Analytic Writing Assignments

Goals for student learning:

  • Pose an interpretive question or identify an intellectual problem
  • Assert a thesis or make a prediction
  • Interpret evidence or data
  • Structure an argument
  • Write clearly

Be aware that:

  • Students may not understand different disciplinary conventions for writing, including conventions for writing with sources.
  • Students may not understand the ethos—or mechanics—of citation in your field.
  • Students who lack confidence or are struggling with course material may consult online or secondary sources to confirm or support their ideas or to copy data.  You may wish to identify or clarify which sources students may consult.
  • The same techniques that help students write effectively (allowing students to draft, present initial findings, get early feedback, and revise and resubmit) limit opportunities to plagiarize or cut corners.[1]
  • Students who can’t draw strong conclusions from their own experimental data may be tempted to copy data from a classmate or an online source for a lab report. You may wish to separate the experimental execution from the analysis components of laboratory assignments, and provide a set of high-quality data to the entire class for students to interpret in their lab reports. Alternatively, you may wish to allow students to repeat experiments (perhaps with a minor grade penalty) in order to obtain higher quality data suitable for meaningful interpretation.
  • Students may feel tempted to manipulate experimental data if they feel under pressure to produce publishable results; when advising students in the lab, you may wish to emphasize that they are engaged in learning and remind them that experimental data aren’t perfect.

To encourage deep, active, and honest engagement:[2]

  • Name the analytic tasks(s) you wish students to complete: to argue, to support a hypothesis, to compare and contrast, to critique, to engage counterarguments or consider alternatives, to interpret, etc.
  • Identify the form that evidence will take (quotations, paraphrases, graphs, tables, figures).
  • Decide which sources students may consult; do you expect them to conduct independent research or use external sources, and if so, in what ways? Is there a short list of good sources you can share with students?
  • Identify the audience to whom students are writing.
  • Share your grading rubric—what will make for an “A” (etc.) assignment?—with your students.
  • Require students to cite accurately and faithfully. Allowing students to omit citations on short writing assignments may make it difficult for them to understand how and why citation is critical to academic work.
  • Discuss the purpose of the assignment, and allow students to ask questions and receive feedback on their preparatory work (a draft, topic, tentative thesis, outline, bibliography).

Assignment types and examples:

  • Response papers
  • Informal writing (free-writing, etc.)
  • Short to mid-length essay
  • Lab report
  • Research paper
  • Senior thesis

Resources for faculty:

Harvard Writing Project “Resources for Faculty”
Harvard Writing Project “Resources for TFs”

[1] The Council of Writing Program Administrators considers scaffolding—the breaking down of large assignments into smaller steps that allow for frequent and repeated feedback from faculty—a best practice for avoiding plagiarism. See Council of Writing Program Administrators, "Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism:  The WPA Statement on Best Practices" (accessed November 7, 2013). 
[2] We excerpt this guidance from Gordon Harvey, "A Brief Guide to Designing Essay Assignments" (accessed November 7, 2013).