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					Technical Communication Instructor Orientation – Designing Writing Assignments
                                     27 August 2007


Technical Writing “Core Competencies”:

   1. Understand the impact of context (i.e. the situation in which the document will be
        used)
   2. Articulate and address multiple purposes
   3. Research, select, and critically assess information
   4. Anticipate needs of multiple, diverse audiences
   5. Select the most appropriate, effective organization for the given context, medium,
        purpose(s), and audience(s)
   6. Create or choose appropriate visuals
   7. Design the document so it is accessible and appealing
   8. Ensure that the document is usable
   9. Be familiar with and use professional standards for language conventions
   10. Be able to edit and proofread documents
   11. Be able to manage complex writing projects; time management
   12. Be able to work effectively and productively as part of a writing/project team
(The first 10 of these are adapted from R.E. Burnett and J.S. McKee, Technical
Communication, 1st Cdn ed., Thomson/Nelson, 2003, p. 11.)

Interactivity: Which of these writing core competencies most closely match the goals of
the tech writing/communication course you’ll be teaching this coming term/year?

Building Core Technical Writing Competencies with Cooperative and Problem-
Based Learning:

1. Benefits of cooperative learning: (also see
http://collaborativewritingonline.wikispaces.com/Writing+as+a+Social+Activity)
     Knowledge sharing through peer review and collaboration
     Exposure to the importance of teamwork in tech comm
     Management of responsibility, accountability, conflict
     Management of project logistics and scheduling
     Higher quality of product through multiple review
     Reduced marking load for instructors (higher quality; fewer assignments)

Interactivity: Can you see any disadvantages to cooperative learning? What may be
some of the challenges of implementing it in your technical writing class?

Assignments lending themselves to cooperative learning can include…

    Informative abstracts, instructions/documentation, short reports, small web sites.
Targeted competencies = assessment of purpose/audience, assessment of content and
sources, organization, document design and usability, application and assessment of
professional language standards, editing/proofreading practice, team/interpersonal
dynamics.
Technical Communication Instructor Orientation – Writing Assignments Workshop
                                         27 August 2007


     Advanced document development, such as proposals, formal reports, technical
        articles.
Competencies = as above. Also specialized research skills and information assessment,
project and schedule management, leadership and interpersonal skills, accountability.

Interactivity: For your upcoming course, describe how an existing writing assignment
lends itself to cooperative learning. Or else, describe how you could adapt an existing
writing assignment so that it enables cooperative learning.

2. Benefits of problem (project)-based learning:
    “Real world” situation (may answer to “real world” stakeholders)
    Increased stake in assignment outcomes
    Increased possibilities for community contribution/personal benefit
    Emphasis on situation, purpose, audience, process
    Focus on analytical skills and critical thinking
    High student engagement

Interactivity: Can you see any disadvantages to problem-based learning? What may be
some of the challenges of implementing it in your technical writing class?

Assignments lending themselves to problem/project-based learning include…

    Newsletters, news articles, promotional material, documentation, production/
     manufacturing standards, manuals, web site content, conference or poster
     presentations. (See A. Campbell, “Teaching Technical Writing: Project-based
     Learning” in Intercom, June 2007, pp. 36-37)

Targeted competencies = assessment of context/purpose/audience, research skills, best
organization of content for a given medium, document design and usability, application
and assessment of professional language standards, team/interpersonal dynamics,
accountability, project management, time management.

Interactivity: For your upcoming course, describe how an existing writing assignment
lends itself to problem-based learning. Or else, describe how you could adapt an existing
writing assignment so that it enables problem-based learning.

Designing Effective Technical Writing Assignments

1. Framing course assignments:
        What tech writing/communication competencies does your course help to
          develop?
        What are the learning outcomes for your course? That is, what tangible skills
          or abilities do you want your students to have by the end of the course?
        Do the learning outcomes help develop the targeted writing competencies?

                                                                                               p. 2
  Amanda Goldrick-Jones, PhD … Workshop for Technical Communication Certificate instructors,
                   SFU Continuing Studies Writing and Publishing Program
Technical Communication Instructor Orientation – Writing Assignments Workshop
                                         27 August 2007


Tip: express learning outcomes using active verbs, the present tense, and/or the “you”-
attitude. Be as specific as possible in describing the desired competency, ability, or skill.

Interactivity: Discuss and write down at least three specific learning outcomes for your
upcoming technical writing course.

2. Developing assignment descriptions:

Contextual information—
        What is the assignment’s purpose?
        What competencies does the assignment develop? What are the desired
          learning outcomes (what will students get out of this)?
        How does it tie in with other course assignments? Is it part of a larger
          project? Does it lay groundwork, or help prepare students, for a more
          complex task?

