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Explain-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: Explain-a-problem writing prompts ask students to explain their calculations in their own words. These exercises force students to think more deeply about their numeric work, beyond simply “plugging and chugging,” and can range from short descriptions to longer, formatted solutions. These writing prompts are easily added to any standard calculation problem, often simply with the addition of the words “Explain your solution.” They could also potentially be turned into mini-instructional manuals for how to solve certain types of problems.

When useful: Explain-a-problem writing prompts are useful any time the instructor wishes for students to think more deeply about their calculations and problem solving.

Audience considerations: Instructors or TAs might ask students to explain their calculations as if they were tutoring a friend or another student in the course. They could also frame their answers as instructions that might show up in a textbook.

Assignment length: Can range from several sentences to several paragraphs or a page

Connection to “writing to learn”: By explaining a numeric process, students are more likely to understand the theory behind the calculation, articulate how that process works, and then be able to apply it to different contexts and real-world situations.


  • Explain your solution, such that another classmate can understand how to do this problem.
  • Create a diagram illustrating the steps and relationships that you used in solving this problem.
  • Explain the key equations involved in your solution.
  • Following the solution template provided, create a solution manual for this problem.
  • What are the assumptions you are making in order to solve this problem? How would the problem change if you did not make one (or more) of these assumptions?