Designing effective writing assignments

Faculty are more likely to be satisfied with the writing their students do when they can provide the most clear guidance for those student writers. Here are three features of a writing assignment that can help faculty and students “get on the same page”:

  • What are the big ticket ideas behind the assignment? In other words, what do you want students to learn or learn about out of this assignment (values)?
  • What outcomes tell you that learning has occurred (expressions)? What specific things are you looking for in this assignment?
  • What level of proficiency are you looking for with these expressions?

Example: Critical thinking is the big-ticket item for this assignment. The evidence of critical thinking I am looking for is students connecting the voice of the piece with the character’s “place” in the story. I should be able to see at least three such connections in this short paper.

Students are more likely to produce high-quality writing when they’re given a well-thought-out, clearly explained assignment. The better you can convey your expectations, the more easily students can respond to the assignment. Here are 6 sets of questions to ask yourself as you think through a writing assignment.

Assignment, topic and purpose

  • What do I want students to do? Why? What do I want students to learn from doing it? How does this assignment fit into the context of the course? Will I assign the topic, or let students choose their own? If the latter, what parameters, if any, do I want to place on the choice of topic

Genre, length, level of formality and deadlines

  • What kind of text do I want my students to produce — i.e., an essay, a memo, a lab report, a newspaper article, etc.? How formal should it be? How long should the text be? What are the deadlines for writing this text?

Various kinds of writing entail different formats and different contents — and thus, different writing processes and different grading criteria. This is also true of length, level of formality and deadline. Long, formal papers with plenty of lead time require more thought and effort than short, informal ones with a quick turn around time. So it’s helpful to identify these features accurately.

Individual work or collaboration

  • Do I want students to work alone, or with a partner or group? If collaboration, how will the groups be formed? How will they be evaluated? Will I give class time for the groups to get together? How will I mediate group conflicts that may arise?

Use of course materials and use of outside sources

  • Do I expect students to use the course content and materials? If so, how? Do I expect students to draw outside sources, such as library - or Internet-based materials or interviews? Should students include their own experience? Do I expect students to use a specific research method? What documentation style (i.e., MLA, APA, etc.) do I want them to use?

Needed skills and models

  • What skills or procedures do students need to produce their text? If I want them to use a special method, where can they find a description of that method or set of guidelines to follow? Do I have models of a successful text and/or research or writing process? If so, how can I make them available for students to follow?

It’s especially important to think through what skills are needed, so you’re giving students assignments they can realistically do. For example, students will struggle with research if they haven’t already taken the research paper course. You — or a guest speaker — may need to teach students how to write the genre you’ve assigned, if students aren’t already familiar with it. Consult your students and the writing faculty at your school to help you determine what you may need to teach.

Grading criteria and available feedback

  • What time, if any, do I want to set aside for students to get a response from their peers and/or me on a draft? What grading criteria will I use to assess the final versions of their texts?

These are some questions to think through on your way to designing effective writing assignments. The answers to all of these questions may not necessarily appear in the assignment sheet that you give to students, but as the designer of the assignment, you should be able to clearly articulate your expectations.

Resources

Hagemann, Julie. “Teaching Students to Read Writing Assignments Critically.” Writing Lab Newsletter 26.10 (June 2002): 5-7. Murray, Donald. A Writer Teaches Writing (2nd ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985. 83ff.