McGill examples

View writing assignments used by other McGill instructors across a variety of disciplines.


3-part media assignment

Assignments Media Assignment 1
Media Assignment 2
Media Assignment 3
Course BIOL 115 Essential Biology
Instructor Prof. Tamara Western
Unit Department of Biology
Enrollment 200-250 students
Teaching Assistants 1 full time TA, 1 grader

Comments from Prof. Tamara Western

In BIOL 115 (Essential Biology [for Non-Majors], 250 students), my goal is not only to give students an overview of some key aspects of Biology, but also [hopefully] to create an interest in Biology and demonstrate its relevance to their lives and interests. To address these latter goals, I created three short writing assignments where students explore the relationship between what we covered in class and what is seen in the media (science news - two half page individual assignments) and popular culture (movies and television - three page group assignment).

Since written assignments are rare in large first year lecture courses, I thought it would also be useful as an exercise in summarizing scientific ideas in a concise format.

Article review

Assignment Article review
Course ENVR 202 The Evolving Earth
Instructor Prof. George McCourt
Unit McGill School of Environment
Enrollment 70 students
Teaching Assistants 1 TA (90h)

Comments from Prof. George McCourt

This assignment was the second of three assignments that the students completed during the term. The assignments were designed to help students think about the use of evidence-based research and to introduce them to the ideas of how evidence is used to create theories about how our planet Earth has evolved over geologic time.

The written comments from the students would strongly suggest that they came away with a new appreciation of how important evidence is in research and how what you can and cannot say will depend on the various types of evidence that are being used. There was a strong improvement in the students’ ability to critically assess the evidence presented in their assigned paper topic as they completed each successive assignment.

Their first assignment write-ups contained a great deal of personal interpretations with little use of evidence to support their observations. This is the second time we have used this type of assignment and based on the last two years we will continue to use this assessment format. The one change would be to spend part of a class lecture and actually go through what we want the students to do with each assignment. As one student said, “This would help people get an idea of how to approach and analyze what they’re reading, which we don't really learn to do in the class. These papers are rather hard to grasp for people who haven't been used to that type of stuff, and I think that the exercise has much more potential if students were taken through that.”

Collaborative writing

Assignment Collaborative writing
Course ANTH 575 The Concept of Race
Instructor Prof. André Costopoulos
Unit Department of Anthropology
Enrollment 20 students
Teaching Assistants N/A

Lay translation

Assignment Lay translation
Course PHAR 558 Research Topics in Pharmacology
Instructor Prof. Terry Hébert
Unit Department of Pharmacology
Enrollment 70 students
Teaching Assistants 1 TA (35h)

Comments from Prof. Terry Hébert

What did you want to achieve with this assignment and do you think you achieved it?

The course centers around and involves students in the challenges in drug discovery today. A critical skill students must learn is to explain science to a lay audience. As such, they were asked to read several scientific article and then write a one page essay in the form of a New York Times article that explained the scientific content in a form their parents or non-science peers could understand. I wanted students to be able to think critically and write concisely using plain language. Nothing tests understanding more than translation and effectively, this was an exercise in translation. I think that by the end of the class, the students learned this. They also learned that perhaps waiting until the end of their undergraduate education to think about writing is perhaps too long! They found it difficult, challenging but ultimately (if the course evaluations and this project can be believed) very useful. Yes, I think it was successful.

Would you use this assignment again and if so, what would you modify next time?

Absolutely, I would use it again. Although with a growing class size this means more work for me- the results are worth it. I would change a couples of things. First, I will incorporate a class showing them what I am looking for with examples of good writing and bad. Second, I would like to incorporate an active learning component where they push each other to write better.

What is most striking to you about the student feedback you received (incl. survey results, informal conversations, etc.)?

How challenging they found the assignment- I must have read 60 drafts! But also, I think, how the critical the skill of writing concisely and clearly became apparent to them.

Memorandum to the Prime Minister

Assignment Memo to the Prime Minister
Course ENVR 200 Global Environment 
Instructor Prof. Nigel Roulet
Unit Department of Geography
Enrollment 160 students
Teaching Assistants 1 ½ TA positions: 1 TA – 90h, 1 TA – 45h 

Policy brief

Assignment Brief Guidelines
Course URBP 506 Environmental Policy and Planning
Instructor Prof. Madhav Badami
Unit School of Urban Planning
Enrollment 30 students
Teaching Assistants 1 grader

How could you adapt this assignment to other contexts?

