For students, writing is an indispensable skill, whether they’re pursuing a career in translation, science, or business. As a lecturer, you have the opportunity to make a positive impact. After all, you often play a crucial role in developing the writing skills of your students. But supervising writing assignments can be a challenging task. In this tip, we will discuss some practical advice to facilitate the supervision process.
Types of writing assignments
Writing assignments come in different shapes and sizes, ranging from short article summaries, contributions to online wikis and reports of practicals to more extensive essays, research papers and bachelor or master dissertations.
The purpose of writing assignments may also differ. For example, you can use an assignment to hone students’ writing skills (‘learning to write’) or use the writing process to facilitate learning (‘writing to learn’) (Broadhead, 1999, quoted in Carter et al., 2007). The first category of assignments involves developing academic writing skills and learning to write a specific type of text, such as an advisory report, a drug sheet, a report of a practical, or a bachelor dissertation. The second category is about processing and connecting knowledge and insights, where writing is used as a tool. For example, students can be tasked with writing an essay to learn more about a particular theory or topic. Of course, there are also writing assignments that combine both perspectives.
The success of any writing assignment hinges on clear communication. Good supervision starts with proper assignment instructions. The length and detail of the instructions you give to students will of course depend on their experience with the assignment and the associated learning content. Another factor to be taken into account is how independently students are expected to perform the task.
Below are several elements that proper assignment instructions should include (Van Petegem, 2010):
Communicate about the purpose of the assignment
- Is it about learning to write, or about processing insights and content, i.e. writing to learn, or a combination of both?
- Include learning objectives in the assignment instructions. What should students have mastered after completing the writing assignment? How is the assignment relevant to students’ future studies or careers? For UAntwerp staff, this Learning Objectives & Competences Manual is available as a tool to help with this.
Communicate about the assessment criteria
These may relate to the content (e.g. accuracy of the content, literature synthesised correctly), the process (e.g. reasoning, results, conclusion) and/or the product (e.g. spelling, citing sources, structure). UAntwerp staff can consult tip No. 42 in ‘50 Onderwijstips’ (50 Education tips, only in Dutch) for additional info and advice.
Communicate about the form
What type of text (essay, paper, practical report) is expected? Specify the characteristics of this type of text. These may vary depending on the subject area or the lecturer, so it’s important to be transparent and to make agreements about them at the study programme level.
Things to keep in mind:
- Who is the target audience? A text for the lay public can/must take a different form than a text for peers; which style is appropriate?
- What should the overall structure look like?
- What is the general purpose of the text? Reporting results in a very accessible way, or clearly describing detailed data?
Communicate about support
How and when will you be providing supervision and feedback? Are there any internal or external support resources available, such as manuals, workshops or websites? For UAntwerp students, such resources include the Doorschrijfweek (Writing Week), Monitoraat op Maat (Academic Dutch language support), the Zelfstudiepakket basisvaardigheden academisch Nederlands (Self-study pack: basic skills for Academic Dutch) and the Infocenter Ondersteuning Studenten (Info Centre Student Support).
The supervision process
When supervising a student via one or more one-to-one sessions, it’s best to adopt a coaching attitude (info in Dutch). Be sure to let the student take charge and provide their own input while you take a back seat, unless they remain very passive.
Give activating feedback that encourages the student to get to work (William, 2013). This can be done in various ways:
- Ask questions, give hints and suggestions, and/or mention sources where students can find and process answers, input or support.
- Have students reflect on your feedback and ask them how they plan to process and incorporate it.
- If possible, give students the opportunity to apply the feedback in a next version of the assignment or the next assignment.
Provide feedback in an efficient, well-dosed manner. Not only does this save you a lot of time, but it’s also better for the students, as bite-sized feedback is easier to process than a lot of feedback all at once.
Ways to provide efficient feedback include:
- Focusing on the most important aspects of the assignment, the so-called ‘higher-order concerns’ (Keh, 1990). These are the criteria that are crucial for this specific assignment. Let’s say students have to write a paper where argumentation and structure are considered higher-order concerns, while spelling and layout are considered lower-order concerns. In that case, efficient feedback should focus first and foremost on argumentation and structure. Comments on spelling and layout should then remain brief, without going into detail. Lower-order concerns can still be addressed at a later stage.
