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Writing Effective Assignments

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Research has shown that the more detailed a writing assignment is, the better the student papers are in response to that assignment. Often it is necessary to make explicit for students the process or steps necessary to complete the assignment because many students tend to treat assignments as though they were step-by-step instructions. Instructors can use that tendency to help students write more effective papers.

Research has shown that the more detailed a writing assignment is, the better the student papers are in response to that assignment. Often it is necessary to make explicit for students the process or steps necessary to complete the assignment because many students tend to treat assignments as though they were step-by-step instructions. Instructors can use that tendency to help students write more effective papers. For example, explicit descriptions of assignments on the syllabus or on an "assignment sheet" tend to produce the best results. Such assignment sheets should detail the kind of writing expected, the scope of acceptable subject matter, the length requirements, formatting requirements, documentation format, the amount and type of research expected (if any), the writer's role, and deadlines for the first draft and its revision.

Providing questions or needed data in the assignment helps students get started. For instance, some questions can suggest a mode of organization to the students. Other questions might suggest a procedure to follow. The questions posed should require that students assert a thesis.

The following areas should help you create effective writing assignments.

Examining your goals for the assignment

  1. How exactly does this assignment fit with the objectives of your course?
  2. Should this assignment relate only to the class and the texts for the class, or should it also relate to the "real" world?
  3. What do you want the students to learn or experience from this writing assignment?
  4. Should this assignment be an individual or a collaborative effort?
  5. What do you want students to show you in this assignment? To demonstrate mastery of concepts or texts? To demonstrate logical and critical thinking? To develop an original idea? To learn and demonstrate the procedures, practices, and tools of your field of study?

Defining the writing task

  1. Is the assignment sequenced so that students write a draft, receive feedback (from you, fellow students, or staff members at the Writing and Communication Center), and then revise it?
  2. Does the assignment include so many sub-questions that students will be confused about the major issue they should examine? Can you give more guidance about what the paper's main focus should be? Can you reduce the number of sub-questions?
  3. What is the purpose of the assignment (e.g., review knowledge already learned, find additional information, synthesize research, examine a new hypothesis)?
  4. What is the required form (e.g., expository essay, lab report, memo, business report)?
  5. What mode is required for the assignment (e.g., description, narration, analysis, persuasion)?

Defining the audience for the paper

  1. Can you define a hypothetical audience to help students determine which concepts to define and explain? When students write only to the instructor, they may assume that little, if anything, requires explanation. Defining the whole class as the intended audience will clarify this issue for students.
  2. What is the probable attitude of the intended readers toward the topic itself? toward the student writer's thesis? toward the student writer?
  3. What is the probable educational and economic background of the intended readers?

Defining the writer's role

  1. Can you make explicit what persona you wish the students to assume? For example, a very effective role for student writers is that of a "professional in training" who uses the assumptions, the perspective, and the conceptual tools of the discipline.

Defining your evaluative criteria

  1. If possible, explain the relative weight in grading assigned to the quality of writing and the assignment's content:
  • organization
  • focus
  • critical thinking
  • original thinking
  • use of research
  • logic
  • appropriate mode of structure and analysis (e.g., comparison, argument)
  • format
  • correct use of sources
  • grammar and mechanics
  • professional tone
  • correct use of course-specific concepts and terms
  • depth of coverage

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