Key words: presenting facts, interpreting facts, convincing your audience, lay audience, civic action, professional writing

  • Writing to a local politician/committee about an issue concerning your discipline (e.g. public health, language politics, security, urban planning)
  • Alternative audiences: an organisation on campus, a dean or the deputy provost – part of the task could be to identify the person/organisation on campus that is involved in the decision making process.
  • Examples: students in philosophy could explain to the Principal why McGill should take a stance in the Charter of Values based on philosophical texts discussed in class, students in engineering can write to XXX and explain why certain bridges in Montreal are a public hazard, students in dentistry could write to potential donors why they should care about the clinics

Reflection paper

Assignment Reflection paper
Course MUPG 474 Practicing and Coping Strategies for Performance Enhancement
Instructor Prof. Isabelle Cossette
Unit Schulich School of Music
Enrollment 20 students
Teaching Assistants 0

Comments from Prof. Isabelle Cossette

This assignment was meant to encourage students to assess their skills, in terms of cognitive, somatic, affective and behavioural control, in dealing with the different demands required to achieve an optimal musical performance.  In order to do so, students had to reflect on the theoretical and practical knowledge they had learned through the term and set goals based on their own needs so that they continue to develop and explore new strategies through their careers.  I think this assignment helped them understand that numerous strategies, once under their control, may help them to be in the most optimal state for performing at will.  It also gave the students the opportunity to become aware of their own condition as well as others by putting into perspective that other performers also go through a similar research process to learn to deal with similar challenges.

I will certainly use this paper format again but might modify the point allocation in the correction grid (from a scale 0-3 to a scale 0-4) as I would have liked to have more levels of assessment while grading. I don’t know if the changes I had made to the paper guidelines helped or if it is the fact that I provided the students with the correction grid, but papers were in general more relevant than the ones from previous years. The correction grid was clearly emphasizing that a reflection was expected and warranted points.  Many papers were very personal and relevant and made reading very interesting!

I didn’t get much feedback from the survey as I had been late in sending the survey. Most of the responses were very positive. The ones that were less positive were not consistent in their answers. 

How could you adapt this assignment to other contexts?

Key words: analyzing experiences, trouble shooting, qualitative research, methods courses, self-critique, reflection, applying theory to your own experience

  • Analyze as a group what makes a good presentation or assign papers on presentation skills; tape in-class presentations and let students reflect on their own presentation based on these discussions/readings
  • In disciplines where interviewing is part of the research process, the final paper could be used to analyze the experience based on theoretic papers about qualitative research
  • Any discipline where students experience interaction with clients/patients can support this interaction with theoretical papers and space for reflection

Research paper critique

Assignments Research Paper Critique
Course BIOL 303 Developmental Biology
Instructor Prof. Tamara Western
Unit Department of Biology
Enrollment 125 students
Teaching Assistants 3 TAs: 2 TAs (90h each), 1 TA (180h)

Comments from Prof. Tamara Western

The goal of BIOL 303 (Developmental Biology; ~150 students) is not only to introduce students to the mechanisms and regulation of development across a range of organisms, but also to focus on experimental approaches. To complement the processes and experiments being discussed in class, students are required to write a critique of a recent primary research article. Students choose between several selected papers, then are required both to summarize the key points of the paper and critique its experimental process and conclusions. Specific questions are also provided that must be addressed in the critique, and all must be presented in a concise format of only five double-spaced pages.

This assignment was developed by the previous course instructor, and I kept it for its value as a tool for students not only to immerse themselves in an example of “real science”, but also to process what they have learned into a concise format. Discussions with students suggested that many found it interesting to read a scientific paper and think about its meaning. This is also reflected in comments submitted in the survey, along with that it helped them learn how to read or analyze or write concisely about a scientific paper. This is an assignment that I would definitely continue to use, though I feel that further work is needed on the grading rubric for consistent feedback.

Review and reading journal


Review and Reading Journal


GEOG_310 Development and Livelihoods
GEOG 409 Geographies of Developing Asia

Instructor Prof. Sarah Turner
Unit Department of Geography
Enrollment 100 students in GEOG 310; 60 students in GEOG 409
Teaching Assistants

GEOG 310: 1 TA (75h) for Sarah, 225 TA-hrs for the course overall
GEOG 409: 1 TA (90h) + 1 RA (50h) that Sarah hired herself

Comments from Prof. Sarah Turner

What did you want to achieve with this assignment and do you think you achieved it?

I wanted students to need to think critically about the class readings (not just highlight sections they found interesting) and for them to pull out key ideas while making links to concepts raised in class. I was struggling to find a way to make readings meaningful in a class of this size (I find it difficult to have a brainstorming session critiquing an article with 60 students and keep everyone engaged), and hence thought that this might provide a useful approach. From reading the journals (which were extremely well done) and from reading students’ feedback on this approach, I believe the approach worked well. I must add that seeing students ‘getting’ the core points from class and making relevant and careful links to readings is very rewarding as a prof. and makes this assignment enjoyable to grade.

Would you use this assignment again and if so, what would you modify next time?

Yes, I’m using it again this semester- this time in a class of 120. For this larger class I’m modifying the assignment slightly to reduce the size of each entry (500 not 600 words) just because I have less TA hours available. That’s the only modification.

What is most striking to you about the student feedback you received (incl. survey results, informal conversations, etc.)?

