Tagged first-year writing

A screenshot of a highlighted section of the research essay; students’ annotations comment on the driving question and data collection in a word processor.

Visualizing Essay Elements: A Color-Coding Approach to Teaching First-year Writing

In this piece, I share a strategy for teaching first-year writing in which students color-code and annotate sample rhetorical analysis and research-based essays for elements including citations, quotations, transition words, vocabulary, and structure.


Digital platforms such as Google Docs offer spaces for students to visualize, conceptualize, and collaborate on learning. While teaching writing, I have observed that first-year students often struggle with academic writing skills including developing ideas, incorporating and citing sources, and organizing essays. In this article, I share a Google Docs activity I designed and implemented in a first-year writing class that asks students to color-code and annotate sample rhetorical analysis and research-based essays for elements such as citations, quotations, transition words, vocabulary, and structure. The assignment enhances students’ metacognitive awareness of the characteristics of essay writing in various genres and supports the social construction of learning. In addition, this activity fosters first-year writing learning goals including teaching students to develop strategies for composing and to “create complex, analytic, well-supported arguments that matter in academic contexts and beyond” (UM English 124/125 Learning Goals).

Color-Coding Rhetorical Analysis Essays

While teaching the rhetorical analysis genre, I encourage students to interpret rhetorical appeals such as logos, ethos, and pathos. I ask students to select an article of their choice that is targeted toward an audience within a particular discourse community that they are familiar with or interested in examining. As I state in the essay prompt (included below), I instruct students to “analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of the rhetorical strategies that the author employs in order to communicate his/her purpose. In addition, interpret the text in relation to the larger context.”

To scaffold the essay writing process, I share sample essays with the class and have students work in small groups to evaluate each essay based on the rubric criteria, which includes development/argument, structure/organization, and language/craft. In addition, as a way to facilitate students’ awareness of the language-level elements of essay writing, such as citations and transition words, I developed color-coding guidelines that ask students to color-code the following elements in each body paragraph of a sample essay and, optionally, in their own essay drafts. As a way to enhance accessibility for students with varying visual needs, I included options for identifying the elements using bold, italic, underline, and highlight:

  • Citations to sources in red/bold
  • Quotations from sources in green/italic
  • Transition words/phrases in blue/underline
  • Precise vocabulary/word choice in purple/highlight

In one class activity, students worked in small groups to color-code the sample essay “A Lopsided Pyramid: An Analysis on Michael Greger’s Call to Ditch the Dairy.” I shared the essay with the class as a Google Doc, and each student accessed the doc on their individual laptops, so that each member of the class could edit the doc simultaneously. I assigned each group to highlight a different body paragraph.

This image shows a screenshot of a color-coded paragraph from a rhetorical analysis essay, with the citations in red, quotations in green, transition words in underline, and vocabulary in purple
Figure 1. Screenshot of a color-coded rhetorical analysis essay paragraph.

As illustrated in the screenshot, one group highlighted the name of the article’s author (Greger) in red, a quotation in green/italics (“accelerated aging, being overweight, canker sores, kidney stones, childhood asthma, constipation, prediabetes and diabetes, prostate and other cancers, heart disease, imbalanced hormones, mucus, Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, rising blood pressure, skin wrinkling, sudden infant death syndrome, ulcerative colitis, bacterial vaginosis, and Multiple Sclerosis”), transition words and phrases in blue/underline (“in addition,” “though the article is short,” and “also”), and precise vocabulary in purple (“methodically,” “shear,” “extremely,” “sophisticated,” “compromised,” and “bombarded”). Following the activity, I asked each group to share their observations about the paragraphs they highlighted.

Color-coding Research-based Essays

This image shows a screenshot of instructions for annotating the research essay; each group is assigned a different section to identity and annotate.
Figure 2. Screenshot of color-coding instructions for the sample research-based essay.

In addition to engaging students in this rhetorical analysis activity, I have adapted this color-coding exercise for research-based essays. In the research-based essay assignment, I ask students to examine a topic of their choice by conducting secondary well as primary research, including observations, surveys, or interviews. The assignment encourages students to contribute to a conversation that holds interest or significance to them. As students often investigate issues that arise from their personal interests, this genre can include traditionally narrative elements such as scene-setting and description as well as typical elements of research articles, including secondary sources, primary data collection, findings, analysis, and discussion. In this sense, this genre is hybrid in form, interweaving aspects of narrative, analytical, and research-based writing. Observing that students sometimes struggle with conceptualizing ways to structure their essays, especially when approaching unfamiliar genres such as this one, I developed an activity in which students highlight the sections of a sample essay entitled “A Tale of Two Ice Cream Stores.”

As shown in the instructions, each group is assigned to identify, highlight, and annotate a different section of the essay (exposition and context, driving questions/hypothesis, secondary source evidence, data collection and results, analysis and discussion, and conclusion).

This image shows a screenshot of a highlighted section of the research essay; students’ annotations comment on the driving question and data collection.
Figure 3. Screenshot of students’ highlights and annotations of the sample research-based essay.

As shown in the screenshot above, for example, a student highlighted the driving question in purple (“Did locals, like my best friend, support Stucchi’s more than Ben & Jerry’s because of its connection to Ann Arbor?”) and commented, “Driving question of how a local business can compete with a large corporation lead to the hypothesis regarding the connection with Ann Arbor.” Another group highlighted the description of the primary data collection in green, while a student commented, “Data Collection through a survey posted to Facebook.”

This image shows a screenshot of the concluding section of the research essay; students’ annotations comment on the conclusion.
Figure 4. Screenshot of students’ highlights and annotations of the sample research-based essay.

