Designing Effective Writing Assignments

One challenging part of teaching can be designing assignments that will both aid students in understanding course content and engage their intellectual capacities. In the University Writing Center, the students we work with often struggle to begin their writing because they do not understand the assignment clearly. We frequently work with students who are experiencing difficulty in understanding the kind of work the assignment asks them to do, why the assignment is important for the course, and/or the specific elements that their completed assignment should include (such as citation style, whether or not they need to do outside research, the appropriate font, etc.). We also work with students who are unfamiliar with the genre of a writing assignment in a particular discipline and are not sure what information is most important. Creating an effective assignment can sometimes require being explicit about ideas we might find self-evident.

Below are some general strategies for creating assignments that can help address these kinds of student concerns as well as some links to other resources.

Explain what kind of writing or thinking you want your students to do.

Terms such as analyze, critique, and evaluate can mean very different things from one discipline to another or even from one instructor to another. Students benefit from some additional explanation of what exactly these words ask them to do. It can helpful to consider the hierarchy of critical thinking practices you want students to engage in and demonstrate and then organize your assignment to reflect explicitly that hierarchy.

Be explicit about how the assignment contributes to the overall goals of the course.

Establishing the purpose of an assignment through an an explicit statement about how the assignment fulfills goals of the course or fits into a larger sequence of assignments, is key part of well-constructed writing assignment. Being clear about why you are assigning this writing project also help with student motivation in completing the assignment. The reasons may seem clear to you, but may need to be more explicit to students.

Make your expectations about genre conventions and formatting explicit.

If you want specific approaches or terms used, or specific genre conventions, explain what those are. Genre conventions vary widely by discipline, and sometimes by instructor, and what you take for granted may be new to individual students. Along with genre conventions, clarify the audience role you will be taking as the person who reads and evaluates their work. For  example, do you want them writing to you as an expert in the field, assuming a knowledge of basic ideas and terms? Or do you want them to demonstrate their knowledge of foundational terms and concepts? Also be clear about expectations for formatting, style and grammar, and citation use.

Consider creating a sequence of small, coordinated assignments that culminate in larger papers.

If you are planning to have students write a longer, research papers, consider assigning smaller, coordinated assignments that build to the larger project. These smaller assignments, such as paper proposals or annotated bibliographies, both help students structure their time as well as learn the process of research writing. In addition, such sequences of assignments help you check in on student progress and help struggling students before it is too late.

Be clear about how you will evaluate their writing.

How instructors read and evaluate student writing varies more widely than you may think, even within individual departments. If you describe in detail what elements of their writing will be most - and least - important in your assessment and grading of their work, it will help them have a clearer understanding of the writing task at hand. It will also cut down on inevitable questions about grading. Some instructors construct rubrics for each assignment, others prefer to describe their goals for an assignment.

Invite questions early and often.

Even the most thorough and well-planned assignment description is likely to elicit some questions. It is useful to not only invite questions at the start of an assignment, but to check in regularly with students about their progress on the assignment so that they understand the resources available to them and are comfortable coming to you if they have trouble understanding what an assignment asks of them.

Encourage students to visit the University Writing Center.

We encourage students to make an appointment when they receive an assignment to work on ideas and organization. They don’t have to have a completed draft to use the Writing Center. Then, they can make follow-up appointments to get feedback on their drafts. Such an approach not only helps them plan their work, but also helps with time management.

For more ideas about creating effective assignments, see the links below:

On our website, we offer advice to students about understanding assignments. This page could be a helpful tool for anticipating the kinds of questions students might have.

Common Writing Situation: I'm not sure I understand my writing assignment.

Other useful links for designing writing assignments include:

“Designing Thoughtful Writing Assignments,” Nancy Sommers.

“Assignment Design and Sequencing,” University of California Berkeley

“Designing Effective Writing Assignments,” Stanford Teaching Commons

Creating Effective Writing Assignments - MIT

“Constructing Effective Writing Assignments,” from Scenarios for Teaching Writing: Contexts for Discussion and Reflective Practice by Christopher M Anson, et al.

What is College-Level Writing?, Volume II, Eds: Patrick Sullivan, Howard Tinberg, and Sheridan Blau. First chapter excerpt.