Using Assignment Names to Integrate Learning

Note: This study was conducted for the Farmer School of Business, but the concepts apply to all disciplines, given your own particular genres. Bottom line: appropriate assignment names can teach disciplinary language, activate previous knowledge, and aid in knowledge transfer.

Overview

The following white paper proposes the use of effective writing assignment names as a means of integrating learning across the School of Business. Effective writing assignment names can help introduce students to business skills or business genres (modes of business writing), connect students to previous writing experiences, and help students build a business vocabulary.

Background

Position paper, critique, case study, report, review, research paper, memo, briefing, competitive analysis, business letter, white paper—based on departmental writing plans and surveys of business students, the Howe Writing Initiative discovered a wide array of writing assignment names used across the FSB. “Writing assignment name” refers to the words that appear in the course syllabus, on the top of a writing assignment, or simply the words that the instructor uses to discuss a particular writing assignment.

In most cases, these are the words most frequently repeated by the professor (while explaining the assignment, answering questions, and reminding students of impending due dates). One might think of these as the words used to “brand” an assignment.

Because of their prominence, writing assignment names can serve as a cue or prompt for students to make connections with previous writing experience and reinforce students’ acquisition of new writing skills and genres. Ineffective and inconsistent writing assignment names can also serve as a barrier to integration. For example, if students are asked to write a “Paper Abstract” in one class and an “Executive Summary” in another class, they may be performing the same task—yet this connection may be lost amidst these different names. Moreover, one instructor is using academic terminology while the other is using business terms.

Key Findings

Because students in the School of Business are encouraged to apply skills across courses, the Howe Writing Initiative believes that identifying key business genres and skills, then using consistent names across the Business School can assist students in making these transfers and integrate learning across business courses. Effective and consistent naming can also help build a shared writing vocabulary among the Business School faculty. The following findings are based on a study conducted in three Business School courses and a review of scholarship on writing assignments.

  • Based on the writing assignment name, students make assumptions about what they are supposed to do in a writing assignment and how this task relates to their previous writing experience.
  • Writing assignment names can emphasize what instructors want students to learn and/or do in a writing assignment. Are students performing an analysis, developing a proposal, compiling a report, etc.
  • Effectively naming a writing assignment can help instructors determine how to evaluate it.
  • An effective writing assignment name can be used to introduce and reinforce skills and/or business genres students are learning.
  • Instructors shouldn’t assume students already possess a business vocabulary.

How to Effectively Name a Writing Assignment

An effective assignment name contains two basic components:

1) The subject and/or audience for the assignment

2) The skill and/or genre that students are applying or learning

Examples:

Rather than “Abstract” or “Synopsis,” use “Executive Summary”

 Assignment name "Executive Summary" is between two arrows. Arrow on left is labeled "Subject and/or Audience" and it points to the word "Executive". Arrow on the right is labeled "Skill and/or genre students are learning or applying" and it points to the word "Summary".

Rather than “Final Finance Project,” which asks students to analyze a corporation’s end of the year financial results, use “End of Year Financial Analysis”:

Assignment name "End of Year Financial Analysis" is between two arrows. Arrow on left is labeled "Subject and/or Audience" and it points to the words "End of Year". Arrow on the right is labeled "Skill and/or genre students are learning or applying" and it points to the words "Financial Analysis".

Finally, writing assignment names can’t do it all! 

In addition to effectively naming writing assignments, instructors need to spend time:

  • Helping students link current writing assignments to previous writing experiences
  • Highlighting the skills and/or genres students are using in an assignment, and
  • Discussing the purpose and business audiences or contexts where these skills or genres might be applied.