Selecting and Presenting Writing Assignments in Engineering Classes:
Tips for New Professors

Julie E. Sharp, Vanderbilt University


This paper suggests possible writing assignments in engineering classes and some effective ways to present them. Types discussed are various reports, writing to learn, and other creative assignments. Ideas are drawn from experienced engineering professors and some technical writing professors through an informal survey of frequently assigned writing at Vanderbilt University Engineering School, published sources, and a personal collection of professors' writing assignments.


Scenario: You have just received your graduate degree and joined the Engineering School faculty at Euphoric State. You wonder about planning writing assignments for your classes. How do you get the best results from your students? What kinds of written work do you need? What do your colleagues usually assign? You really don't have time to research this problem, and you hesitate to ask more than a few colleagues. How can you quickly get some information?

This paper offers guidelines for selecting and presenting writing assignments in technical classes. It draws from assignments used by engineering educators and recommended by writing research. Sources are an informal survey of frequently assigned writing at Vanderbilt University Engineering School, published sources, and my personal collection of professors' writing assignments. Perhaps the brief overview of possible writing assignments will help you match the needs of your particular class.

Types of Written Assignments Frequently Made

You may be asking yourself: Is the research report the main writing assignment of engineering professors, as one might guess? Is it the only recommended choice? Experienced colleagues offer some answers and some creative choices to consider.

Faculty Survey on Most Assigned Writing

In an informal electronic mail survey, 26 faculty at Vanderbilt University Engineering School ranked a list of 24 possible writing assignments. They used a scale of 0 to 5, according to how often assigned, with 5 being most often assigned and 0 being never assigned.

Table 1 shows the ranking for each assignment, the average score on the five-point scale, the total of all answers given, and the total number of professors (of the 26 respondents) making the assignment, regardless of frequency. The assignments are listed in order of the average frequency, indicated by the number on the far left. In two instances, two items tie for a ranking (sixteenth and eighteenth place) and are designated A and B.

Not surprisingly, Figure 1 shows that the writing types most often assigned are research reports, lab reports, and answers to exam questions. However, at least 42%of professors in this survey assign a variety of 18 different assignments. These professors assign proposals, journals, memos, abstracts of articles, annotated bibliographies, descriptions of procedures, student-created case test questions, student-written case studies, and feasibility reports.

The number of professors assigning each type, even if infrequently, gives an idea of standard choices. For example, memo writing ranks eleventh place, but 11 out of 26 professors (46 percent) assign it. Similarly, feasibility reports rank eighteenth using the five point scale, but 12 of 26 professors (46 percent) assign it. Also not in the top 12 in average frequency, but assigned by 46 percent are abstracts of articles, technical descriptions, annotated bibliographies, and procedures.

Tips from Professors' Assignments and Published Sources

Assignments from experienced educators and published sources yield some tips for assigning the top three choices (research reports, lab reports, and exam questions) and for selecting more creative assignments.

Tips on Research/Lab Reports

In your classes, you may need to assign some long, formal reports on lab research or other long papers. However, a variety of reports, particularly short report formats mimicking reports in industry, can be quite helpful to your students. In fact, in one survey of chemical engineering graduates with an average of three years in the field, [1] former students themselves suggested that future assignments include more short reports similar to those in industry.

If you are assigning a short lab report format (Summary, Introduction, Discussion of Results, Conclusions), keep in mind that the pattern of organization varies from professor to professor. For example, one professor may omit the summary and another may keep it but rearrange the other sections. One may want more procedure described in detail in the introduction while another requires only a sentence. You may, therefore, without qualms assign your own preference and also several variations of short formats.

Linking the assignment to a real life situation is helpful. One chemical engineering professor with industry experience, for example, assigns a short report format used in a particular well-known company. [2] Describing the assignment as a case study is another way to mimic industry reports. For example, a civil and environmental engineering professor asks students to perform an experiment to recommend to a fictitious client the purity of groundwater clean-up. Should it be 90%or 95%clean, for instance, and would the amount of money spent for 100%clean be justified? [3] This case gives them a frame of reference for their calculations and a clear purpose for the report.

The groundwater clean-up report is an example of writing to an audience different from the professor. Writing to different audiences provides students the opportunity of developing skills in tailoring information to various perspectives.

Sometimes undergraduates inexperienced in writing lab reports cannot distinguish between a result and a conclusion. Consequently, their conclusions section is weak. When assigning lab reports, consider including a helpful exercise. That is, have students write possible conclusions from numerical data. Discussing their attempts before they write would produce better reports.