As shown in the second screenshot above, four students annotated the final paragraphs of the essay with their comments. As seen in the highlighted sections, the analysis (“what they stand for, and the quality of their products”) leads naturally into a conclusion (“But convenience comes with a price…”), while a further rhetorical question is posed within the conclusion (“Do we truly want everywhere to look the same? Have the same familiar stores, the same familiar logos?”). This screenshot illustrates the multilayered, intersecting nature of writing purposes and structures, showing that the sections are not necessarily linear, sequential, or mutually exclusive. Although this sample essay serves as one possible model or guide for approaching the assignment, I encourage students to structure their essays in flexible ways, according to their intended purposes for writing. For instance, I note the way the writer of the sample essay recursively generates new driving questions throughout the essay as opposed to only presenting initial questions in the opening.


As illustrated, these color-coding activities render visible and legible the discrete elements of writing and enhance students’ metacognitive awareness of academic argumentation in various rhetorical situations. While collaborating on a Google Doc, students co-construct meaning by identifying key characteristics of written genres and by annotating the essays with their own commentary. Even so, one possible limitation of this approach might be that conceptions of writing are reduced to the surface-level features of a writing sample. In the future, I seek to encourage critical discussion of the shifting, evolving nature of academic writing as constructed by continual interactions across generic and discursive contexts, as writers shape and become shaped by the discourses they create. In this sense, students can become inspired not only to form their written compositions, but to transform their conceptions of writing as well.


Appendix A – Color-Coding Guidelines
Appendix B – Rhetorical Analysis Essay Prompt
Appendix C – Research-Based Argument Essay Prompt

About the Author

Ruth Li is a PhD student in the Joint Program in English and Education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research examines first-year students’ writing about literature, with attention to the reading-writing connection. More broadly, she is interested in literacy studies, writing development, applied linguistics, and digital tools and technologies for supporting writing research, pedagogy, and assessment. She serves as an instructor in the English Department Writing Program, where she has taught first-year and upper-level writing classes.

Jiu Jitsu and Calvary defense playing cards, in addition to Raid attack playing card.

Gamification Fails: Negotiating Points, Badges, Levels, and Game Play in the Basic Writing Classroom

A composition and rhetoric professor finds that gamification does not readily enhance motivation and learning.

Bringing “game” metaphors and practices to education is nothing new, and much has been written about the ways that small rewards for achievement, progress toward a larger goal, and rapid feedback on success or failure have the potential to motivate students, build excitement, and turn the work of learning into something fun. Over three terms of teaching a two-term, credit-bearing, first-year Basic Writing course called “College Reading and Writing,” my colleagues and I noticed that many of our students have been less motivated to complete work than their peers in our regular First-Year Writing course. Our placement model emphasizes prior experience and outcomes in high school English or writing courses, so we know these students come into the university with less experience with relevant homework-intensive or writing-intensive coursework. Reasons vary, but many of the students have a complicated relationship to reading and writing, at least in school environments. In some cases, they are encountering meaningful homework expectations for the first time in years. This engagement gap has limited student learning or growth in all sections of the course. It challenged me in ways that came to a head in late Fall 2017.

I have occasionally paid attention to the gamification literature, but this teaching challenge led me to revisit it. Serious about gamifying my classes for Spring 2018, I looked more closely at some practical advice and reports on gamifying, particularly within English. What I found were two overlapping approaches: gamification and game-based learning. With gamification, one establishes Experience Points (XPs), badges/levels, and, often, leaderboards. Game-based learning typically embeds learning within game-like structures. Much of what I have read emphasizes the merits of linking XPs and levels to game play.

I wanted more of my students to invest in the day-to-day work of the course by making more visible the contributions that homework, attendance, in-class work, and the formal writing assignments made to their grades by visibly rewarding productive behavior each day—and over time.

Gamified Basic Writing

I went “all in” on gamification for Spring 2018. I borrowed heavily from ideas in Tanya Sasser’s (2015) blog “Remixing College English” and John Hardison’s (2013) “22 Power Cards to Revolutionize a Class Discussion,” in addition to the idea of “coopertition” (cooperation within competition) that I learned about from my youngest child’s experiences with FIRST LEGO League. In keeping with the recommended practice in a gamified learning environment, I worked out an achievement constellation that linked learning outcomes levels to Experience Points (XPs) and that included bonus badges with XPs.

Also following recommended approaches, our XP numbers were big: 100,000 XPs for Class Engagement, 100,000 XPs for Learning Outcomes, and nearly 20,000 in possible Bonus XPs for a range of activities. I developed nine Attack and Defense playing cards (Figure 1) for team-based discussions (battles) to encourage productive, cooperative competition and inject “fun” into the work. In addition to regular in-class Involvement XPs, game-based play could earn students extra Involvement XPs. And I packaged each major paper in the course as part of a larger mission that involved publishing an edited collection organized around the topics we engaged in our readings.

Jiu Jitsu and Calvary defense playing cards, in addition to Raid attack playing card.

Figure 1. Sample attack and defense game-based playing cards (front and back).

Our “Achievements & Badging Constellation” awarded Engagement XPs for Attendance, Homework, and in-class Involvement, as well as Peer Review and Conferencing (Figures 2 and 3). Both Engagement XPs and Learning Outcomes XPs were linked to grades in the course. Each component in Engagement contributed to the overall Engagement XPs, which counted for 45% of the course grade. 80,000 Engagement XPs translated to an 80 (B-) in engagement. Learning outcomes were similarly broken up, and the 100,000 Outcomes XPs counted for 55% of the overall grade.

Guide to course achievements and badge constellation.

Figure 2. Achievements and badge constellation.

Guide to course achievements and badge constellation.

Figure 3. Achievements and badge constellation.

