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Advice on Sequencing Assignments

When beginning training as a runner, no one is ever asked to start by running a marathon. Like any other activity, students learn best how to write in deliberately sequenced steps.

There are three major approaches to sequencing assignments.

  • Parts-to-the-whole (Modular Sequencing)
  • Smaller-to-larger (Incremental Sequencing)
  • Simpler tasks to more complex tasks (Cognitive Sequencing)

No one approach is better than the other. The choice of approach depends largely on the type and scope of the assignment. Often these approaches can be combined.

Parts-to-the-whole (Modular Sequencing)

Although this approach is particularly suited to scientific or engineering reports, it also can be used successfully in the humanities and social sciences. For a scientific research report, the student can build the paper based on the standard sections of the report. A first assignment could be a literature review ending with a statement of a scientific problem, question, or hypothesis to be addressed. The second assignment could be a short proposal on how the problem, question, or hypothesis could be addressed, answered, or tested. These two assignments could then be revised together into the Introduction and Materials and Methods section of the report. Students can keep a laboratory notebook, which then can simultaneously be expanded and formatted into the Results section while also being used to revise the Materials and Methods. Students then write several drafts of the Discussion section, and then the Abstract. They then put all the pieces together in a technical report and revise the whole document to make it fit together.

Smaller-to-larger (Incremental Sequencing)

Academic writing has been defined as “writing more and more about less and less.” Start by asking students to write 1-2 page position papers on a topic. Then ask students to take one of position papers, focus on just one part of that paper, and expand that topic to 4-5 pages through discipline-specific modes of development that could include: description, explanation, definition, analysis, or cause and effect, among many others. At this stage, it may be appropriate to have the students consult outside sources. Finally, students will be ready to write a longer paper that may have the breath of a 1-2 page position paper but will cover each claim with the depth of the 4-5 page paper.

Simpler tasks to more complex tasks (Cognitive Sequencing)

This approach works very well in a variety of contexts and for a variety of tasks. For example, a four step approach is often effective in teaching students how to critically analyze literature on a specific subject:

  1. Ask students to summarize a single article by identifying all the major points and information.
  2. Ask students to compare and contrast two articles on the same subject point-by-point.
  3. Ask students to synthesize the important information about a topic from several sources.
  4. Ask students to critically evaluate a set of articles on a particular topic.