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Conceptual Writing Prompts

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Description : Conceptual writing prompts ask students about technical definitions, assumptions, or terminology. Students should be asked to rephrase easily-found definitions and assumptions in their own words.

When useful: Conceptual writing prompts are useful to build student familiarity and confidence with newly-learned technical terms and concepts.

Audience considerations: Instructors or TAs might ask students to write definitions for a lay audience who are not familiar with technical terminology, or write as if the students were explaining the definition to a fellow classmate who is having trouble in the course. Students could also conceive of these definitions as they might appear in a textbook, a wiki, or in an online forum.

Assignment length: Can range from several sentences to several paragraphs

Connection to “writing to learn”: Students reinforce their knowledge of complex technical concepts and terminology by rearticulating definitions and assumptions to different audiences.


  • Fluid mechanics: Explain the Bernoulli principle as if you were speaking to a lay audience. What are the restrictions on its use?
  • Statics: What is the definition of a truss? Write as if you were providing a definition for a wiki.
  • Thermodynamics: How would you explain the First Law of Thermodynamics to your parents?
  • Circuits: Why is the phrase “flow of current” technically inaccurate? Explain as if you were having a conversation in an online forum.
  • Hydrology: Explain the difference between transpiration and evaporation to a fellow classmate who is confused about the two terms.