The achievement constellation established clear pathways to level up as students accumulated XPs in different categories. Starting the class as Noobs (a game term for a novice or newbie), students could quickly level up and move through Striver, X-Factor, and Hero levels before potentially earning Yoda status. The constellation even defined course learning outcomes in terms of levels (Novice, Journeyman, Advanced Journeyman, Master), with XP allocations to match. These levels were aligned with rubrics that defined elements of performance at each level.

To keep the earning visible, each class meeting began with students “claiming” earned achievements: 1,000 Attendance XPs if present and 1,500 Homework XPs if their homework was submitted. Each class ended with 2–3 minutes for students to complete an Attendance and Involvement card (Figure 4). The card served as a second check on Attendance in the event of a technical issue in the LMS and, more importantly, a tool for students to claim Involvement points or to propose them for peers. Students could nominate themselves if they made a notable contribution, nominate a peer for “helping hand” points if the peer was especially helpful, and nominate up to three peers for making notable contributions in class. Students were encouraged to own their involvement and to recognize peers’ involvement. Between class meetings, I reviewed submissions and awarded earned achievements in the LMS.

Sample attendance and involvement card featuring a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt: We are afraid to care too much, for fear that the other person does not care at all.

Figure 4. Attendance and involvement card.

Teaching Fail #1

Most students quickly grasped much of the constellation, but too many seemed unmotivated by the potential to earn XPs. Most troubling for me were unclaimed Attendance and Homework XPs. I was certain that the visibility of XP earning at the start of class, coupled with the experience of periodic announcements that some students had leveled up, would encourage students to earn these basic XPs. Rather than mark students down for absences, I was awarding points when they showed up! Rather than assume homework would be done and mark students down when it was not, gamifying flipped it and made more visible the contributions that work made to the grade. However, the system did not magically improve attendance or homework completion, two basic prerequisites for success in any college class setting.

XPs were not an epic fail. Some students reported enjoying earning XPs, and the thrill of leveling up activated their competitive nature. One student, a Star Wars fan who quickly got my Yoda badge humor, requested a Sith Lord badge instead. When she leveled up to Yoda status, I made Sith Lord badges and awarded them to her, and a second student asked for the same when he leveled up. Others saw the constellation and points as a juvenile and unnecessary motivator. And other students reported that it was good to “know where you stand” on points in any category. Of course, regular grading/evaluation does that without requiring a new system of evaluation that students then need to learn.

XPs were not a big success. Not enough students altered their behavior. I did not design a study of gamification, but my sense is that the gamified class may have shifted 15% of my students marginally in the desired direction on Engagement factors. That’s something. But given the amount of recordkeeping and the time invested in building out the constellation and creating dozens of badges, I hoped for homework completion or attendance rates much more in line with those I see in other courses. Measured in this way, the gamified model did not achieve my goals.

Teaching Fail #2

I thought a gamified class required game-based play in some class sessions. I invented active reading battles, mocked up source selection games, and imagined a potluck group of sentence combining and source integration games I called “X-apalooza.” My students were mostly ready to take the journey with me. They tried to play!

Active, critical reading games typically involved teams of students preparing interpretations of ideas in our texts, making arguments for or against an idea, and challenging each other with competing textual evidence. Winners earned points in each round; overall winners earned game play XPs that added to each team member’s overall Involvement XP tallies. Group discussion games involved practice “passing an idea around” by picking up on a comment and responding by agreeing (with an addition), by challenging (with evidence), or by extending in a new direction (with more textual evidence).

In the action, students regularly forgot to throw the possible Attack and Defense cards (Figure 1) as they engaged in authentic conversation. Team back-and-forth got heated as competition put XPs at risk, but my official rules of the games inhibited a more free-form involvement, and the cards were just another thing to figure out in order to do the work of learning in the writing class. We didn’t need playing cards with provocative actions like Jiu Jitsu, Raid, or Grenade to work together, or to challenge peers. Within a couple weeks, we abandoned playing cards because they got in the way of the content: discussion of readings, sharing of draft ideas, examination of annotations, and more.

We retained modified team-based competitive activities and regularly had energetic interactions. We modified rules when it made sense to do so. Winners still earned bonus Involvement game play XPs. Even without XPs, though, I think the team-based competitions that encouraged sharing, challenging, and defending improved the energy in the room—and perhaps the learning.

One game I came to enjoy was the annotation battle. We worked on categorizing our annotations in the readings to build a greater awareness of the ways active readers mark texts. They make notes to understand, to ask questions of the text, to draw relationships (to self, to world, to text), and to challenge ideas in the texts. We used codes to name annotations—Understand, Question, Relate, Challenge—and new reading homework required annotating and coding annotations. Teams would review their annotations to prepare, make decisions about annotations to present, and share them in game play. Other teams would engage with the annotation, the relevant passage in the text, and the proposed code. They earned points by finding problems or by extending the idea in the annotation. The presenting team earned points for a solid presentation or a strong counter to a challenge.

Students who might have been more content to sit silently practiced advancing ideas, probing peers’ interpretations and offering textual evidence as a key component of the work. They were in the spotlight, playing for their team, helping a teammate, and trying to outdo another team. In-class coopertition, possibly coupled with in-class Involvement XPs, was moderately successful.

Teaching Fail #3

Uneven homework completion quickly put our timeline for the first mission in jeopardy. I was sure that publishing a “book” of student texts would motivate, but not all students had bought into the mission. (I do not know that any really did!) I quickly had to decide whether to abandon the broader goal of publishing an edited collection of our work. Pushing a death march to mission completion would put hard-working students’ performance partly in the hands of peers who were proving to be less than reliable teammates. We abandoned the broader mission concept to focus more on individual writing and practice engaging in class discussions. We made the right choice. In hindsight, I think that a formal, finished paper might function as a kind of mission in a gamified writing course.

