Types of Assignments

Gen Ed courses transcend disciplinary boundaries in a variety of ways, so the types of writing assignments that they include also often venture outside the traditional discipline-specific essays. You may encounter a wide variety of assignment types in Gen Ed, but most can be categorized into four general types: 

  1. Traditional academic assignments include the short essays or research papers most commonly associated with college-level assignments. Generally speaking, these kinds of assignments are "expository" in nature, i.e., they ask you to engage with ideas through evidence-base argument, written in formal prose. The majority of essays in Expos courses fall into this category of writing assignment types.  
  2. Less traditional academic assignments include elements of engagement in academia not normally encountered by undergraduates. 
  3. Traditional non-academic assignments include types of written communication that students are likely to encounter in real world situations. 
  4. Less traditional non-academic assignments are those that push the boundaries of typical ‘writing’ assignments and are likely to include some kind of creative or artistic component.

Examples and Resources

Traditional Academic

For most of us, these are the most familiar types of college-level writing assignments. While they are perhaps less common in Gen Ed than in departmental courses, there are still numerous examples we could examine.

Two illustrations of common types include: 

Example 1: Short Essay Professor Michael Sandel asks the students in his Gen Ed course on Tech Ethics to write several short essays over the course of the semester in which they make an argument in response to the course readings. Because many students will never have written a philosophy-style paper, Professor Sandel offers students a number of resources—from a guide on writing in philosophy, to sample graded essays, to a list of logical fallacies—to keep in mind. 

Example 2: Research Paper In Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Cares?, a Gen Ed course co-taught by multiple global health faculty members, students write a 12–15 page research paper on a biosocial analysis of a global health topic of their choosing for the final assignment. The assignment is broken up into two parts: (1) a proposal with annotated bibliography and (2) the final paper itself. The prompt clearly outlines the key qualities and features of a successful paper, which is especially useful for students who have not yet written a research paper in the sciences. 

Less Traditional Academic

In Gen Ed, sometimes assignments ask students to engage in academic work that, while familiar to faculty, is beyond the scope of the typical undergraduate experience. 

Here are a couple of examples from Gen Ed courses: 

Example 1: Design a conference For the final project in her Gen Ed course, Global Feminisms, Professor Durba Mitra asks her students to imagine a dream conference in the style of the feminist conferences they studied in class. Students are asked to imagine conference panels and events, potential speakers or exhibitions, and advertising materials. While conferences are a normal occurrence for graduate students and professors, undergraduates are much less likely to be familiar with this part of academic life, and this kind of assignment might require more specific background and instructions as part of the prompt. 

Example 2: Curate a museum exhibit In his Gen Ed class, Pyramid Schemes, Professor Peter Der Manuelian's final project offers students the option of designing a virtual museum exhibit. While exhibit curation can be a part of the academic life of an anthropologist or archaeologist, it's not often found in introductory undergraduate courses. In addition to selecting objects and creating a virtual exhibit layout, students also wrote an annotated bibliography as well as an exhibit introduction for potential visitors. 

Traditional Non-academic

One of the goals of Gen Ed is to encourage students to engage with the world around them. Sometimes writing assignments in Gen Ed directly mirror types of writing that students are likely to encounter in real-world, non-academic settings after they graduate.

The following are several examples of such assignments: 

Example 1: Policy memo In Power and Identity in the Middle East, Professor Melani Cammett assigns students a group policy memo evaluating "a major initiative aimed at promoting democracy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)." The assignment prompt is actually structured as a memo, providing context for students who likely lack experience with the format. It also outlines the key characteristics of a good memo, and it provides extensive advice on the process—especially important when students are working in groups. 

Example 2: Letter In Loss, Professor Kathleen Coleman asks students to write a letter of condolence. The letter has an unusual audience: a mother elephant who lost her calf. Since students may not have encountered this type of writing before, Professor Coleman also provides students with advice on process, pointing to some course readings that might be a good place to start. She also suggests a list of outside resources to help students get into the mindframe of addressing an elephant. 

Example 3: Podcast Podcasts are becoming increasingly popular in Gen Ed classes, as they are in the real world. Though they're ultimately audio file outputs, they usually require writing and preparing a script ahead of time. For example, in Music from Earth, Professor Alex Rehding asks students to create a podcast in which they make an argument about a song studied in class. He usefully breaks up the assignments into two parts: (1) researching the song and preparing a script and (2) recording and making sonic choices about the presentation, offering students the opportunity to get feedback on the first part before moving onto the second. 


Less Traditional Non-academic

These are the types of assignments that perhaps are less obviously "writing" assignments. They usually involve an artistic or otherwise creative component, but they also often include some kind of written introduction or artist statement related to the work.

The following are several examples from recently offered Gen Ed courses: 

Example 1: Movie Professor Peter Der Manuelian offers students in his class, Pyramid Schemes, several options for the final project, one of which entails creating a 5–8 minute iMovie making an argument about one of the themes of the course. Because relatively few students have prior experience making films, the teaching staff provide students with a written guide to making an iMovie as well as ample opportunities for tech support. In addition to preparing a script as part of the production, students also submit both an annotated bibliography and an artist’s statement. 

Example 2: Calligram In his course, Understanding Islam and Contemporary Muslim Societies, Professor Ali Asani asks students to browse through a provided list of resources about calligrams, which are an important traditional Islamic art form. Then they are required to "choose a concept or symbol associated with God in the Islamic tradition and attempt to represent it through a calligraphic design using the word Allah," in any medium they wish. Students also write a short explanation to accompany the design itself. 

Example 3: Soundscape In Music from Earth, Professor Alex Rehding has students create a soundscape. The soundscape is an audio file which involves layering sounds from different sources to create a single piece responding to an assigned question (e.g. "What sounds are characteristic of your current geographical region?"). Early on, as part of the development of the soundscape, students submit an artist's statement that explains the plan for the soundscape, the significance of the sounds, and the intention of the work.