Creating Authentic Assignments: Examples of Writing within STEM Disciplines

12 Nov

Introduction & Attribution

In this post we draw together examples from recent in-person and online workshops developed by faculty and staff in STEM disciplines that I was able to attend. Being a “teaching with writing” instructor in the midst of large groups of STEM instructors, I was pleased both to see their ways of devising assignments supporting discipline-specific, communication-focused learning outcomes, and to find myself drawing on the same assignment-development strategies for my teaching and consulting work with teachers from humanities, fine arts, and social science departments.

We share the resources today with that multidisciplinary usefulness in mind.  All resources mentioned in this post are stored at this URL:  

The video resources noted below are part of a “Learning with Writing” module in the about-to-wrap-up Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching” Coursera MOOC.  Jan Littrell – Director of Distance Learning and Associate Director of Engineering Education Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh – serves as narrator and developer of the three videos.

The assignment resources we’ve highlighted are drawn from a pre-conference session at this summer’s International Writing Across the Curriculum that focused on “Strategies for Incorporating Writing into STEM Curricula – and Other Hard-to-Reach Places.”  Workshop facilitators were Magnus Gustafson (Chalmers University), Mark Hoffman (Quinnipiac University), and Paul Anderson (Elon University).

Creating Authentic Writing Assignments

During the “Strategies for Incorporating Writing” session, the facilitators drew on their findings that writing assignments incorporating a touch of the “real” – real audiences, real questions and tasks and analyses, real data, and real investigations – works effectively to increase student motivation, enhance student learning, and simplify instructors’ grading.  Even better, workshop materials incorporating their research-based framework was accompanied by specific assignment and assessment samples.  

At the heart of this framework is a definition of an authentic assignment:

Authentic assignments ask students to perform the intellectual work – at an appropriate level – that people in your field perform.  They place students in a real or realistic situation where the student must use the knowledge or skills they are learning in your course to help someone else (not you).

To help someone else – not teachers, not graders.   To help someone else – make decisions, take action.  To help someone else – understand something that matters in their personal, professional, public lives.

Such assignments incorporate 7 essential components:

  1. Build upon what teachers want students to learn.
  2. Engage students in a specific role (friend, specialist with non-specialist or specialist audience).
  3. Connect students to real-world audience (someone who’d really need their assistance: future client or colleague, interdisciplinary peer, a range of citizens or groups needing information to make decision.
  4. Builds on a timely, interesting problem or question.
  5. Sets out audience interest in / need for students’ help related to problem or question.
  6. Proposes ways in which the audience will use the students’ document.
  7. Specifies what the students will provide to the audience.

See pages 14-16 of “Integrating Writing Pt 1” at our Resource link for more discussion of authentic assessment – and a template for launching your own assignment design:  

Orienting Videos

  • Introduction to Writing to Learn (8 minutes): Sets out the distinctive features of writing to learn, a writing practice that engages students in reflection on learning experiences through assignments incorporating their discussion of progress in and attempts at learning, of successes and failures in working toward learning benchmarks, and of learning from supportive resources consulted and questions asked of peers and instructors.
  • Writing to Learn: Specifics (8½ minutes): Offers suggestions for framing assignments to discover what and how students are discovering, uncovering, exploring course materials and other resources as part of preparing for class sessions.
  • Writing to Learn: Consider the Power (10 minutes): Proposes ways of thinking about what happens to student learning in moving away from transactional models (students convey information to teachers who correct/evaluate it via short answer exams and term papers) to modes of exploratory writing (students and teachers interact through process-, discovery-, and problem-based writing that develops across a term). 

Reminder: all resources noted in this post stored at

Sample Assignments

General Statistics – Mathematics
CEO Letter in Response to Case Study & Data (see PDF Part 1)

  • Task:  “You need to decide if the CEO is justified in raising the costs of premiums using a statistical analysis technique, at least three different descriptive measures, and one labeled graph.  You must write a letter to the CEO (who has minimal understanding of statistics) that will either support or not support her decision to increase premiums.”
  • Assessment Criteria: Appropriateness and correctness of 3 descriptive measures, and of graph. Thoroughness of analysis for intended audience.  Writing that is purposeful, organised, persuasive, and free of surface errors.
  • Additional Resources: Includes rubric.

Computer Science – Programming
Code Review and Report to Programmer (see PDF Part 1)

  • Task:  “At work, you will often be asked to read someone else’s code (either entire programs, or portions of programs) in order to identify errors and suggest ways to fix them. The other person may be a colleague working on another project or a member of a project team on which you serve. In these situations, you will be responsible not only for telling the person who programmed the code how to correct the problems but also for helping the programmer avoid those mistakes in the future.
  • “A critical professional ability is the ability to build rather than destroy positive interpersonal relationships when telling others about mistakes they’ve made and how to fix those mistakes. This ability will be especially important when you are working on a team.”
  • Assessment Criteria:  These are align with details set out in the assignment narrative.  As the assignment designers note: The first criteria focuses on “reading in a technical ways,” while a next cluster of three criteria focus on technical and communication abilities taken together, and the closing cluster of three criteria address skills required in creating effective communications document in computer science context.
  • Additional Resources:  The sample assignment included here is annotated to reflect writing-related discussion points. Along with two student sample assignments, the packet includes the evaluation rubric and a sample of one professor’s use of it in responding to a sample.  

Reminder: all resources noted in this post stored at


One Response to “Creating Authentic Assignments: Examples of Writing within STEM Disciplines”


  1. Teaching Writing with Statistical Information | TILT - 11 September 2017

    […] Early in the year we like to call attention to the Teaching with Writing monthly writing tips – past, present, and upcoming.  All past tips are archived online, and one of our favorites is published below, along with a closing link to a TILT post readers have clicked often in looking for authentic writing ideas within STEM disciplines. […]

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