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Conceptual Writing Prompts

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This set of OWL resources aims to help engineering instructors and TAs create and assess a variety of short, low-overhead writing exercises for use in engineering courses. The primary focus here is on “writing to learn” assignments, which leverage writing to improve students’ conceptual understanding of technical concepts.

Writing exercises can be used in engineering courses to promote the deeper learning of technical material and build students’ writing skills. Writing in engineering courses gives students practice in articulating engineering concepts to different audiences and in engaging with technical communication genres. However, engineering instructors and TAs often struggle to incorporate writing into engineering classes due to a variety of challenges, including class size and the amount of time it takes to grade writing assignments. Additionally, the teaching of writing is an entire discipline of study with its own theories and practices that may not be accessible to engineering educators.

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.