Most striking was how positive the feedback was overall. Students really seemed to understand the point of this and found it a useful exercise, providing feedback like “great for reflecting back on the lecture and readings”, “[helped me to] examine my own interpretations of the material”, “it synthesises what you’re learning and allows you to contribute your own thoughts”. Overall, the students appeared far more keen to complete this form of assignment than a final exam, and realised that this approach afforded them the space to reflect critically on the course, as well as on their own experiences.

How could you adapt this assignment to other contexts?

Key words: review of course materials, making connections, critical reading, critical thinking, making an argument, analyzing issues

Focus could be shifted to linking course content to current issues, establishing connections to other courses

Team analysis memo

Assignment Team Analysis Memo
Course MGCR_222_Introduction_to_Organizational_Behavior
Instructor Prof. Ruthanne Huising
Unit Desaultel Faculty of Management
Enrollment 120 students
Teaching Assistants 1 TA

Comments from Prof. Ruthanne Huising

This assignment is part of an inquiry-based process that lasts the entire semester and is intended to teach students how to work in teams. Because organizations increasingly ask that employees at all levels work on teams, usually several simultaneously, it is important students reflect on how teams organize themselves, communicate, and make decisions. It is also important that they learn how to improve these team processes over time and through interaction. I facilitate this learning process by using the following series of exercises:

  • Students are randomly assigned to teams of 4 and are given a group assignment work 15% of their final grade.
  • After the first assignment is turned in, students are given the individual writing assignment featured above in which they use a reflective analysis process to identify, evaluate, and theorize one of their team’s weaknesses and then present ideas about how to correct the weaknesses. They do not have the results of the group assignment when they write this paper.
  • In class the team evaluates their strengths using a common organizational development technique called appreciative inquiry. They are asked to develop, based on the analysis of the weaknesses and strengths, a plan for changing how they will work together on their next assignment.
  • The students, in the same groups, are given a second group assignment worth 15% of their final grade and asked to work according to their new plan.

Students write this assignment as early as possible in the term (about week 5) so that they can implement their ideas to improve team interactions throughout the rest of the term. One of the implications of writing this paper early in the term was that students had difficulty making connections between their observations and the theories. Several students told me they did have enough theoretical content to use in the paper and this comes through in the evaluations of the assignment. While students indicate that the assignment was valuable for understanding group dynamics, they also indicate that it was weak in helping them understand the course content. They were searching for theoretical ideas that could help explain their experience and couldn’t find them. However, this search process had a very strong positive effect as the course continued. Students continued to search for answers as the course progressed and I heard many reports of how the theories, as they were introduced, better illuminated their team experience. It is important to place this assignment with the context of inquiry-based process described above.

How could you adapt this assignment to other contexts?

Key words: analyzing processes, troubleshooting, team work

  • At the end of a lab or any kind of research process, let students write a short memo: did any of your experiments not turn out the way you expected? What happened? Why? What will you do differently next time?
  • In disciplines where interviewing is part of the research process, the final paper could be used to analyze the experience based on theoretic papers about qualitative research
  • Any discipline where students experience interaction with clients/patients can support this interaction with theoretical papers and space for reflection

Top 5 papers in the discipline


Top Five Research Papers in the Discipline

Course ENTO 330 Insect Biology
Instructor Prof. Chris Buddle
Unit Department of Natural Resource Sciences
Enrollment 20 students
Teaching Assistants None

Comments from Prof. Chris Buddle

The overarching goal of the assignment was to present a different way of thinking about scientific literature. Specifically, how does one determine what is the "best" literature in a discipline? This can be defined by metrics, or by a paper that studies a particularly important topic that may be newsworthy. I also wanted to have students think about arguing their position to their peers - trying to write in ways that are convincing and logical. Effective communication was key to this assignment.
In part, this worked: We had discussions in class about what the "best" means and about ways to think about paper selection, and this became an important part of the process. It was a challenge for students to find papers that they felt were "top" in the field, especially since the field is so broad. I also believe that the assignment met its goals in written communication: the students were very strong writers, and were able to effectively argue for their chosen papers. 
I would do this assignment again, but would devote more time, in lecture, defining and exploring the ways to think about the "impact" of a scientific paper, and some of the tools by which this can be understood. I would also narrow the discipline down and perhaps focus one sub-discipline within the broader discipline and then have students seek the top paper within that field. The learning management system was not well suited to the assignment: the myCourses discussion forum is too static, clunky and awkward, and not user-friendly.
The assignment was too complicated, especially since the assignment was worth a small percentage of the final grade. I would stick to finding and debating the papers using on-line tools, and use a class discussion to really debate the papers face-to-face. This would allow for everyone to have time to see and hear about the papers and see the ways they are strong, and "top" papers in the field.

How could you adapt this assignment to other contexts?

The key feature of this assignment is that students have to analyze what makes a good research paper.

Key words: defining quality, recognizing quality in research, evaluating research papers, taking a position, making an argument, convincing your audience, critical reading

The focus of this assignment can be more on structure and style (“Is this a well-written paper?”) or more on the methods section (“Which of these studies would you put more trust in and why?”), depending on the level of the students.


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