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Designing effective writing assignments

Hildy Miller
Department of English, Portland State University

Make the presentation of your assignments informative

  • Make up an actual written assignment in which you elaborate on what you want rather than scribbling a few directions on the board.
  • Pay attention to the length of the assignment description. Cryptic one-line descriptions can leave students guessing, while lengthy dissertations can overwhelm them.
  • Try to be as clear and specific in your description as you can. Most assignments, Linda Flower says, are written so ambiguously that they can wind up looking like Rorschach blots.
  • Think about the implications of particular words in your description. For example, are you asking students to explore, discuss, trace, or analyze material?
  • Offer several choices of topics and forms. This kind of variety may allow students to draw on their own strengths, interests, and learning styles.

Develop assignments that serve a variety of purposes

  • Use the assignment to teach the overall goals and issues that are driving your course and to encourage comprehension of particular readings and lectures.
  • Consider how the assignment reflects some of the theories, approaches, assumptions, and formats characteristic of your discipline.
  • Explain how the assignment is connected with writing issues that you want to get across. Are you teaching students how to analyze, support arguments, or handle factual material?
  • Use the assignment to teach students about research. How will they integrate primary or secondary material, cite sources, or evaluate the credibility of what they read?
  • Make the assignment encourage student learning in some way. The best assignments are those in which students conceptualize something of interest to them rather than parroting back from lectures or readings.

Help students fully understand your assignments

  • Provide samples of different student papers written in response to your assignment. These need not be "models" per se, but, instead, can help by showing concrete examples that can inspire students to envision their options.
  • Specify the criteria you will use in evaluating their writing. Try connecting the criteria with the assignment's overall purpose. State the criteria at the outset, reinforce them through activities, and then grade on that basis.
  • Provide ways for students to grasp what you want as soon as you introduce the assignment. They can ask questions immediately or in the next class or do a five-minute informal writing of their understanding of the assignment; or, you can write answers to commonly-asked questions on your assignment sheet ahead of time.
  • Provide venues for students to ask questions throughout the duration of the assignment. Five minutes for questions at the beginning of class, time for one-on-one consultations, or e-mail responses to questions they have at home can resolve problems as they develop.
  • Give students ways to make the assignment their own. You could take time for them to brainstorm a list of five possible topics or approaches and have them pair off with another student to get feedback. Or, have them do a ten-minute informal writing, thinking through what they already know about it, or pondering any personal connections and experiences they may have to it.

Take the human context of assignments into account

  • Identify the audience(s) for an assignment. If students write for you as examiner, for other students in peer workshops, and, ultimately, for other professionals in your field, what do these audiences know and need to know?
  • Identify the persona you want students to adopt in writing. Students have to learn the voice, tone, and style that is used in your discipline.
  • Help students link what they already know and do as writers with what you are trying to teach them. Most of their writing decisions (writing at the last minute, structuring material according to particular formats) are based on their previous experiences rather than what you tell them to do (Marsella, Hilgers, & McLaren, "How Students Handle Writing Assignments").
  • Remember that students' lives outside the classroom affect their work on your writing assignment. Obligations to families and jobs often determine how and when they write (Marsella et al).

Make scheduling and sequencing of assignments support your goals

  • Break down the assignment into parts that you can schedule as time for writing instruction. Is there a research component? Schedule times for students to bring in critiques of their sources to discuss in groups. Are you asking them to analyze a problem? Schedule time to explain the methods of analysis in your field and have them apply it to their developing paper in a quick informal writing assignment.
  • Schedule time for students to exchange drafts in peer workshops before the final paper is due.
  • Use "layered assignments" when your task is a complex one. For example, a formal research paper can be layered by making a first assignment a review of secondary research and the second one an application of that research to a particular problem.
  • Have a clear rationale for how you sequence your assignments. Does the order reflect an increasing difficulty in tasks? Does one assignment build on the skills developed in the preceding one? Are your assignments a steady drumbeat of short essays or does a long analytical paper follow a short summary piece?
  • As you schedule and sequence, remember the real-world contexts in which students live. The best writing assignment can founder if due the day after Homecoming or scheduled over times when the library is closed.