One of the main problems with formal writing courses is the assignments. Even if we pretend that they were designed carefully, they may still not be very educational.
School assignments are almost invariably tied to grades. But under a grading structure, the students’ motivation inevitably becomes getting the grade. People usually think that this means that the educational goal has been achieved. But this is rarely true where writing is concerned.
One reason is that conventional writing assignments are unnatural. Writing students typically research and write a paper, submit it, then forget about it. If they pass, students will think they don’t need to work on anything. Yet for writing this is almost never true. Professional writers keep revising and revising drafts as many times as it takes, hundreds in some cases. Writing students should too. We don’t learn any skill by doing the task once, and we don’t learn writing that way. A grading focus makes students focus on doing good-enough work rather than their best.
Furthermore, for teachers, especially university writing teachers, the purpose of grading is to separate the “talented” few from the others who are discarded as hopeless. Thus a second effect of this grading focus is that the very people having the greatest need for active teaching never get it.
A pass/fail focus actually robs students of important learning opportunities.