As I’ve said before, the best writing assignments present students with a contextualized problem — a task — that immediately gives them a role to fulfill, an audience to communicate with, and a format to follow. Role, audience, and format should reflect the types of tasks students might encounter outside of college; for example, a letter to the editor or a policy proposal that presents an evidence-based recommendation on a specific issue. The traditional research paper, with an audience of only the course instructor and a format that is not recognized outside of academia, lacks the authenticity that will lead to improvements in students’ writing.
Doctoral programs in political science typically don’t train people in how to write* or how to teach writing to others, and I’ve only recently begun to better incorporate the principles of role, audience, and format into my own teaching. Here is one example, referenced in my last post on project-based learning.
Last semester’s instructions for a project on tourism, for which a team of students wrote a report and delivered a class presentation:
Choose a location outside the USA and design an international volunteer- or eco-tourism experience in which both the participants and the host community derive long term benefit. Make sure you define “benefit” and be aware that it’s possible to have more than one. Also make sure to include a process that measures who benefits and why to determine if the program’s goals are achieved.
These instructions are okay but not great. This semester’s instructions are better:
Your team of hospitality industry consultants has been hired by Hilton Worldwide to complete a study on the feasibility of an international (meaning outside the USA) volunteer- or eco-tourism experience in which both the guests and the host community derive long term benefits. You team needs to report on the following:
♦ The best international location and type of experience for this venture, with an explanation of why the location and experience is the “best.”
♦ An explanation of the “benefits” that guests and the host community will acquire.
♦ A process that measures who benefits and why to determine if the venture’s goals are being achieved.
I have another example in which audience, purpose, and format might be even more obvious; I’ll write about that in my next post.
*one reason for the stilted jargon-laden prose of many political scientists
Links to the entire Real Thing series: