For Students


Gen Ed courses ask you to explore problems that lie "beyond the classroom" through ideas and methods that aren't necessarily familiar to you through your coursework in departments or your concentration. A lot of the time in Gen Ed, these explorations will take place as part of assignments that involve different kinds or combinations of writing for different kinds or combinations of audiences, and the good news here is two-fold: getting more practice communicating across different mediums and audiences is a valuable way to think about translating your coursework into "real-world" settings, and there are concrete strategies for engaging with these assignments—really any writing assignment—that will help you succeed at them, while also getting the most out of them. The key to these strategies involves knowing how: 

  1. Your previous work has prepared you to engage with a wide range of writing assignments
  2. You can quickly test whether you're on the same page as an assignment prompt about what it's asking you to do, why you're doing it, and what the process of doing it looks like
  3. You can—and should—reach out to instructors + make use of other campus resources to answer any questions you have about an assignment and get feedback and support throughout the writing process. 

Strategies for Engaging with Writing Assignments

How You're Prepared

If you've taken an Expos course or Hum 10 at Harvard, you've gotten experience with the fundamentals of college-level academic writing and how to approach writing assignments more generally. (If you haven't taken your first-year writing seminar yet, it's around the corner, and the information below will be more of an intro than a reminder—but the info is straightforward and should still be helpful.) Here are some of the skills from your writing seminar that will apply to nearly any writing assignment you encounter:  

  • The Elements of Academic Argument: Expos courses use a stable vocabulary for prompts, in-class discussions, conferences, workshops, and feedback. The goal of the Elements is to allow teachers and students to communicate about writing, since communicating about communicating is a big part of what Expos is trying to teach you to do. The terms aren't jargony (thesis, evidence, analysis, style, etc.), and with them you can ask yourself, your instructors, or your classmates (most of whom have taken Expos!) questions about writing assignments and give/receive feedback throughout the process. By February or so of each year, nearly every undergraduate at Harvard—even if they're a little rusty—can speak the language of the Elements. 
  • Unpacking prompts and process: Most Expos prompts ask you to work within a specific genre of writing (single-source analysis, comparative analysis, lens/test a theory, research essay, capstone presentation) and to use specific sources, write for specific audiences, use specific styles, and so on. In addition, the prompts break the writing process down into response papers, drafts, and revisions (and maybe intermediary steps, e.g., annotated bibliographies or proposals). Knowing how to unpack prompts and break the writing process down into steps is immensely valuable, and a lot of the practice you got with this in Expos will translate directly into other courses. That being said, some prompts need more "decoding" than others to unpack everything, and it's maybe been a while since you've done it. No worries: the assignment prompt decoder (which you can also link to in the left-hand navigation bar) will walk you through unpacking just about any writing prompt.  

How to Use Writing Prompts

The assignment prompt decoder exercise (which you can also link to in the left-hand navigation bar) is a self-diagnostic tool that can help you:

  • assess how clearly you understand the learning goals of any given writing assignment and
  • make sure you have a mental model of what the product and the process are supposed to look like.

After completing the exercise—which in most cases shouldn’t take more than 10–15 minutes—you’ll have a better sense of:

  • how the different parts of the assignment fit together
  • what kinds of questions you might have for your TF or professor about the assignment, and
  • which resources are the most helpful for you at different points in the writing process.

Reaching out + Resources for Academic Writing

As helpful as the assignment prompt decoder exercise hopefully is, it's not meant to take the place of dialogue with your instructors and peers. It's more about offering a framework for self-reflection and discussion among different people playing different roles within a shared learning experience. In that way, it's a very Gen Ed way to approach writing assignments in your Gen Ed courses. Here are a few ways that discussion can play out: 

  • You've done the decoder exercise and have some insights and some questions: reach out to your TF or instructor with the questions you have, and check with other students in your class to see if your insights have anything to offer (or learn from) what they're seeing (or not seeing) in the prompt. Maybe do the decoder exercise together as a group? 
  • Or, if you aren't a fan of the decoder exercise or find it less useful for a given assignment, reach out to your TF or instructor with any questions you have about the assignment. 
  • Use as many of the other writing resources and support around campus as possible, including