Final Thoughts

While gamification is still fairly “hot” right now, the scholarship is actually mixed, likely because the mechanisms are quite complex. Some report ways that XPs, badges, and levels can enhance learning and motivate learners. Dicheva et al. (2015), in a review of 34 articles on gamification, find that most studies articulate a belief that well-designed gamification can improve learning. Ultimately, though, they find limited empirical evidence of positive effects on learning and claim that the impact on learning “remains to be demonstrated in practice” (Dicheva et al. 2015, 83). They call for more systematic empirical studies of elements of game systems. Subhash and Cudney (2018), in another review of the literature, observe that studies often identify “improved engagement, motivation, and attitudes” as key benefits of the gamification approach (197).

But improved motivation may be difficult to get—and sustain—via gamification. Hanus and Fox (2015), in a longitudinal study of relationships among motivation, effort, and performance in communications courses, explore the relationship between reward systems and both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. They draw on cognitive theory that suggests possible negative relationships between rewards like XPs or badges and intrinsic motivation, with possibly negative effects on learning outcomes. Results from their controlled study reveal that the badges, leaderboards, and game-based competitive play in a gamified course were associated with reduced intrinsic motivation and lower exam performance relative to a control course.

I was attempting to combat low intrinsic interest through a combination of game-like activities and XPs and levels. Where I might have preferred intrinsic motivation, I turned to gamification and a points model to motivate behavior more than attitude. I did hope that our missions and in-class games might prove fun in ways that could be interesting, and I observed generally positive attitudes toward classwork, some positive movement in desirable behaviors, and learning. Game-like structures in class likely aided some of that movement, and for some students the XPs and levels were motivators.

Intrinsic motivation might best be addressed by means other than gamification. In the writing class, this might involve a choice of reading or writing topics. Two-thirds of the way through the classes, after we had built a reservoir of community capital, I offered students just this option: We could continue on the path outlined in the syllabus, or we could opt for a different set of writing assignments. The syllabus outlined one final significant paper project that would occupy the remainder of the term, and I proposed doing two paper projects that would move a bit more quickly, have the same feedback mechanisms, and invite more variety. We had a discussion and made a collective decision on a path forward with two projects. I offer no evidence that behaviors changed markedly following that decision, but we were on a journey we decided to take. At the end of the term, my students reported liking the projects we took on. In some respects, I suppose we settled on a kind of mission.

I’m not gamifying my writing classes this year. There are no XPs, no leveling up, and surely no playing cards. But the work I did to gamify classes last year has affected my teaching. I’m more attentive to the smaller moves that my students make, to the value of more regularized feedback, and to the building blocks of my in-class activities. As I reflect on my teaching fails with gamification, I can imagine myself sprinkling gamified elements back into the class. XPs and levels might seem juvenile for some. For others, though, they are tokens marking another homework assignment completed, another class attended, and another meaningful in-class contribution. If earning XPs and leveling up can change those behaviors at the margins, why not put those elements back into the course?


Dicheva, Darina, Christo Dichev, Gennady Agre, and Galia Angelova. 2015. “Gamification in Education: A Systematic Mapping Study.” International Forum of Educational Technology & Society 18, no. 3 (July): 75–88.

FIRST LEGO League. 2018. “What is FIRST LEGO League?” Accessed August 17, 2018.

Hanus, Michael D., and Jesse Fox. 2015. “Assessing the Effects of Gamification in the Classroom: A Longitudinal Study on Intrinsic Motivation, Social Comparison, Satisfaction, Effort, and Academic Performance.” Computers & Education 80 (September): 152–161.

Hardison, John. 2013. “22 Power Cards to Revolutionize a Class Discussion.” Getting Smart (March). Accessed August 17, 2018.

Sasser, Tanya. 2015. Remixing College English. Accessed August 17, 2018.

Subhash, Sujit, and Elizabeth A. Cudney. 2018. “Gamified Learning in Higher Education: A Systematic Review of the Literature.” Computers in Human Behavior 87 (May): 192–206.

About the Author

Michael J. Cripps is associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of New England where he directs first-year writing, teaches a range of first-year and upper-level writing courses.

detail of assignment sheet with reflective markup

Using Digital Rhetoric in a Multimodal Assignment to Disrupt Traditional Academic Writing: Conventions in a First-Year Writing Classroom


This paper argues that vestiges of Berlin and Inkster’s (1980) current-traditional rhetoric (CTR) paradigm still exists in some First-Year Writing (FYW) assignments that require students to write to an academic audience. I suggest that instructors use digital rhetoric as an analytic tool to critique these traditional writing assignments and to create and critically integrate multimodal assignments that disrupt the CTR paradigm. After briefly problematizing writing assignments that reflect CTR and the requirement that students write to an academic audience, I discuss my analysis and revision of a traditional argument-based FYW assignment. This analysis is supported by the inclusion of both the original and revised versions. Each version includes color-coded annotations to demonstrate areas in the traditional assignment that rely on CTR and to highlight modifications that embrace digital rhetoric in the revised multimodal assignment. I conclude by claiming the use of digital rhetoric as an analytical tool and pedagogical framework can help instructors create multimodal assignments that promote student agency, disrupt traditional academic writing conventions, and teach students how to effectively integrate rhetorical strategies to reach a real audience via online dissemination of the final text.


