Choosing Verbs

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This post is part of a continuing series on building a course around the textbook Emerging. For previous posts in the series, see here, here, and here. The success of any given assignment depends on a number of factors, but often hinges on the choice of a certain verbs. Whenever you write assignments, therefore, pay particular attention to (and consider the possible implications of) the verbs you use. For example:
  • Explore. “Explore” is a useful verb in assignments because it asks students to use analytical skills.  However, you might find that assignments using this verb produce papers that are meandering, since “exploring” does not require students to locate a central argument.
  • Reflect. “Reflect” implies both regurgitation and interiorization, neither of which is consistent with the goals of these courses. Just as importantly, this verb does not ask student to enter the conversation of the texts.
  • Discuss. Like “explore,” this verb may produce generalized papers without any clear focus.
  • Argue. While we certainly wish students to make arguments in their papers, using this verb suggests a black or white, win or lose position.  Students are more likely to use personal attacks against the author, force the evidence, or ignore contravening pieces of text when arguing their case.
  • Defend or refute. Like “argue,” these verbs can be combative.
Consider using the following verbs instead:
  • Extend. “Extend” is a useful work because it encourages students to enter the conversation of the text and, literally, to extend it.  However, students usually remain within the arguments presented by the authors, and simply extending them to new contexts.
  • Examine. This verb encourages students to use analytical skills.
  • Evaluate. “Evaluate” directly encourages critical thinking and, in the process, encourages students to take a position or to make a central point.
  • Propose. Using this verb in your assignment requires students to enter the conversation of the texts.
  • Assess. Like “examine” or “evaluate,” this verb encourages critical thinking.
Ultimately, experience—or trial and error—will identify the verbs most useful to you in crafting assignments. The intent of this list is simply to give you practice in thinking about how the verb you choose directs the response students create. Which verbs have you had success with?
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.