Writing clearly and concisely is arguably the most important employability skill. Here are examples of two related writing assignments – writing a one-page abstract of an article from The Economist, and writing a 300-500 word op-ed. In keeping with the tenets of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), assignments should be aligned with course goals and take the form of common genres in the discipline so that students see the writing as a legitimate part of the course and the field rather than as busy work.
All assignment details, resources, and rubrics are in Cohen and Williams (2019). The rationale for the students is:
Part of your role as an informed citizen involves making sound arguments about economic issues that matter to you and communicating these arguments effectively to others. These assignments will give you practice identifying and developing convincing written arguments about an economic issue for a general audience.
The assignments asks students to write for general rather than expert audiences to give them a task that more closely resembles the writing they will do after graduation: explaining complex (economic or otherwise) ideas to general readers rather than to economic experts.
The abstract assignment is part of scaffolding supporting the op-ed. Before students can make their own arguments, we take them through the process of reading critically. Students accustomed to skimming social media need to learn how to read for argument rather than for information. We take them through the process of identifying someone else’s argument by writing an abstract. Students choose among six Economist articles. As the gold standard of economics journalism, they provide models of good writing, and a sense of the structure and composition of what the student will have to do in the op-ed.
The two-page business memo written for a manager is the most ubiquitous application of the abstract.
Building on the abstract assignment, the op-ed assignment and associated module move students from summarizing to analyzing, asking them to take a position on a controversial economic issue and make an argument based on sound economic reasoning for a general audience.
Both assignments require peer review. Using peer assessment software to reduce instructor workload, students give and take suggestions from classmates about their writing assignments, developing communication and teamwork skills. Peer review improves student writing quality, develops higher-order thinking skills, and increases motivation and participation, including for ESL students (see Cohen and Williams for references). Detailed marking rubrics weight argument far more than writing, and do not penalize “writing with an accent” – common errors made by non-native English speakers (e.g., Chinese speakers omit articles) – as long as the errors do not impede meaning. The software efficiencies combined with rubrics make the assignments scalable as assessments. Marking times averaged 5-6 minutes per abstract, and 7-9 minutes per op-ed.