A Sequence on Sequencing: What and Why?

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I chose a sequencing approach to the assignments in Emerging.  I thought it might be useful to talk a little bit about why I made that decision, so over the next few posts I hope to offer you an introduction to assignment sequencing—and also some tips on how to make your own sequences.

Sequenced assignments are a series of assignments in which each new prompt builds on the work that was done in the previous assignment.  Students start by working with one essay in one assignment but then return to that same essay as well as a new one in the second assignment and then return again to those readings in the next assignment and so on.  Most sequences are organized around a central idea or theme and students develop their understanding of that idea or theme by working with the different readings repeatedly.

Deciding to use sequencing in Emerging was a bit of a natural choice for me since it’s the approach I learned when I started teaching—I’ve always sequenced assignments.  But I think there are very good reasons for taking this approach:

  1. Critical Thinking. I like the way that sequencing allows me to help students develop their skills with critical thinking.  By using different readings to examine a central theme, students are offered a variety of tools to explore the ideas of that theme.  Sequencing also allows students time to develop more mature understandings of the ideas of a reading since they work with that reading multiple times.  And sequencing presses students to think critically about how they understand readings.  They may feel one way about an author after first reading an essay but by placing that essay in the context of other essays, students are often forced to reconsider their understandings.  Bringing new ideas into play constantly prompts them to think more critically.
  2. Coherence. Sequences bring coherence to my class by establishing a central theme for the semester.  Students spend the class exploring that theme and developing their ideas around it.  It offers them help in terms of writing their assignments, since there emerges a common vocabulary drawn from the readings.  It also then serves as a kind of touchstone for us to consider the world outside the classroom, as current events often reflect and rebound on the theme we’re working on.
  3. Depth. Students develop a depth of understanding because they spend weeks working on the same readings.  Often, on the first assignment working with a reading, students “flatten” the ideas to their simplest dimension.  But as they continually return to and reread the essays they are forced deeper into the ideas of the essay, as well as their limitations.
  4. Scaffolding. I imagine that as they enter their disciplines, students will be expected to produce writing that works with multiple authors (perhaps as a researched assignment but perhaps also just in the context of a final exam).  Sequencing offers them some scaffolded experience with this skill.
  5. Springboard. Similarly, sequencing can serve as a springboard to researched writing.  Students develop two kinds of skills that will serve them in contexts of research.  Not only do they learn to draw from multiple sources in support of their arguments but they also gain experience with sustained work, both within a paper and across the semester.

I don’t think sequencing is for everyone.  And I can tell you now that it has some drawbacks too.  Students, for example, become quite tired of some readings as the semester progresses, though I offer them options in later assignments so that they can jettison works that they have chewed through thoroughly.  Still I do feel that this approach serves students well.  For me, it remains the right choice in my teaching and for Emerging.

Next post: some tips on making your own assignment sequences.

About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.