Making a Quick Transition to Online Writing Assignments

The Center for Teaching and Learning’s Teaching Continuity site is a comprehensive resource for faculty who are switching to remote instruction because in-person instruction has been disrupted by illness or infrastructure challenges.  This page addresses issues connected to writing assignments more specifically as a starting point for making quick transitions. For those who want more online resources about teaching writing online suddenly, emphasizing compassion in the midst of sudden change, or the challenges of quick pedagogical shifts, we have an editable compilation of resources. Feel free to add more links and ideas there.  If you can’t find information that seems to fit your teaching situation, reach out to WID or the CTL—we are here to help. 

Teaching in the Midst of a Disruption

If you’re moving writing assignments online because of an actual disruption to teaching, or because you’re worried about one, your clarity about your desired outcomes, and your patience and creativity, are your greatest resources.  This document offers some suggestions, but you’ll probably find that not everything works as you’d like.   As you’re evaluating the transition to online work, keep asking yourself “are my students doing the work I envisioned?” and “what can I see they are learning?” Focusing on student learning will help guide you through whatever challenges arise.  Another resource at hand: your colleagues.  Keep communication lines open.

Set Priorities

The first thing to consider: what’s most important?  You may already have many class materials on Blackboard, or you may not.  You may be experienced with many Blackboard features, or you may only have used it to post your syllabus.  To quickly move instruction online, think about what are the most important immediate learning needs for your classes.  Can you meet those needs online in the schedule you currently have?  Perhaps you will need to adjust some assignments or deadlines in order to keep students moving towards your most important goals.

Communicate Assignments and Expectations

Students will have many questions if their instructional environment changes quickly.  Establish clear and consistent ways to communicate with students. Make sure students know how they can contact you for help. Consider adding instructions about what students should do if they have questions about your expectations: you can establish routines for collecting and answering questions. Some Blackboard components that are particularly useful for teacher-to-student communication are listed below (if you’re new to using any of these tools, see CTL’s Blackboard How-Tos):

  • The assignment tool will create spaces for you to communicate assignments to students, and to collect information from students.  The assignment tool is best for formal writing assignments and using the assignment tool will keep all assignment files In one place. 
  • The announcement tool lets you post information on the front page of your course space and also lets you mass-email the announcement to your class. 
  • The blog and journal tools create spaces for posting texts with comment or response threads. Blogs are visible to everyone in the class; journals are visible only to the student and instructor.  These spaces are great for short assignments that ask students to share thoughts with each other, reflect on or respond to readings.  They are relatively easy spaces for faculty to skim and can be graded or ungraded.
  • The discussion forums create spaces for informal exchanges.  These threaded discussions allow students to start discussions, as well as allow the class to respond to prompts you post. 
  • Inside content areas in Blackboard, you can create links to webpages, upload files, make folders, or make pages with assignment information.  Content areas can be read by students, but they don’t contain any ways for students to interact with you or each other.

Keep Students Engaging with Each Other

Student-to-student engagement is an important part of many courses, and student discussions can be an important part of nurturing writing assignments. Your course may typically include, for instance, whole class discussion of assignment expectations, workshopping of drafts, or presentation of works-in-progress. Consider the ways you might bring these activities on-line:

  • Blackboard’s Discussion Board can serve many of the same functions as a whole class discussion.  The asynchronous nature of the discussion board promotes flexibility if circumstances prevent all students from accessing the course space at the same time. 
  • Blackboard’s GroupTools allow small groups of students to work together to share work and discuss it.  When you create groups in Blackboard, the group space can have the ability to share files, post to a group journal, and even have its own discussion forum.

Using Peer Review

  • Support peer review by giving students clear expectations about what quality peer review means to you, and by giving them clear and structured directions about how to read each others’ work and how to give feedback.  Simply telling students to read someone else’s work and offer suggestions is likely to result in vague and unproductive feedback; giving structured directions will help students explore your expectations and give better feedback.
  • Before starting peer review, consider a discussion forum thread in which students discuss their past experiences with peer review and their expectations of each other.  You can intervene if it looks like your students’ expectations don’t match yours.
  • Blackboard’s group tool will let peer groups exchange files. If you want their work to be public within the group, you could set up group journals.  If you want the feedback to be more private, between writer and reviewer, have students use file exchange within Blackboard’s group tools.
  • Eli Review is a platform for student peer review that will provide free access to any class disrupted during the spring semester. Eli has a simple interface that promotes focused reviews of work in progress.  WID can assist faculty interested in considering how peer review might work in your class.  Read more about Eli’s offer here.  It certainly is the case that adding a new interface to your class in a quick transition might not be the solution for everyone, but if your class includes a lot of peer review, Eli might be worth exploring. WID can help you as you get reviews set up for your class.

Promote Clarity

The most important element in any online course is clarity of expectations.  Especially if you’re moving online quickly because of a crisis, select ways to keep students writing that match your most important priorities. For every writing space you create:

  • Articulate goals and outcomes:  When you create discussion places, tell students how they fit into your course’s goals. What are students supposed to learn in that space, and how will that learning be evaluated?
  • Recognize students’ work: Your response and grading systems ensure that students know you see their work.  Whether you’re counting posts, or inviting students to reflect on what they’ve learned, or whether you’re responding once a week to students’ postings, make sure that students know how their work is read and valued.
  • Teach filenaming conventions: Especially if you’re not already in the habit of collecting assignments electronically, take time to remind students about conventions for naming files (LastnameArtistStatement.docx is a far better file name than simply ArtistStatement.docx, as you’ll quickly discover if multiple students choose the latter!).

Grading and Responding

If you’re working remotely with all your classes, figuring out how to communicate with students without overwhelming yourself is key.  Using Blackboard’s gradebook to communicate responses to graded work will organize your work and make it accessible to both you and your students.  If you usually comment in the margins of student work, you can use your word processor's commenting feature to do so, and you can attach the file in the Blackboard gradebook.  (You can also use email for this, of course, but when there is a lot of email circulating, it can be hard to track.  Each of us will have to weigh the balance of convenience, familiarity, and organization.)

Blackboard’s rubric tool may be helpful in your grading, too.  If you're not used to using it, but you do have have existing rubrics or checklists, check to see how easily the rubric tool's structure matches what you already have.  Depending on the nature of your own rubric scales, you might find it easier to use your own rubrics outside of Blackboard.   WID and CTL are available for help with rubrics.

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