Writing assignments in epidemiology courses: How many and how good?

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English Language and Literature

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Public Health Reports


Objectives: Schools and programs of public health are concerned about poor student writing. We determined the proportion of epidemiology courses that required writing assignments and the presence of 6 characteristics of these assignments. Methods: We requested syllabi, writing assignments, and grading criteria from instructors of graduate and undergraduate epidemiology courses taught during 2016 or 2017. We assessed the extent to which these assignments incorporated 6 characteristics of effective writing assignments: (1) a description of the purpose of the writing or learning goals of the assignment, (2) a document type (eg, article, grant) used in public health, (3) an identified target audience, (4) incorporation of tasks that support the writing process (eg, revision), (5) a topic related to a public health problem that requires critical thinking (1-5 scale, 5 = most authentic), and (6) clear assignment expectations (1-5 scale, 5 = clearest). Results: We contacted 594 instructors from 58 institutions and received at least some evaluable materials from 59 courses at 28 institutions. Of these, 47 of 53 (89%) courses required some writing. The purpose was adequately described in 11 of 36 assignments, the required document type was appropriate in 19 of 43 assignments, an audience was identified in 6 of 37 assignments, and tasks that supported a writing process were incorporated in 19 of 40 assignments. Median (interquartile range) scores were 5 (1-5) for an authentic problem that required critical thinking and 4 (2-5) for clarity of expectations. Conclusions: The characteristics of writing assignments in public health programs do not reflect best practices in writing instruction and should be improved.

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