Although multimodal composition assignments and the use of digital tools have become common in First-Year Writing (FYW) courses, many curriculums and assignments still require students to produce at least one traditional essay targeted to an academic audience using academic language. As a FYW instructor, I have witnessed students’ anxiety related to writing academically for college audiences; however, more recently, I believe this apprehension has grown. Possibly the proliferation of standardized high school writing curriculums and the continuous push for high school teachers to “teach to the test” have made writing academically even less relatable for incoming students than it has been in the past. High school writing assignments that require students to respond to prompts or follow a strict set of guidelines may not prepare students adequately to respond to collegiate writing situations that call for students to address an academic audience.

College writing assignments that ask students to write to an “academic audience,” which reflects Ede and Lunsford (1984)’s “invoked” audience, may further compound students’ apprehension related to writing at the college level. Invoking an audience requires students to imagine and construct their audience, and can be difficult for emerging or even practiced writers. Even when writing instructors do provide students with a specific audience within a writing assignment, it is probable that this “audience” will likely be conceptualized by the student as his or her teacher. This “writing to the teacher” frame of mind often results in students guessing how to address their audience, which hinders their ability to write academically.

Assignments that direct students to write to an imagined academic audience will most likely reflect current-traditional rhetoric (CTR) practices, which emphasize product, usage, style, and form (Berlin and Inkster 1980). When this emphasis becomes the basis for a writing assignment, it inhibits students’ creativity, promotes the binary of “good” or “bad” writing, and requires instructors to evaluate students on how well they can imitate traditional academic writing conventions. Though researchers and teachers have recognized that relying solely on CTR in writing assignments does not ensure, and may seriously hinder, students’ ability to recognize and converse with academic discourse communities (Werner 2017), remnants of or in some cases outright adherence to CTR still exist in many common FYW assignments. CTR is evident in assignments that require students to use proper MLA or APA documentation, correct grammar and mechanics, a regulated number of researched-based sources, and academic language. These types of assignments also generally rely on what Horner and Selfe (2013) call “single, uniform (‘standard’) language and modality” or SLMN, which results in a final product that has homogenized students’ language due to the required use of academic English and has been written using a word processor, printed, and handed to the teacher for evaluation.

I suggest incorporating digital rhetoric as a conceptual composing framework (Eyman 2015; Zappen 2005) to problematize CTR practices, SLMN requirements, and a continued tradition of teaching students to write for an academic audience. Using digital rhetoric as a framework creates an environment for multimodal composition practices, which provide opportunities for students to engage with “real” audiences. Even though many writing instructors and programs have answered calls from the field (Yancey 2009) and integrated multimodal assignments into writing curriculums, they are sometimes treated as a less-than-important assignment compared to traditional writing assignments. While these assignments may be integrated to meet programmatic digital literacy requirements, multimodal assignments are often placed last in a sequence of assignments in writing curriculums and are often associated with a “fun” or motivating end of semester composition anomaly. While I am not suggesting that all multimodal assignments receive such curricular placement or act only to engage or motivate students (Takayoshi and Selfe 2007), I am urging more instructors to recognize that multimodal composing in digital environments is also a rigorous academic endeavor.

This paper argues that using digital rhetoric to integrate multimodal composition assignments disrupts academic conventions perpetuated by the still prevalent CTR paradigm while also helping students write to real audiences, rather than the loosely imagined “academic audience.” I also discuss my use of digital rhetoric as an analytic method (Eyman 2015) to analyze a traditional assignment I have used in past FYW classrooms. Based on that analysis, I revised the assignment to embrace digital and multimodal affordances and disrupt academic writing conventions.

Analyzing a Traditional FYW Assignment: An Argument Without Sources Essay


As a FYW instructor at a four-year university located in an urban setting, I have encountered traditional writing assignments that rely on CTR and SLMN. These assignments are part of the writing program’s curricular focus on classical rhetorical concepts and traditional argumentative structures. This curriculum promotes academic rigor and opportunities for students to practice academic writing but it also reinforces teacher-centered pedagogy and rewards students who can follow the rules of academic writing. One assignment I found particularly problematic was the “Argument Without Sources Assignment,” even though I co-wrote the assignment sheet in 2013. The assignment is the first of four in a shared assignment sequence in the program’s College Writing II course, which focuses on information literacy and argumentative writing and likely parallels other writing assignments found in various FYW curriculums across the country.

Knowing that I wanted to revise the traditional assignment, I first analyzed it using digital rhetoric and student-centered pedagogical philosophy. The result of my analysis is a color-coded visual analysis of the assignment (see Appendix A for the full assignment sheet) pointing out areas that adhere to CTR through language (blue) and content (yellow), requirements that perpetuate the production of SLMN texts (green), and sections that provide only vague references to audience (pink). In the following discussion, I have included screenshots of annotations made to the original visually annotated assignment sheet to support my argument that the assignment (and ones like it) still reinforce the CTR paradigm and the production of monomodal texts.

Instructor Language Usage and Textual Design in a Traditional FYW Assignment

The original “Argument Without Sources” assignment uses imperative language that promotes teacher-centeredness and decenters the agency of the student. Figure 1 shows that “must” is used five times and “will” is used twice in the span of five sentences. An overall authoritative tone maintains the feeling that a student cannot negotiate with academic conventions but should conform to the expectations of the teacher, program, or university. The relationship that this type of language use creates is also one based on authority rather than dialogue. The use of “must” solidifies the teacher as the giver of knowledge and the student remains the receiver. This problematic dichotomy may look shockingly familiar to many instructors.

Even the assignment sheet’s formatting maintains that dichotomy. The font, font size, and spacing are severe and intimidating. Students literally “see” the authority of the instructor in the use of small margins and a lack of white space. The design does not take into account how a student might read it; rather its purpose is to identify requirements and rules. The design is unfriendly to transitioning writers and perpetuates the myth that “good” writing must look a certain way.


