Creating Effective Writing Assignments: The Discourse Community Framework

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Using the writing process – often a complex, messy and mysterious process for students–is crucial for graduate level success. Students not only need to grapple with understanding course concepts, they must be able to express them professionally and intelligently. Well-designed writing prompts, with the addition of writing support, can provide the extra guidance many students need. Anne Beaufort, in her text College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instructions, has researched and developed a relevant framework for creating graduate level assignments based on a “discourse community” concept. Assignments created with this framework can help students better understand the social work community/program context of their writing. Beaufort addresses four types of knowledge in assignment design: subject matter, genre, audience, and the writing process. Although most prompts used in this graduate program do already include these four types of knowledge in some way, Beaufort’s framework provides a fresh look at facilitating more sophisticated written work from students.

Subject Matter: Assignment prompts tend to focus on asking students to demonstrate understanding of critical concepts. However, does the prompt clearly state the purpose/objective in a summary sentence? Do a few essential questions focus on assessing relationships between ideas and applying critical concepts? Are students invited to create and answer their own research questions?

Genre: Effective prompts explain the features and parameters of the document (sufficient length to accomplish purpose, organization, and format). Is the assignment primarily a synthesis, application, proposal, evaluation, reflection, or analysis? Genres may be interpreted in different ways, so definitions of these terms will be helpful for students.

Audience: The instructor is usually the intended audience. How might this audience be expanded to include relevant and realistic readers?

The Writing Process: Understanding this piece of the framework is often where students struggle (and where writing support can also help). The process includes the planning, drafting, and revision stages, but does the prompt concisely state the steps of creating the specific document: research methods, source requirements, submission of topic summaries, partial drafts, or annotated bibliographies?

Students will continue working on their writing skills throughout their graduate programs, and designing effective assignment prompts with an emphasis on the context (or rhetorical situation) will facilitate their growth as engaged, writing members of the social work community. Take a look at a great example of a framework assignment here.

Woodward, A. (2015). Using a discourse-community-knowledge framework to design writing assignments. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from: http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/using-a-discourse-community-knowledge-framework-to-design-writing-assignments/

Guest Contributor, Lori Rand, is an Online Writing Specialist and has taught research and composition courses for over 15 years.

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