Formative Assignments

Formative writing assignments allow students to practice and get feedback on individual elements of a larger assignment before putting them all together and getting a grade. This ability to break things down into smaller steps can be really useful in Gen Ed courses, where different elements of an assignment (e.g., writing an abstract or integrating direct quotes into an essay) might be more or less familiar to different groups of students. Workshopping these assignments—or even just doing them—in class can be a great use of section, and when these smaller assignments are clearly aligned with the steps of a bigger assignment, they can help students recognize the role of process in completing larger assignments while helping teachers know which skills or steps their students need more support with.

Formative assignments work at any stage of a draft/revision cycle: 

  • Before starting to write a full draft: in-class brainstorming of questions, keeping a reading journal, summarizing sources, drafting a thesis, research proposals, annotated bibliographies, etc. 
  • While writing a draft: writing intros and conclusions, outlining, delivering elevator pitches to classmates, free writing, practicing forms of analysis, integrating sources
  • During revision: peer feedback on workshop drafts, reverse outlining, topic sentence/transition exercises, citation or style exercises.

These assignments can work really well as homework that either receives informal feedback from an instructor or gets workshopped by students in small groups during class, but they can also work great as opportunities for in-class writing

What it looks like: Formative Writing in a Unit of Expos

In Expos courses at Harvard, the assignments students receive grades on are "summative" ones. These summative assignments are most commonly the revised version of an essay draft that has gone through a long sequence of lower-stakes assignments, each of which scaffolds up to the revised essay and gets ungraded "formative" feedback about individual elements of the overall assignment (e.g., thesis or evidence). Taken together, the series of formative assignments for a unit and the feedback students receive might look like this: 

  • Analytical questions: students bring in analytical questions on assigned readings and workshop their questions in small groups before shifting to a full-class debrief about which questions to take up for discussion.  
  • Journaling: students keep a running account of reading and discussion notes, along with responses to occasional short prompts meant to help them think about directions for their essay (What's the most compelling analytical question you've heard so far in our unit? Why would readers be compelled by an answer to that question? What moments of the readings did you comment the most on? What would "author x" say to "author y's" argument about "z"?). Students might submit their journal every so often as part of their participation grade, or they might just be asked to have it with them in class. 
  • Summary: students choose an assigned reading to summarize, and in class they workshop their summaries in small groups and perhaps revise together in class. 
  • Proposals: students submit a pre-draft response paper, where they formulate a provisional thesis and include evidence they might work with, or a brief outline, and/or imagine what a substantive counterargument to their thesis might be. These submissions might receive some individualized feedback from an instructor, or they might be the basis for more in-class peer review in small groups
  • Essay draft w/ cover letter: students submit a full draft of an essay, along with a cover letter where they reflect on different aspects of their process to that point (What's my thesis? What's working the best? What's an area where I'd like more feedback? If I were to start revising today, what would be my first move?). This draft gets individualized feedback from an instructor, which is itself the basis for a one-on-one draft conference with their instructor. 
  • Workshop: students in a section all read 1–2 peer essays and provide feedback to workshopees that's modeled after the draft feedback they're receiving from the instructor. Students debrief their feedback in the in-class workshop, which ends with...
  • Free writing: ...5–15 minutes of free writing, where students apply what they've learned in the workshop (e.g., patterns to emulate or avoid) to their own draft and reflect on where they're at in the revision process
  • Reverse outlining or source integration activity: during the revision process, students get practice with different skills or elements through homework or in-class activities. Feedback on this kind of formative writing can come from the instructor, peers, or through self-assessment by the student. 

At this point, students are close to submitting a revised draft of their essay, along with a cover letter where they reflect on different aspects of their revision process to that point (How has my thesis changed since the draft? What's now working the best? What's an area where feedback helped the most? What's an area I'd like to continue focusing on for our next essay?). This revision, like the draft, gets individualized feedback from an instructor, but this time it's "summative feedback" in the form of comments as well as a grade. 

How this applies to courses in Gen Ed 

In Expos courses, where writing is the primary focus, there's time and space for a wide range of formative assignments for any given essay or project. That won't always be the case in Gen Ed courses, where writing assignments are part of a broader ecosystem of student work. The good news is that any opportunities for formative feedback will improve students’ experience of an assignment, and the examples listed here above can be implemented separately or in smaller configurations, depending on the assignment at hand and the timeline you’re working with.

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