In five sentences of the assignment section, the imperative “must” appeared 5 times and “will” 3 times.
Figure 1. “Argument Without Sources” excerpt
Please see Appendix A for the full assignment, and an accessible PDF file of the assignment.

Production of a Standard, Normal, and Monomodal Text

The green highlighted phrases in Figure 2 indicate that print-based design and dissemination is privileged. The “Evaluation” section declares that a successful text must have “correct formatting and MLA [and] a page length that is 2-3 pages.” Here, students are being explicitly asked to produce a print-based essay following the conventions of MLA style. Though I am not arguing for the removal of documentation requirements or the print-based essay, I do believe these stringent and non-contextualized requirements reduce students’ agency and increase focus on product rather than process. Perhaps if there was more emphasis on avoiding plagiarism rather than emphasizing the need to “correct” formatting and documentation, then students might begin to understand that a writer’s choice of documentation style signifies a connection with a discipline-specific audience.

Three of the required criteria were 'Correct formatting and MLA', 'A page length that is 2-3 pages', and 'Follows the basic structure of an argument without sources.'
Figure 2. Evaluation standards reinforcing monomodal textual productions

Whom Am I Addressing?

In the traditional assignment, the word “audience” is mentioned once and is only implicitly referred to later in the “Evaluation” section (see pink annotations in Appendix A). The assignment declares that students must “address an audience” using “ethos, pathos, and logos.” This statement does not allow students to clearly envision a real or easily construct an imagined audience and implies that they should simply write for the instructor. The lack of audience specificity adheres to the prevalent “teacher as audience” conceptualization of audience and does not disrupt the problematic nature associated with asking students to write academically.

The “Evaluation” section also lists the use of “formal, academic language” as a requirement to produce a successful argument. Not only is this assessment criteria reinforcing CTR, but also some students may not have experience with this type of language or know when to use it. Further, if students do not have a concrete audience to address or if they cannot clearly imagine an audience based on their experiences, then asking them to use formal, academic language may prove especially frustrating for them.

Perpetuating the Current-Traditional Rhetoric Paradigm

The last aspect of the assignment sheet, annotated in yellow, is a broader categorization of foregrounding teacher, program, or university expectations rather than the students’ own experiences and languages. Again, the “Evaluation” section states, “a successful argument will include all of the following requirements.” The focus here is on what students “must” include to complete the assignment and achieve a high score. There is little room for negotiation between the instructor and the student and clearly values the product rather than the process. Though there are references to process writing, specific points and due dates are also included taking away from the recursive nature of the writing process and revision.

Figure 3 shows a list of specific features of argumentative writing (e.g. an introduction, body paragraphs, etc.), which might be useful to new writers. However, the highly specific bullet points within each section seemingly imply that students should check provided argumentative features off the list as they write–possibly impeding their writing processes and promoting commonality among a diverse group of students. This promotion of commonality in writing also reinforces the problematic binary that there is a “right” way to write and only if a student performs as they are told, can he or she achieve success.

The “Argument Without Sources” assignment emphasized a definitive structure through twelve bullets, rewarding rules-following and deprioritizing creativity
Figure 3. Restrictive structural requirements


While using this assignment in my courses, I quickly became frustrated because it forced students to produce essays that looked and sounded the same. The argumentative structures were repeated, student voices became homogenized, and, because students were forced to use their textbook as the basis for their arguments, the content was also very similar. After reading nearly 200 of these papers over the course of two academic years, I decided to begin embracing digital rhetoric and multimodal composing practices. Although there were challenges associated with integrating an assignment reflecting these practices and digital rhetoric, I argue that the revised assignment discussed below achieved the same course goals, encouraged creativity and agency, and taught students how to recognize and converse with various discourse communities.

A Discussion of the Revised Assignment: Convincing your Discourse Community

Using the same color coding method, I created a visual analysis of the revised assignment (see Appendix B). In this version, areas of negotiation and less imperative language are highlighted in blue, revisions to prescriptive requirements and teacher-centered pedagogy are annotated in yellow, integration of digital rhetoric is annotated in green, and specific references to audience are annotated in pink. The revision was implemented into my four sections of College Writing II in the spring of 2017. Like the original, students produce a persuasive text as the first assignment in the course sequence, but the revision asks students to choose one of their discourse communities (e.g. a video gamer community), determine an argument intended for that community, compose their text multimodally, and share it digitally with the community.

Assignment Sheet Design and Language


When designing the assignment sheet, I attempted to make the format less intimidating and easier to read. I enlarged both the font size and spacing, which makes the text look less intimidating. I also used Calibri as a font, rather than Times New Roman, because it is not as commonly associated with traditional academic writing. However, I feel that the assignment sheet itself could (and should) be revised to include multiple modes rather than relying completely on changes to font, spacing, and white space.

An additional “poster” from NCTE (2012) was included to provide an entry point for students beginning to learn about discourse communities and shows that disrupting traditional, scholarly formats is appropriate in context. Many students may feel that to “write academically” one must produce a text that looks academic. The NCTE text problematizes this notion and gives students a multimodal example of work created by a highly respected academic organization.

The text can also serve as the basis for discussions about the relationship between context and design. For example, an instructor might facilitate a discussion about how to determine when a text should reflect academic design conventions and when a less traditional design might also be appropriate.


In Figure 4, words highlighted in blue show the revision of declarative statements such as “students must” to more negotiated language such as “you should” or “this assignment asks you to…” I believe shifting from restrictive language provides students with the opportunity to reflect on, question, or negotiate with the assignment or the instructor rather than simply follow the directions.