Logistical information—
        What is the scope or length of the assignment, and what is its grade or value?
            Does the value appropriately match the students’ expected workload?
        What is the due date? What about deadlines or extensions?
        What are your expectations for formatting and submission?

Process information—
        What processes or steps must students follow?
        What constraints or limits must students work within?
        What choices or options are available to students?

Tip: You may need to repeat an instruction or put critical information in more than one
place.

        What readings or resources should students use? Are they required or
          optional?
        Can you provide samples or models of a successful assignment or part of one?
       (See L. Earl, “Adapting Your Technical Training Style to the College
       Classroom,” in Intercom, June 2007, pp. 16-18)

Tip: If you want students to provide five Xs and you give an example of only one X, you
may need to reiterate that you expect five Xs.

        Is your assignment description accessible, appealing, and usable? Do its
         visual elements enhance students’ understanding and learning? (See J.
         Doumont, “Designing Better Instructional Documents” in Intercom, Dec.
         2004, pp. 40-41).


                                                                                               p. 3
  Amanda Goldrick-Jones, PhD … Workshop for Technical Communication Certificate instructors,
                   SFU Continuing Studies Writing and Publishing Program
Technical Communication Instructor Orientation – Writing Assignments Workshop
                                         27 August 2007


Tip: as with learning outcomes, write assignment instructions using active verbs, the
present tense, and/or the “you”-attitude. Be as specific as possible in describing steps,
constraints, requirements, or options.

Assessment information—
        What are your standards for achieving (or not achieving) particular grades or
          marks?
        How are you assessing this assignment? Holistically? Or broken down into
          components, each assigned part of the total value?
        Are you using frameworks such as a handbook “key” or a marking rubric?
          Are the students familiar with these?
        Do you offer any options for students who produce a poor or failing
          assignment?

Interactivity: Here is an online technical writing assignment that combines cooperative
and problem (project)-based learning. Evaluate this assignment using the points above.
How well or effectively does the assignment fulfill these design criteria? What might
you do differently?

Assessing Technical Writing Assignments

“For marks to be effective, they first must be clear. The students must also understand
what the weaknesses or strengths are…a challenge is to assign a hierarchy to those marks
so that the students understand what the most important weaknesses or strengths are.”
(From “Evaluating the Writing (Instructor’s Perspective)” in Technical Writing:
Resources for Teaching, Virginia Tech, 2004:
http://www.writing.eng.vt.edu/handbook/index.html)

Recommended assessment practices—

Two general principles: (1) Make your expectations clear in advance. (2) Look for,
name, describe, and offer solutions for patterns of problems. This doesn’t mean
providing all the answers. Rather, model an accepted or desired practice and/or provide
further resources, then invite students to use that model or resource to further their
learning.

        Use a clearly defined set of editing marks
        Comment specifically on learners’ strengths, on what they did well
        Don’t just mark all the errors
        Don’t mark every error; be strategic
        Avoid all-purpose shorthand like unclear, awk, or ? unless you’re prepared to
         elaborate
        Don’t let “pet peeve” errors skew your assessment (a well designed rubric can
         help you avoid this)
        Highlight major strengths/weaknesses in a concluding summary.

                                                                                               p. 4
  Amanda Goldrick-Jones, PhD … Workshop for Technical Communication Certificate instructors,
                   SFU Continuing Studies Writing and Publishing Program
Technical Communication Instructor Orientation – Writing Assignments Workshop
                                         27 August 2007


Advantages of using rubrics—
       Clear, fair rubrics can lower the likelihood of grade appeals.
       Rubrics can make post-assignment discussions with students more productive
          and focused.
       Rubrics can help orient new instructors and encourage more consistency
          within a course.
       Last but not least, while it takes work to create and test rubrics, in the end they
          save you time and energy. (Adapted from the SFU Writing-Intensive Learning
          Office, “An Introduction to Writing-Intensive Learning: Responding to
          writing: flexible efficient strategies”, Nov. 2006)

Tip: The first time you create a rubric, test it on a few assignments. “If the marks seem
too high or too low, then rework the rubric.” (From A. Campbell, “Teaching Technical
Writing: Assessing Assignments,” in Intercom, March 2007, pp. 46-48).

Interactivity: Discuss and assess the sample rubrics. What features do you find helpful?
Consider how you could adapt these rubrics to various technical writing assignments.

NOTES:




                                                                                               p. 5
  Amanda Goldrick-Jones, PhD … Workshop for Technical Communication Certificate instructors,
                   SFU Continuing Studies Writing and Publishing Program

				
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