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Why include writing in engineering courses?

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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.

Writing assignments incorporated into engineering courses allow students to both “write to learn” and “learn to write.” The concepts “writing to learn” and “learning to write” are integral to the study of how writing is used in all disciplines across the university. Writing studies scholars call this “writing across curriculum” because it promotes writing instruction in courses where students may not expect to encounter writing assignments and courses that students take throughout their undergraduate education.

When students write to learn, they are actively engaging with material by thinking through and articulating important concepts and issues addressed within the course. Writing in an engineering course will not only help students learn subject matter, but also enable them to synthesize and organize their thoughts to better retain information learned in the course. Furthermore, writing to learn enables students to make connections and understand the importance of the course beyond the classroom.

Assignments that emphasize “writing to learn” serve several purposes:

  • Promoting a deeper understanding of course material
  • Building critical thinking skills in students
  • Showing students linkages to real-world applications
  • Building students’ confidence in their ability to utilize technical content

Although the assignments provided in this resource primarily focus on “writing to learn,” students will also gain skills associated with “learning to write,” such as

  • Developing design skills
  • Practicing technical writing genres

For more information on “writing to learn” and “learning to write,” consult the OWL’s “Writing Across the Curriculum: An Introduction”

You might also check out the OWL vidcast, "An Introduction to Writing Across the Curriculum" on the Purdue OWL's YouTube Channel.

Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Create Writing Prompts

This page provides examples for how to modify a standard end-of-chapter homework problem to craft write-to-learn exercises at all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, a framework for classifying educational learning objectives.

Types of Writing Assignments

This page provides an overview and description of many types of writing assignments suitable for use in engineering homework and class activities.

Writing Tips for Students

This page provides instructors with quick tips that they can give their students to help them navigate the writing process, from the pre-writing to revising stages.

Assessment and Feedback of Engineering Writing Assignments

These resources describe easy-to-implement grading and feedback schemes for engineering writing assignments. Grading is one of the key obstacles to implementing writing in engineering courses as class sizes may be large, or instructors/TAs may teach multiple sections. Therefore, this section also provides techniques for quicker streamlined grading practices.

This work was supported by a Research Initiation Grant in Engineering Education (RIGEE) grant from the Engineering Education and Centers (EEC) Division of the National Science Foundation (grant no. EEC-1340491). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.