The revised assignment includes negotiated language choices like 'asks' and 'should.'
Figure 4. Revised assignment sheet language
Please see Appendix B for the full assignment, and an accessible PDF file of the assignment.

Embracing Digital Rhetoric and Producing a Multimodal Text

In Figure 5, the green highlighting points out instances where the assignment asks students to shift from traditional composing practices to multimodal and embrace the affordances of digital environments. The revised assignment requires students to compose multimodally and share their work online with the appropriate discourse community.

The revised assignment embraces digital rhetoric with prominent prompts about the audience, medium, documentation style, and language
Figure 5. Embracing digital rhetoric


Recognizing that not all students are comfortable with multimodal design, students have the choice to create more print-based texts such as posters or newsletters, but they are still asked to compose multimodally and share those texts with their discourse community online. This aspect of the assignment combines digital environments with traditional rhetoric, which allows students to account for their audience and medium when choosing appropriate rhetorical moves (Eyman 2015; Zappen 2005). This helps students think more about the power of visual, aural, gestural, and spatial modes of communication when constructing an argument as opposed to considering only the linguistic mode and print-based production options.

Addressing a Real and Interactive Audience

When contrasting traditional print affordances and multimodal affordances, the latter provide students with more opportunities to communicate with varied and interactive audiences. Research has shown that students perceive audience awareness as an affordance of multimodal composing (Alexander, Powell, and Green 2012; Kirchoff and Cook 2016; Takayoshi and Selfe 2007). The revised assignment places audience awareness at the center of its pedagogical goal, rather than relying on a vague description of an imagined audience. Pink annotations showcase areas where audience is prioritized (see Appendix B for full annotations), beginning with the poster from NCTE that defines discourse communities and scaffolds understanding of discourse communities into the assignment. Figure 6 shows a disruption of the traditional notion of a teacher as audience by asking students to first visualize an imagined audience, based on their actual experience(s), then to write to those audiences by digitally sharing the texts with their communities. Shifting from vague audience conceptualizations to real and interactive ones aligns with two of the primary activities within a digital rhetoric framework: helping students form digital identities and building social communities (Zappen 2005).

The revised assignment includes questions and examples to help students envision an interactive audience, e.g. 'Who are you addressing' and 'What are you trying to persuade them to do, feel, think, etc?'
Figure 6. Envisioning an interactive audience


Asking students to share their work online embraces the affordances offered by writing in digital environments using digital tools (Nobles and Paganucci 2015). However, this choice was not without its challenges. Generally, students appreciated the opportunity to directly interact with an audience of their choice, but some students were not as comfortable with this component. Prior to the actual dissemination of their texts, some students requested that they be allowed to use fake names or to remove their work as soon as I had evaluated it. Students were quickly granted permission for their requests, but I recognize the gap in execution of the assignment. To account for this gap, I plan to scaffold lessons into the project that help students choose how they want to be (de)identified. I will also create an option for students to post their work to a shared and closed classroom website designed and curated by me.

Shifting the Focus from CTR

The revised assignment upholds the programmatic goal of requiring students to produce a persuasive text, but yellow annotations illustrate areas that allow for student creativity and playfulness. The “Evaluation” section, while still in a list form, has been shortened considerably and the criterion for success has been expanded. The revised assignment does not require “formal, academic voice”, which gives students more room to express themselves and use varied and rhetorically appropriate languages, dialects, and slang based on the discourse community they are addressing. However, the streamlined evaluation section creates a challenge related to creating an effective assessment tool. When assessing a student’s work, I need to act as both the evaluator and as hypothetical audience-member, which is challenging. Since the assignment was created to reinforce the components of digital rhetoric and allow for student creativity, I believe that my primary job is to act as a hypothetical audience-member and respond accordingly.

Although this may put more pressure on the instructor, it helps shift the assessment of student work from evaluating how well a student demonstrates his or her ability to write academically (privileging commonality) to one that evaluates how well a student uses languages and various modes to effectively address his or her community (promoting difference).

One potential benefit of the assignment is its ability to prepare students for responding to writing situations in other courses by not giving them a specific rhetorical situation. Instead, it urges them to really think about who they are as an author and as a member of that community, the message that they want to share within the context of that community, and to address a “real” community that they know from experience. This does not mean that some students do not choose to address a more formal community (e.g. a workplace manager) but it gives them the choice to do so. The point of this assignment is not to reinforce the importance of grammar, MLA, or academic voice (though those are important components of their final semester project) but to introduce them to the idea of discourse communities as audience and to think about composing in a digitalized world.

Student Reception of the Revised Assignment

When I incorporated the revised assignment into my course in spring 2017, I was nervous that students would push back against the lack of formalized instruction and that they might not see the connection between their discourse communities and writing persuasively. For the most part, I was happily surprised. I witnessed students who initially identified themselves as “terrible” writers spending hours on revising their website layout to “make it easier for my discourse community to understand.” One specific example stands out. A self-proclaimed “bad writer” from day one, Sue was hesitant about the class. When told that she would not be writing a formal essay as the first assignment, she became a little less hesitant. When told she could choose her audience, use language of that community, and share her message with them, she was absolutely thrilled. Two and half weeks later, she produced a website convincing a specific audience, the discourse community of avid golfers, to play at her favorite golf course. She included tabs echoing the traditional argumentative essay structure as well as an “author bio” tab, which she explained helped “get her credibility with her audience.” For the remainder of the semester, she was confident in her writing skills. She spent more time revising her traditional text than she had in other writing classes (according to her) and she became an active member in our small classroom community.

