Communication instruction works best when it follows a logical sequence throughout the semester. “Sequencing” in this context refers to analyzing the learning process that students will move through in this subject, and developing a system of assignments that will help students learn foundational knowledge and skills early, in order to move to more complex knowledge and skills later in the semester. You’ve probably already given considerable thought to sequencing the content instruction and the reading assignments in the subject. For most instructors in HASS or technical disciplines, though, the most useful sequence of writing instruction and assignments isn’t as easy to determine. What will the students know about writing in this discipline when they arrive? What will be easier for them to learn? What kinds of writing experiences, practice, and instruction do they need to have before writing the final assignment?
The idea behind sequencing assignments rests in both understanding of the writing process, and research in how students learn new material. In practice, a few principles can help you break a complex process of communication into easier stages:
Find out what students already know at the beginning of the semester.
Students’ background and knowledge can vary dramatically, and especially in small classes, the average knowledge of the students can vary from one year to the next. It’s useful to use a self-assessment [link] so that students have a chance to consider their own goals for the semester, and so that you can have a more detailed picture of what students already know, and what they don’t.
Analyze common patterns of misunderstanding or lack of development in student papers or presentations.
Which aspects of the assignment tend to give students the most trouble? Do they commonly tend to write disorganized or simplistically organized essays? Do they rarely analyze the evidence fully rather than simply presenting it? Do they typically generalize and try to cover too much rather than focusing on a sufficiently narrowed or precise idea? Each pattern represents a lack of specific knowledge about how to accomplish the communication task in this discipline, and once you recognize a pattern, you can develop in-class or out of class exercises and instruction to address it.
Recognize the level of cognitive and disciplinary complexity in assignments, and increase the difficulty level slowly throughout the semester.
Writing has many aspects, and each aspect can have its own level of difficulty. Students can usually manage an increase in difficulty in one or two aspects of writing at a time, but struggle when the difficulty level of many aspects change significantly from one assignment to the next. For instance, in terms of audience, writing for a general audience is often easier for students than writing for an expert audience. Analyzing one piece of evidence, or one type of evidence, is easier than analyzing many pieces or many types. Responding to a narrow question is easier than responding to a broader or more general question. Students struggle when the early assignments are very focused, limited in sources, and for an informal audience, and then they are suddenly asked to integrate many sources and methods, and write for an expert audience in their final, long assignment.
Reverse engineer from the final product.
If you want students, at the end of the semester, to be able to write a 12-page research paper applying theory to primary sources they’ve researched themselves, break that final task into its separate methods and cognitive processes, and teach the more difficult ones as preliminary assignments. You might have students write an annotated bibliography and proposal a few weeks before the final assignment, so that you can give them feedback on the quality of their research, and their approach to interpreting it, before they begin structuring the longer paper. More informal forms of scaffolding work, as well–you could have short in-class assignments in which students practice analyzing evidence through the lens of a theory or isolating theoretical concepts and explaining them.