class. Students were expected to learn about research methodology as well as content. An interesting chapter worthwhile for its detailed criteria used on assignment sheets (151). Should be noted that the College is all-female and the instructor is teaching "somewhat" from a Catholic perspective (Walvoord et al. 44-176).

C) Chris Thaiss describes how psychologist Roy Smith of Mary Washington College teaches lab reporting by comparing lab reports to expository essays in terms of thesis and hypothesis, evidence and data, and conclusions. He also accepts revisions of reports (Thaiss in Griffin 49).

D) Astrid Ster at the University College of the Fraser Valley describes two developmental research projects for a Psychology class (second year). She provides detailed plans and questions for students to answer as they are setting up their studies. She also provides a research option for students who want to get a B or below which is less detailed. Good for explaining the many steps involved in designing and conducting a research study (Cooke 97-103).


A) Robert A. Clark, Professor of Sociology at South Mountain Community College, describes in detail an assignment on sociology of the family where students have to write a six to eight page paper pursuing a sociological question about some aspect of family life. Clarke uses many elements familiar to those who have written successful research assignments: he has clear guidelines, good examples of questions, and clear criteria. Students have to do detailed preliminary research and then come to class with their topic and ten questions they want answered about this topic. Working in groups, the students have to narrow this list down to one sociological question. Then, drafting and instructor- student-conferences follow. An excellent article on the instructor's changing attitudes towards writing in the sociology classroom. The professor also lists sample topics and describes another type of writing-the reactive paper on a text (Whitworth 28-36).

B) Jean Ballard-Kent provides a detailed assignment on article review. The article is excellent for its detailed information and its step-by-step bringing of the student through the process (Cooke 69-75).

Visual Arts

Chris Thaiss describes how architecture professor Joseph Wong of Virginia Tech uses WAC principles in writing assignments. This description is interesting for instructors at Malaspina primarily for its applications for design assignments. First students write a short essay on their "experiences and professional goals" (Thaiss in Griffin 50). Then, students must describe in words a chosen piece of design and "two other students [must] produce a graphic reconstruction of the design from the verbal description" (Thaiss in Griffin 50).


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Malaspina University-College's Writing- Across-the-Curriculum Project
Brenda Sully, April 1995