Another helpful tip from two professors at Texas Tech [4] is an organizational plan for writing and evaluating each report section. They use an information matrix of nine information blocks arranged 3 x 3. The nine parts of the report (title, abstract, introduction; purpose, development, results; conclusions, summary, references) are arranged to show the relationship to three objectives (get the reader's attention, present the information, summarize and cite sources).

Other Short Written Assignments

Besides the short lab report format, other assignments could be memos [5] (perhaps to request project or topic approval; also to report an experiment), letters [6] (perhaps to solve customer problems), short proposals for design projects, periodic progress reports, and feasibility reports. As one experienced professor advised, short reports emphasize conciseness and get students away from the habit of thinking, ``How many pages do I have to generate?'' [7] Also, engineering graduates will be required to write short formats in industry.

Tips on Exam Questions

For discussion questions on exams, using realistic problems helps students apply factual knowledge and see the reasons for their learning. In a biomedical engineering class, for example, instead of having students deal with facts about cardiovascular physiology as they make calculations, the professor asks exam questions in the context of real life situations. This tip could also apply to homework problems. Here is an example:

Exam Question: You are given only two leads to measure Linda's ECG. One lead gets stuck on Linda's right arm (the adhesive was too strong). You measure the signal along one lead. Then, before you can measure the next lead, Linda remembers that she has a term paper due in two hours. Her heart pounds and the rate increases dramatically. You quickly measure the signal along the other lead involving the right arm before Linda races off. What would you do with the signals you have measured to estimate the signal in Lead III? Explain your approach and clearly state any assumptions you make. [8]

A creative way to develop exam questions and also to help students learn is to assign student-written exam questions. [9] You could assign the questions as homework and choose questions from that. Other suggestions are for you to make a study sheet from selected questions, assign practice questions in class and discuss them, or ask students to add a question during the exam. Student-created exam questions appeal to those students whose learning styles predispose them to open-ended, self-directed tasks. [10]

Writing to Learn Assignments

The movement known as Writing Across the Curriculum has influenced us to include writing-to-learn assignments. Therefore, not only is the traditional ``transactional'' writing important (writing to the teacher usually for a grade to test knowledge), but also ``expressive writing'' (ungraded writing to the self to explore ideas or problem solve). [11] Some writing-to-learn assignments are freewriting [12] and journals [13, 14]. Freewriting, usually ungraded, is writing to and for the self to think through a problem or concept. Students are free from worrying about most rules and constraints, such as grammar, punctuation, organization, and a final grade. In my classes freewriting has only two rules: a time limit and non-stop writing until time is up. It can also be untimed. Freewriting can be read by only the student writer (as when ``priming the pump'' for discussion) or also read by the professor (for example, when students write questions about the lesson).

Two examples of freewriting in engineering classes show its adaptability. One electrical engineering professor assigns freewriting in a power electronics class by asking students to write their thoughts about the day's topic, such as applying diamond technology in a new way. [15] A civil engineering professor in a transportation planning class asks students to define in their own words terms used in class, such as ``trip generation'' and ``trip distribution.'' This same professor also occasionally assigns an end-of-class minute for students to freewrite answering two questions: What is the most interesting new fact or concept learned in today's class? What material introduced in today's class is still confusing or vague, and why? [16] The idea is to use open-ended questions to make students think and write feedback on the lesson. The professor uses this feedback to critique introducing new materials and to know when to re-emphasize a concept.

Some engineering professors have found that assigning ungraded student journals is beneficial. Selfe and Arbabi [14] in a structural engineering course at Michigan Technological University asked students to record in journals major concepts learned, analyses of confusing problems, and questions. Selfe and Arbabi concluded that journals helped students clarify thoughts, create problem solving strategies, better understand the course, and identify problem areas. A chemical engineering professor at Clemson University had similar findings in his classes. He concluded that journal writing improved classroom communication between student and professor and provided a more relaxed atmosphere for asking questions. [13]

Other Creative Ideas to Try

Another creative writing assignment that helps students learn more about their discipline is the historical paper or biography. One example is a structural engineering class where the professor asks students to write a paper about an engineer who has contributed significantly to their field. The paper is three pages, doublespaced, on one of four topics: the technological context of the person's historical period, the socioeconomic and political environment of the person's work, influences on the person's view of engineering, and personal characteristics and favorite activities. [17]

A civil and environmental engineering professor makes a somewhat similar assignment. Students select a pioneer in the American waterworks field with a significant technical contribution between 1840 and 1940. They write a two-page biographical sketch, describing the contribution and its significance, comparing it to current practice. [18]

Assigning a group writing project provides experience in teamwork. Several assignments described here lend themselves to group work, such as the structural engineering project. Students usually work in groups of three or four. Group members may write individual papers on the same general topic or one group paper on a narrowed topic. For a group paper, students can assign roles within the group. One role might be that of editor to assemble the individual parts, draft introductory and transitional text, and edit for style. [19]