The example I have shared is just one of many positive experiences I had with this assignment last semester, but that is not to say that there weren’t less-than-positive experiences. As stated previously, some students were uncomfortable with sharing their work online, while others struggled with the skills associated with creating a text using digital tools. Some students struggled to create functional websites and some had difficulties converting a text-based document into a format that could easily be shared online. While I attempted to account for these struggles via mini-technology lessons, more time should have been spent discussing problem-solving strategies to aid students in the creation and dissemination of their texts. These strategies might include prompting students to create a list of places to find help on campus and useful web-based tools (e.g. tutorials, freeware, examples, etc.), which would be shared on our online course management system.

Some students also felt that a multimodal composition assignment was not preparing them academically and disliked the non-traditional nature of the assignment. Yet, generally and anecdotally speaking, many students began to see that writing does not always have to look and sound the same and that there is room for creativity in academic writing. They also began to understand that “audience” does not simply mean writing to one’s teachers. This assignment also made it easier for me to introduce academic discourse communities to my students, which helped them think about a discipline-specific academic audience when they chose topics, journal articles, documentation styles, and language prior to and during the writing of their final research papers (a traditional, print-based assignment). My assertion is that framing a multimodal assignment using digital rhetoric helps teach students how to recognize the connection between audience, message, and digital environments. This kind of digital rhetorical work might also help shift the multimodal and digital assignment from “lesser than” to “equal to” or “as good as” traditional, print-based composing.

Final Remarks

My discussion here offers a revision of what I saw as a restrictive assignment that closely adhered to CTR. While I am not claiming that digital rhetoric and/or digital practices should replace traditional print-based composing practices, I am urging instructors to consider incorporating digital rhetoric into their curriculums to continue to provide opportunities for student choice and creativity. This paper showcased my willingness to use digital rhetoric as an analytic tool to analyze and then revise a common writing assignment in my FYW classroom. I also urge any instructor who wishes to push against the CTR paradigm of academic writing, which often leaves out varied and textured voices, to conduct a similar analysis of a traditional assignment and then revise it so it reflects a digital rhetoric framework. I hope that fellow instructors who have become frustrated with the vague instructional goal to teach students “audience awareness” will consider the affordances provided by digital spaces and help students learn (re)address real and interactive online communities.


Alexander, Kara Poe, Beth Powell, and Sonya C. Green. 2012. “Understanding Modal Affordances: Student Perceptions of Potentials and Limitations in Multimodal Composition.” Basic Writing e-Journal 10:11.1. Accessed November 5, 2017. https://bwe.ccny.cuny.edu/alexandermodalaffordances.html

Berlin, A James and Robert P. Inkster. 1980. “Current Traditional Rhetoric: Paradigm and Practice.” Freshman English News 8:3, 1-4. Accessed November 4, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43519330

Eyman, Douglas. 2015. Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice. Ann Harbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Ede, Lisa and Angela Lunsford. 1984. “Audience Addressed/Audience Invoked: The Role of Audience in Composition Theory and Pedagogy.” College Composition and Communication 35:2, 155-171. Accessed November 7, 2017. http://comphacker.org/pdfs/335/358093.pdf

Horner, Bruce and Cynthia L. Selfe. 2013. “Translinguality/Transmodality Relations: Snapshots from a Dialogue.” (Working Paper No. 7). Accessed November 10, 2017. http://louisville.edu/workingpapers/copy_of_working-papers.

Kirchoff, Jeffrey S.J. and Mike P. Cook. 2016. “The Impact of Multimodal Composition on First Year Students’ Writing.” Journal of College Literacy and Learning, 42, 20-39. Retrieved from storage.googleapis.com/wzukusers/user-20714678/…/Kirchoff%20Cook.pdf

NCTE. (2012). Discourse community. Retrieved from http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/CCC/0641-sep2012/CCC0641PosterDiscourse.pdf.

Nobles, Susan. and Laura Paganucci. 2015. “Do Digital Writing Tools Deliver? Student Perceptions of Writing Quality Using Digital Tools and Online Writing Environments. Computers and Composition 38, 16-31. Accessed November 7, 2017. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2015.09.001

Takayoshi, Pamela and Cynthia L. Selfe. 2007. “Thinking About Multimodality.” In Multimodal composition: Resources for teachers, edited by Cynthia L. Selfe, New York: Hampton Press, Inc.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. 2009. Writing in the 21st century: A report from the National Council of Teachers of English. Accessed on November 10, 2017. http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Press/Yancey_final.pdf.

Werner, L Courtney. 2017. “How Rhetoric and Composition Described and Defined New Media at the Start of the Twenty-First Century.” College Composition and Communication 68:4, 713-739.

Zappen, P James. 2005. “Digital Rhetoric: Toward an Integrated Theory.” Technical Communication Quarterly 14:3, 319-325.

Appendix A: Marked-up Original Assignment Sheet

This appendix is also available as a pdf.

First page: intro and options. Small print, small margins, and forceful language provide little room for student agency (but reinforces teacher's knowledge).
Second page: structure, evaluation, points. Emphasis on correctness, completeness, and uniformity promote the teacher as audience and reinforce traditional structure.

Appendix B: Marked-up Revised Assignment Sheet

This appendix is also available as a pdf.

First page: NCTE's multimodal definition of 'discourse community.' Markup highlights the significance section.
Second page: genre, guidelines. Markup highlights room for flexibility, negotiation.
Third page: rhetorical considerations. Markup highlights the student-centered framing.
Fourth page: process and evaluation. Markup highlights the centrality of students' reflection on their choices.

About the Author

Melanie Gagich is an Associate College Lecturer in the First-Year Writing Program at Cleveland State University, where she has taught composition courses for six years. She is also currently pursuing her PhD in Composition and TESOL. Her research interests include multimodal composition, digital rhetoric, and open access resources (OERs).

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