- Correct only some of the errors. For example, highlight a number of language errors on one page, indicating what’s wrong with the wording and how it can be improved. Then instruct the student to detect and correct similar language errors in the rest of the assignment.
- Assess part of the text and then discuss strategies and techniques that students can use to improve other parts of the text. For example, discuss the argumentation style and how it can be improved upon, and which argumentation techniques can also be used in other parts of the text.
- Have students indicate which aspects/criteria of the assignment they would like to receive interim feedback on. This teaches them to look critically at their own work, and the feedback you give will always be relevant.
- Create a numbered database of common mistakes and feedback on these mistakes. This way, you can first give feedback by using this database. Then you can supplement this generic feedback with more personalised feedback.
- Talk to students in groups rather than one-to-one, for example to discuss a writing plan or a first draft.
- Use fellow students as feedback givers.
For more information on how to give high-quality feedback, feel free to browse this category of ECHO Tips.
For some time now, students have been able to use ChatGPT to perform writing assignments. Of course, this new tool comes with its own set of challenges and things to be mindful of.
Since ChatGPT sometimes produces factual untruths, the user needs a certain level of knowledge in order to be able to assess whether the generated answers are correct and complete. In addition, due to the generative nature of ChatGPT, texts that students copy from it verbatim won’t be picked up by plagiarism checks. This is because the generated text didn’t previously exist on the internet.
In other words, it’s important to teach students to learn to interact with ChatGPT and other AI tools in a meaningful, critical and scientifically honest way.
How can you, as a lecturer, use ChatGPT in a meaningful way for writing assignments?
- Use ChatGPT as a brainstorming aid. It can be used to supplement students’ ideas, and vice versa: students can further flesh out the core ideas generated by AI.
- Have students critically analyse/assess and possibly improve upon an answer or text generated by ChatGPT.
- ChatGPT can help students with suggestions for improving or translating a text.
- Generate a first draft of a text with ChatGPT and have students expand upon it, rewrite it or improve upon it.
How can you properly assess writing assignments involving ChatGPT?
- Organise feedback sessions during which you discuss points of attention and strengths of the writing assignment. This allows you to get a sense of how familiar the students are with the contents of their completed assignments, and what they’ve done to arrive at the final product.
- Ask for an oral explanation of the writing assignment.
- Make sure that both an interim version and a final product are included and discussed.
- Have students reflect on the work they’ve done to arrive at the final product and ask questions about the process.
UAntwerp staff members can also consult Pintra (info in Dutch) for more information, including institution-specific information.
Want to know more?
ECHO Teaching Tips in English
ECHO Teaching Tips in Dutch
- Een schriftelijk werkstuk als toets (2015)
- Talige verwachtingen duidelijk maken bij academische schrijftaken (2016)
- Plagiaat (2016)
- Wetenschappelijke integriteit in het hoger onderwijs (2020)
BV-Databank (in Dutch): begeleiden van bachelor- en masterproeven
Carter, M., Ferzli, M., & Wiebe, E. (2007). Writing to learn by learning to write in the disciplines. Journal of business and Technical Communication, 21(3), 278–302.
Keh, C. (1990). Feedback in the writing process: A model and methods for implementation. ELT Journal, 44(4), 294–304.
Mirande, M., & Wardenaar, E. (1997). Scriptieproblemen. Hoger Onderwijs Reeks. Utrecht: WoltersNoordhoff.
Van Kruiningen, J. & Jong, J. (2022). Geef ze het nakijken: over activerende feedback en schrijfbegeleiding. Amsterdam: Boom.
Van Petegem, P. (Red.) (2010). Praktijkboek Activerend Hoger Onderwijs. Tielt: LannooCampus.
Wiliam, D. (2013). Assessment: The bridge between teaching and learning. Voices from the Middle, 21(2), 15.