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Teaching Rhetorical Analysis

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As the first assignment in our common curriculum, the rhetorical analysis provides students with not only an entryway into the class, but an introduction to foundational concepts of rhetoric, reading, and writing that will inform their work during the quarter. Below are some considerations to keep in mind as you design the assignment.

Designing the Assignment

Some of the first questions you need to answer for yourself as you start to design the assignment have to do with how to create an assignment consistent with the learning objectives for the Rhetorical Analysis, and what texts -- and what types of texts -- students will analyze.  For the rhetorical analysis, it's best to have students focus on a single text rather than write a comparative analysis. Consider the following questions:

  • Who chooses the texts for analysis, you or the students? The advantages of you choosing are that you can 
    • choose texts that you know will yield interest discussion concerning rhetoric 
    • limit the array of choices so that you and the students can read multiple essays on the same texts (which helps with peer review and students working through their ideas together)
    • avoid having to arrive at a rhetorical understanding of 15 unique objects. 

The disadvantage of you choosing is that you limit student choice. Many instructors opt for a hybrid model: they provide a short menu of possible texts the students could write on, but also allow student choice (with instructor approval)

  • Think about relationship to other assignments- how much time do you want to devote to the RA assignment? Most lecturers have a draft due at the end of week two or beginning of week three.  In this case, the goal would be for students to start working on their second assignment (the Texts in Conversation) by week 4.
  • What texts/objects will you select or can a student choose among for their analysis? What will guide your choice or should guide their choice?  A PWR Rhetorical analysis may focus on a written, visual, audio, or multimedia text.  See samples of Rhetorical analysis assignment sheets, grouped by genre.

Presenting the Assignment to Students

  • Since the rhetorical analysis essay is a specific academic genre, it might be helpful to indicate some of the typical features of the genre and the role it plays in the broader field of rhetoric.

  • Think about how to help students see that it’s different from just writing on a short story or novel as they’ve done in English class, focused more on the “how” and “why” of what a text says than on the “what.”  They might assume that it's just like an analysis of a literary text; we need to help them see how it's different.

  • Think about how to help students see how rhetorical analysis informs their own drafting and revision process, particular as they develop more awareness of the interaction between audience and purpose shaping their composing process

  • Think about the fact that some students (but only some) have taken APLang, a class in which they are introduced to rhetorical analysis, often through an emphasis on the classical rhetorical appeals.  

Scaffolding the Assignment with Class Activities and Prewriting

You should carefully scaffold the rhetorical analysis assignment through a range of low-stakes, ungraded activities designed to help students practice and develop some of the strategies they'll use in writing their essays.  These activities should also help them understand that the writing the do for the assignment begins even before they start their first draft.

  • What kinds of guiding questions can students analyze their texts? If there is pre-writing, will you look at it, or will they share it with classmates? 

  • How will you talk about the relationship between brainstorming and prewriting exercises and planning the essay itself?

  • Will you give them samples of past rhetorical analyses? Will you want to discuss them in class or just make them available to students as a reference?

  • See some scaffolding activities for the Rhetorical Analysis through our class activity archive

Designing Peer Review for the Rhetorical Analysis

This is likely to be one of their first experiences with peer review at Stanford, so you may want to think about how you want them to understand and value the process. Often, students come in the door with negative or mixed experiences of peer review, so it may be a good idea to start with their experience of peer review: what worked, what didn’t, to establish group expectations.

  • Some students are uncertain of their ability to give helpful feedback. How can you define the reviewer role in a way that helps students see the value of their responses as readers?

  • How structured do you want to make their peer review (very structured with assigned roles and specific questions provided by you or less structured based on the interests of the writers and reviewers)?

  • Will the students read the essays outside of class or during class?  Keep in mind that many students prefer advanced preparation, since reading on the spot may disadvantage students who read more slowly and/or have learning or cognitive differences that may make reading and then responding immediately difficult.

  •  Do you expect them to provide written comments or oral feedback or both? 

  • Do you want to see any of their written comments? 

  • Do you want students to reflect on and report back about the feedback they received and their developing plans for revision?  

  • How can you signal the connection between peer review and the evaluation criteria that you’ll use for providing your own feedback on their draft? 

  • See further advice and activities about designing effective peer feedback sessions 


There is no requirement in PWR 1 to have a reflection component attached to any of the assignments; however, since we recognize the value of metacognition for student growth as writers, almost all instructors have students perform a self-assessment, write a cover memo for their essay, or otherwise write a reflection as a culminating moment in completing the essay.

  • Reflection on their writing process may be new for students, and it may be important to make explicit to them what the value of reflection is for their growth as writers, and the role it plays (or doesn’t play) in your assessment of their work.

  • Given the role the rhetorical analysis plays in their development as writers, what aspects of the drafting and revising process do you want them to focus on in their reflections? 

  • You might consider using the RA reflection to encourage students to look forward as well as back, or to connect to their broader experience of writers in other ways.

Assessing the Assignment

The evaluation criteria that you develop for your rhetorical analysis assignment should be clear, available to the students during their drafting phase (although drafts themselves should not be graded), and should retain a focus on formative feedback as much as summative assessment.  Always make sure the evaluation criteria you develop links directly to your learning objectives for the assignment.

  • Think about how to create a rubric that will be in dialogue with the other assignment rubrics. Many instructors have a single rubric that they use across the different assignments that they simple gently customize with language to fit the particulars of each assignment.

  • Consider using the rubric to organize your feedback on drafts so that students understand the relationship between your suggestions and the evaluation criteria for the assignment.

  • Use caution if adopting a numerical scale which might lead you to arbitrary quantification of elements of the essay.

  • Will students use the rubric in peer review? How will you teach them to use the rubric to inform the feedback they give?

  • Look at Bean's "Using Rubrics" chapter from Engaging Ideas to help you design your own effective grading rubric