The choices of writing assignments offered here give an overview of what seasoned educators practice. For references, two good books are The Handbook of Technical Writing [20] for referring to terms and rules and Rebecca Burnett's Technical Communication [21] for examples (proposals, research reports, etc.) to use as models. For more in-depth help with writing instruction, consider, as some universities have, asking a technical writing professor to team teach with you or hiring a technical communication consultant. [1, 22]


  1. Sharp, J.E. and T.D. Giorgio. ``Combined Instruction: Chemical Engineering and Technical Communication-Eleven Years Later.'' American Society for Engineering 1992 Annual Conference Proceedings, Vol. 2, 1273-1276.

  2. Fort, T., and J.E. Sharp. Unpublished ClassPak for Chemical Engineering Lab I (Chemical Engineering 228w), Vanderbilt University Engineering School, Spring 1995.

  3. Speece, R.E. Unpublished assignment for the PAVE program, Vanderbilt University Engineering School, Summer 1994.

  4. Fedler, C.B., and J.M. Gregory. ``The Information Matrix: Taking the Trouble Out of Technical Writing.'' Engineering Education, 78(Dec. 1988), 183-185.

  5. Swanson, L.W., and H.M.R. Aboutorabi. ``The Technical Memorandum: An Effective Way of Developing Technical Writing Skills.'' Engineering Education, 80(May/June), 479-481.

  6. Snell, L.M. ``Teaching Memo and Letter and Writing Techniques in the Classroon.'' Engineering Education, 80(May/June 1990), 481-482.

  7. Kinser, D.L. Personal conversation, Vanderbilt University Engineering School, July, 1995.

  8. Paschal, C.B. Unpublished material for Biomedical Engineering 252 (Systems Physiology), Vanderbilt University Engineering School, May 1995.

  9. Brent, R., and R.M. Felder. ``Writing Assignments-Pathways to Connections, Clarity, Creativity.'' College English, 40, No.2(1992), 43-47.

  10. Harb, J.N., R.E. Terry, and J.E. Sharp. ``Writing Across the Curriculum and Around the Cycle.'' Proceedings of the American Society for Engineering Education 1994 Annual Conference, 760-766.

  11. Britton, J., and others. The Development of Writing Abilities (11-18). London: MacMillan Education, 1975.

  12. Olds, B.M., M.A. Dyrud, J.A. Held, and J.E. Sharp. ``Writing in Engineering and Technology Courses.'' Proceedings of the Frontiers in Education 23rd Annual Conference 1993, 618-622.

  13. Hirt, D.E. ``Student Journals: Are They Beneficial in Lecture Courses?'' Chemical Engineering Education, 29(Winter 1995), 52-64.

  14. Selfe, C.L. and F. Arbabi. ``Writing to Learn: Engineering Student Journals,'' Engineering Education, 74(1983), 86-90.

  15. Davidson, J.L., Vanderbilt University Engineering School, unpublished assignment in Electrical Engineering 266 (Power Electronics), Spring 1995.

  16. Stammer, R.E., Vanderbilt University Engineering School, unpublished assignment in Civil Engineering 356 (Advanced Transportation Planning), Spring 1995.

  17. Thurston, H.M. ``Influential Structural Engineers: A Project in a Third-Year Structural Analysis Course.'' Engineering Education, 83 (July 1995), 156-160.

  18. Thackston, E.L. Vanderbilt University Engineering School, unpublished problem set instructions, Environmental Water Resources Engineering 321 (Water Treatment Theory and Practice), Fall 1994.

  19. Kinser, D.L. Vanderbilt University Engineering School, unpublished class assignment, Engineering Science 155 (History of Technology), Fall 1994.

  20. Brusaw, C.T., G.J. Alred, and W.E. Oliu, Handbook of Technical Writing, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1976.

  21. Burnett, R.E. Technical Communication. 3rd ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1994.

  22. Ludlow, D.K., and K.H. Shulz. ``Writing Across the Chemical Engineering Curriculum at the University of North Dakota.'' Engineering Education, 83 (April 1994), 161-168.


Julie E. Sharp, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of the Practice of Technical Communication in the Vanderbilt University Engineering School. She designs and instructs combined engineering lab/technical writing courses and a technical communication course for engineering majors. She is a communication consultant, specializing in business and engineering documents and training workshops. She is a member of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (also past president), the Association of Professional Writing Consultants, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Phi Delta Kappa. and ASEE.
Fri Sep 29 10:17:23 PDT 1995