Assigning and Assessing Multimodal Projects

The What and Why of Multimodal Projects

What are multimodal writing assignments? Unlike traditional writing assignments, which feature only text, multimodal writing assignments ask students to compose across a range of media. Students might be asked to combined text with data visualization and images to create an infographic, or to script and produce a podcast or video. Multimodal assignments are becoming increasingly common at both the high school and college level, driven by the dramatic expansion of such texts in professional and extra-academic settings, as well as the expanding array of tools available to facilitate their production. Multimodal writing is on the rise in academia as well, with an increasing number of peer-reviewed journals such as Kairos and Digital Scholarship in the Humanities featuring such work exclusively.

Why should we consider assigning multimodal writing in our courses? While many faculty like the idea of multimedia writing assignments, they often worry about whether such projects are worthwhile. How can a podcast or website support the same learning goals as traditional writing assignments — and with the same level of rigor? But constructed thoughtfully, multimodal assignments can challenge students to engage more actively with rhetorical considerations such as audience, purpose, and context. They also allow students to tap into their existing literacy skills in new ways, drawing from their own experiences as consumers and producers of multimodal texts outside the classroom to showcase the information learned in the course. In fact, multimodal assignments often ask more of students, requiring them to break out of their default approach to writing assignments and and make more deliberate, conscious rhetorical choices.

Below we’ve collected some resources about multimodal writing assignments that provide more in-depth discussion of these two questions, as well as some basic initial directions for thinking about how to incorporate such work into the classroom. In our next post, we’ll look at best practices for designing these assignments, and provide some resources for getting started.

“The Importance of Undergraduate Multimedia: An Argument in Seven Acts” by Justin Hodgson, Scott Nelson, Andrew Rechnitz, & Cleve Wiese: This article from the online digital rhetoric journal Kairos uses a multimedia format to present its case for the value of assigning digital writing to undergraduates. (Requires Flash – make sure it’s enabled on your browser before watching.)

“Seeing the Text” by Stephen Bernhardt: This article focuses specifically on visual layout of traditional text, presenting an in-depth example of how considering the visual presentation of textual information can significantly increase its readability and accessibility to a general audience. Originally published in 1986, it functions now as a compelling argument that writing multimodally does not need to be digitally intricate to be rhetorically effective.

“Why Teach Digital Writing?”: From Michigan State’s Writing, Information, and Digital Experience Program, this comprehensive site provides a look at why we should teach digital writing, what digital writing encompasses, and what tools we might use to teach digital writing effectively.

NCTE Position Statement on Multimodal Literacies: In 2005, the National Council of Teachers of English published this position statement on multimodal literacies. In addition to defining multimodal literacies, this document also reviews the benefits and challenges of teaching digital forms.

Assessing Multimodal Projects

How do I evaluate multimodal assignments? Evaluation is a common concern about introducing multimodal writing to a course for the first time. Instructors often feel they lack the experience or expertise to grade writing that isn’t primarily alphabetic, since it’s not what they themselves typically produce. And since most of us have years of experience grading essays, we have set methods and expectations for what an “A” paper looks like – but may not have a fixed idea of what realistically constitutes an “A” podcast or website.

There are a variety of different approaches to evaluating multimodal writing, many of which adopt or build on best practices for standard grading. For example, many instructors advocate using some form of student-generated grading criteria or rubrics to assign grades to multimodal assignments; this approach engages students in reflection about what rhetorically effective communication looks like in the assigned modes before they begin producing their own work. Another common strategy is to include a reflection component in the assignment, such as a cover letter in which students reflect in writing on the choices they made in composing their multimodal work. This letter can then be used to guide the instructor’s evaluation, based on the degree of thought and sophistication behind those choices. This allows instructors to focus on what we are experts in: how well students respond to the rhetorical situation in which they’ve been asked to write.

For more detail about applying these strategies, as well as further discussion of the unique challenges and opportunities posed by evaluating multimodal assignments, check out the resources linked below. We’ve rounded up some articles and posts by other experts and experienced instructors that address this common anxiety about multimodal assignments. In our next post, we’ll hear from some instructors here at Georgetown about how they’ve incorporated multimodal writing into courses here.

“Integrating Assessment and Instruction: Using Student-Generated Grading Criteria to Evaluate Multimodal Digital Projects,” Chanon Adsanatham: This article from Computers and Compositionmakes a case for scaffolding multimodal assignments with discussions that ask students to evaluate the mode they’ve been assigned to compose with before beginning to compose themselves.

“Evaluating Multimodal Assignments,” Elizabeth Kleinfeld and Amy Braziller: This final installment in a 3-part series on digital assignments discusses some practical tips for evaluation, including reflection and rubrics.

“Evaluating Multimodal Work, Revisited,” Shannon Christine Mattern: Published by the Journal of Digital Humanities, this essay addresses a simple question: when it comes to multimodal assignments, how do we know what’s “good?”