Take a bow (but to whom?) Paying attention to audience helps my students
by Mark Maier

Of all I’ve learned from Writing Across the Curriculum workshops, the one idea that has most improved my students’ writing is paying attention to audience. Whether I’m creating a short question that students will answer to show they completed the reading, or a longer assignment in which students demonstrate what they learned, I now think carefully about for whom students are writing.

Previously, I assumed students were writing for me, an audience that often prompted brain dumps in which students put on paper every fact and idea they remembered, or attempts by students to replicate language they read in textbooks or articles. Neither approach led to good student writing: in the first case, student work was disorganized and often devoid of interesting ideas; in the second case, student writing was stilted and, not surprisingly, failed to measure up to professional standards for which they did not have sufficient content knowledge.

I know from my own experience as a writer that I will fail if I don’t have a clear image in mind of my audience: What do they know already? What do they expect to learn from me? How can I tell my story or make my argument in ways that will grab their interest? I can put students on a track for better writing if I specify an audience, one that only occasionally will be “me,” as when I ask students to tell me something about their lives or evaluate the course, topics about which they have much to inform me. More often, however, I need to be creative, considering audiences such as people students may write for later in their careers, or even fictional or anachronistic characters that will give students a clear purpose as authors.

Writing experts suggest that I first consider the learning outcome for the assignment: is it report back a piece of knowledge? Is it to explain something they learned? Is it to transfer knowledge to a new situation? Or, is it to compare ideas they have learned? With the learning outcome in mind, I can turn to lists suggested by others, sometimes borrowing one of their examples, or more often using them as prompts for a creative audience that works best in my discipline. Sarah McLemore suggests a number a fanciful audience ideas including:

(for an assignment asking students to report or narrate) “You are Jonas Falk and you just invented the polio vaccine. Write a letter to your cousin and tell the story of your discovery highlighting the three most significant obstacles you overcame.”

(for an assignment asking students to explain) “Your extremely intelligent 13 year old sister asks you to explain the important principle ___________ in your _________ course at GCC.”

(for an assignment asking students to compare) “Write a script for a dinner party debate between Shakespeare and da Vinci in which they debate what makes a great work of art.”


Leonardo Da Vinci                                                                             William Shakespeare


Physics educators have a resource called context-rich problems (listed below with a url to their web site) in which prompts are changed from “a 1500 kg cart rolls down a 15 degree slope….’ (remember those dreaded problems?) to: “You are the physics consultant hired to help a film company design a stunt in which a 1500 kg car must land on the other side of a canyon after rolling down….”

Physics Problem

In economics, the film company prompt could be: “You are the economics consultant to a science fiction film in which breathable air has become a marketed commodity sold by a monopoly firm. What events could occur based on economics we can expect in a monopoly market?”


Man with gas mask

With more attention to audience, I’ve found students writing longer responses with better attention to course content, and even fewer spelling or grammatical errors. Also, I find myself more specific about appropriate length for assignments, something I’d neglected too often. I can do so either implicitly in prompts such as “write a letter to the editor,” or explicitly as “your boss will only read a two-page memo.” Finally, now I don’t need to worry as much about plagiarism because each assignment is unique, without much text that can lifted from the World Wide Web.

These examples don’t explore the possibility of students actually writing for a real audience other than me, perhaps their peers. No doubt, if done well, there is great potential in asking students to write for one another and to read each other’s work. I’ll ask the WAC experts and get back on that one.

Here are the context-rich problem prompts:

You are . . . . (in some everyday situation) and need to figure out . . . .
You are watching . . . . (an everyday situation) and wonder . . . .
You are on vacation and observe/notice . . . . and wonder . . . .
You are watching TV or reading an article about . . . . and wonder . . .
Because of your knowledge of ______, your friend asks you to help him/her . . . You are writing a science-fiction or adventure story for your English class about . . . . and need to figure out . . . .
Because of your interest in the environment and your knowledge of physics, you are a member of a Citizen's Committee (or Concern Group) investigating . . . .
You have a summer job with a company that . . . . Because of your knowledge of _______, your boss asks you
to . . . .
You have been hired by a College research group that is investigating . . . . Your job is to determine . . . .
You have been hired as a technical advisor for a TV (or movie) production to make sure the science is correct. In the script . . . ., but is this correct?
You have been hired to write scripts of short dramatizations that will teach high school students important concepts. The concept for this script is. . . .
Your group house has a problem with. . . . and turns to you for the solution. . .

Context-rich problems are described by the University of Minnesota Physics Education Research Group
Last updated: 1/14/2010 11:44:04 AM