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Design-a-Problem 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 : Design-a-problem writing prompts have students devising their own homework problem and solution. For these types of prompts, writing is employed in both the crafting of the problem statement—a short description of an issue that needs attention—as well as the solution (if required). There is often a creative element in crafting these prompts, which many students enjoy.

For more information on problem statements, you can consult the OWL’s SURF Workshop Resources on Problem Statements.

When useful: These are challenging exercises that force students to deeply understand course material, in much the same way that teaching forces a deeper understanding of the content.

Audience considerations: Instructors and TAs may advise students to approach this assignment with fellow classmates, other engineering students, or K-12 students learning engineering basics as their audiences.

Assignment length: Can range from one page to several pages

Connection to “writing to learn”: By crafting these problems, students take on the role of a teacher, and they must be able to understand and articulate concepts before asking others to engage with the material and solve problems.


  • Fluid mechanics: Create a real-world homework problem that involves the estimation of major and minor losses in pipes. Provide a detailed solution to your problem.
  • Statics: Design a playground with three different structures. Provide detailed descriptions of what forces the structures can sustain.
  • Thermodynamics: Write an essay question that asks students to explain conservation of energy to a 10-year old child in a paragraph. Ask students to include a real-life example within their responses. Include an example solution.
  • Circuits: Design a problem to help students understand why a mesh approach is superior to a nodal approach when analyzing circuits. Make sure you provide a complete circuit diagram, as well as sample solutions for the two different approaches.