Designing University Writing Assignments to Foster Interest in Public Health Issues and Build Professional Skills

by Erika Martin, PhD, MPH

The Scholarship of Public Health addresses topics relevant to scientific publishing, dissemination of evidence and best practices, and the education of current and future professionals. This column presents some considerations and best practices for finding time to produce scholarship in the form of a manuscript or presentation. Today’s post comes from guest contributor Erika Martin.

There is a documented decline in the US public health workforce, from 220 per 100,000 population in 1980 to 158 workers per 100,000 population in 2000. It is estimated that nearly 740,000 additional public health workers are needed to get back to the 200 workers per 100,000 population by 2020. Yet we are at a time when public health is increasingly important in the US: we are the only developed nation without universal healthcare coverage, those with healthcare coverage continue to face barriers to accessing affordable and high-quality care, per capita health expenditures are higher than other countries despite Americans having lower utilization, and there are substantial racial, ethnic, and gender disparities.

To address the shortage, national groups such as Trust for America’s Health have recommended broad policy approaches such as improved data on the public health workforce for monitoring and evaluation; improved coordination of federal workforce development activities; and financial incentives for recruitment, retention, and retraining of current and prospective public health workers. These recommendations are important and our professional should continue to advocate for meaningful investments in the public health workforce. Yet on a smaller scale, university faculty can use creative assignment design to foster increased interest in public health issues and build professional skills.

Last semester, I experimented with a new two-part writing assignment in my undergraduate course that required students to select a health-related topic of interest and write a 1,000 to 1,200 word commentary formatted for a professional health journal. This entailed articulating an important health issue to a lay audience, explaining some of the complexities of solving the problem, and offering recommendations. I provided a recipe for writing a health commentary and three examples of my own published commentaries, where I annotated how each paragraph aligned with the commentary recipe. After receiving my graded feedback, the second phase of the assignment required that students make meaningful edits to their manuscripts (shown in “Track Changes” mark-up) and meet with the teaching assistant to post the final version with a corresponding visualization of their choice to a class website. On the last day of class, we reviewed the website to discuss themes, what students learned from completing the assignment and from their colleagues’ posts, and the writing styles and images that were particularly compelling. With the students’ permission, I submitted selected commentaries to the JPHMP Direct editors.

Recipe  for a Public Health Commentary

Title Give a catchy title that communicates your main argument


Paragraph 1 Provide a lede. This is your hook to get your audience interested. These can come in several formats, such as a fact or piece of news, an anecdote, or something that sets a scene. See


Paragraph 2 Pose a puzzle.


Paragraphs 3, 4, …, N-1 Provide details for your argument. Each argument should get its own paragraph and topic sentence.


Paragraph N Summarize your argument.


A recent editorial in JAMA about mentoring millennials breaks down myths and realities of common millennial traits and how to adjust mentoring practices. The authors argue, “Although sometimes labeled as impatient, distracted, overly socialized, and entitled, millennials could also be characterized as deeply empowered, collaborative, and innovative.” They encourage faculty to recognize and even embrace these generational differences. By growing up with technology and social media, this generation is used to high volumes of information and instant responses. Unlike past generations, they are more likely to hold worldviews of flat hierarchies and desire faster career advancements based on visions and deliverables. They also hold values of being motivated by a sense of purpose or organizational mission, and having higher global consciousness.

This assignment tapped into these traits in several ways:

  • Students learned important writing, library research, and Microsoft Office skills that are directly transferrable to internships and other employment opportunities
  • Providing students with the flexibility to choose a topic that makes them passionate tapped into their purpose-driven motivations and global consciousness
  • The opportunity to submit their final products to JPHMP Direct provided additional motivation to students eager to enhance their resumes
  • The required “Track Changes” revision introduced them to the iterative process of writing and revising, which is commonly encountered in the workplace but runs counter to the instantaneous nature of texting, email, and social media
  • The online blog post aligned with their general engagement with social media and other online platforms for exchanging ideas
  • Reviewing and discussing the class website on the last session allowed for a productive closure to the semester and a sense of collective ownership about what we accomplished as a class

In designing assignments, it is also important to think about grading and providing meaningful feedback in a timely manner. Almost every faculty member that I know – myself included – quickly identifies grading as the most onerous part of our jobs, with calls for the end of the college essay. It is unsurprising that a post on “I Would Rather Do Anything Else Than Grade Your Final Papers” went viral. I solved this by using a clear rubric that allowed me to convey my expectations to students, provide feedback on specific areas that required improvement, and make my own grading more efficient. Asking students to submit a “Track Changes” revision was useful pedagogically, while being easy for me to review and grade.

In the end, was my assignment effective? Like any assignment there was variable quality in student submissions, but overall the students’ final blog posts were excellent and surpassed my expectations. Four were selected by JPHMP Direct editors for publication on their own merits, and will be featured over the next few months. On my end-of-semester course evaluations, many students commented that they enjoyed the assignment and my level of feedback. During our in-class debrief and office hour conversations, several reflected that the assignment challenged them to think critically and write in a new style that they had not yet encountered in other courses. A few students expressed their initial dread but that, upon reflection, they learned a lot in the process and felt pride in their work. Many students were excited about the opportunity to do a “real-world” project and submit their work to the journal for consideration. Typical for any course, there was also variable enthusiasm, with some students perceiving the assignment to be too difficult for a 200-level course—which I interpret as evidence that the assignment was successful in meeting my goal of challenging students.

The assignment was imperfect and I would certainly do things differently in a future iteration. In the process, I discovered that many students have limited library research skills and it would be useful to provide more instruction on how to navigate PubMed, evaluate evidence, and summarize key points from articles being cited. As the students are accustomed to “data dump” term papers that reward the inclusion of endless facts and meeting minimum page limits, I could have spent more time doing in-class exercises or peer reviews on developing concise arguments. Instructors wishing to make this a capstone semester-length project could pair this with a data viz assignment to develop appropriate charts to communicate ideas.

The assignment is available here for you to use and modify to fit your own course and teaching style. I welcome your comments (See “Leave a Reply” at the bottom of this page) on ways that instructors could adapt this for different courses.

Erika Martin is an associate professor in the Department of Public Administration at Policy, at University at Albany-SUNY. As an applied health policy researcher, she uses mixed methods to evaluate issues related to the allocation of scarce public health resources, the adoption and impact of public health policies, with a focus on domestic HIV and related syndemics. She also studies ways to improve the sustainability and impact of open data platforms. Articles she’s written have appeared in an array of leading health and public policy journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, Health Affairs, American Journal of Public Health, Public Administration Review, and Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

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