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Types of writing assignments for 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 in engineering courses can take many forms, ranging from a couple of sentences of in-class writing to formal reports.

Conceptual Writing

Ask students to write about technical definitions, assumptions, or terminology. They can rephrase easily found definitions and assumptions in their own words, which allows them to articulate basic knowledge that they have learned in the course.


Take an existing “calculator problem” and have students explain their answers. The format of their explanations can range from a few clarifying sentences to a solution manual-type description. This is the simplest type of writing question to apply, and it dovetails perfectly with already-developed homework questions.

How Stuff Works

Ask students to use newly-learned concepts and terminology in an explanation of how something works in the real world. This question forces students to apply new concepts and equations to an actual situation.

Real-world Example

Advise students to seek out and explain a real-world example of a concept in action. This type of writing prompt is great at promoting student appreciation for the real-world importance of what they are learning.


Assign students to design their own homework problem and write a detailed solution to that problem. This approach lets students be creative and encourages deep understanding of technical concepts and procedures.

Open-ended Design

Challenge students to design a device or solution associated with a stated design objective. The writing component of the assignment lies in the explanation of the design. This writing task allows students to create their own design and further engage with technical concepts and procedures as they explain how their design works.