Crafting Effective Writing Assignments

We know that college students often wait until a paper is nearly due before getting seriously to work and then finish it in a single draft. These behaviors limit our students' learning and the quality of work they produce. We can encourage better writing practices (and reduce plagiarism) by explicitly guiding them through a structured process of writing and revision. Including sufficient detail in our assignments can also lead to better writing, since the more students know what we expect, the more likely they are to do what we want. Rather than the generic "tell me what you know" term paper that tests students on what they have read or discussed in class, try to cast your writing projects as situations that invite analysis and reflection--projects that ask students to apply the intellectual practices you have modeled to new texts or situations. Although it takes time to articulate such expectations for each assignment, the reward is better work and less frustration for both students and us.

Make the level of difficulty appropriate for students at that place in the term

We often forget how complex and challenging the kind of work we routinely do is for students who are new to it. Scholarly work usually includes a complicated interweaving of summary, analysis, argument, and explanation. Students who have not had practice in doing such tasks in isolation in your discipline are rarely prepared to do them in combination. Try building assignment sequences that ask students to draw on relatively familiar skills (summary, brief responses to readings, field notes or observations, etc.) early in the term and then build towards more complex practices and combinations near the end.

Build in a plan for revision

Although we understand that producing our best work requires rethinking it in substantial ways, students are still learning this. And even If we give them instructions to "revise" their work, they are likely to less than we hope for unless we explain precisely what kind of work we want them to do. We can help students do more substantive revision by giving them structured guidelines and drawing clear distinctions between revising and editing. If there are certain aspects of writing that you want the entire class to work on for the next draft (e.g., improving support for claims or taking up counter arguments), make a revision assignment directing students to those particular considerations. Otherwise, help students decide on priorities individually as part of your response to their work. Asking students to write a short revision plan (stating where they intend to direct their efforts) before beginning work on the next draft can help keep them from lapsing into mere line editing and make it easier for you to assess their progress.

Make your expectations explicit

One of the most effective ways to help students do better writing is to tell them exactly what we expect. We often have a certain kind of product in mind when we give students an assignment, but since they are often asked to do very different kinds of work for different instructors we should not assume they will always interpret general instructions ("Write an essay on..." or "Do a case study of...") in the ways we intend. And since we are immersed in our discipline we sometimes forget that for students--especially those new to the field--disciplinary norms and expectations are unknown or unclear.

You can add useful details to your instructions for a writing assignment by considering these questions:

  • How will the papers be graded? What minimal features or content do you expect? What distinguishes an A from a B and a B from a C?
  • What is the acceptable range of forms and lengths? Be careful, however, not to suggest that the first draft need be the same length as the final draft; this will prevent padding and give room for revision work.
  • What is the purpose and nature of the genre? For example: "The history book review aims to help historians make decisions about what to read and explains new work in the context of what has already been written on the subject; it usually includes a summary and a brief overview of the methodology, and points out some strengths and limitations of the project." Or "The scientific letter to the editor is a formal communication--including citations--that responds to an article published in a prior issue of the journal; it usually adds to or takes issue with some aspect of the original article's argument.
  • Who is the intended audience? Are you expecting students to write explicitly for you (with your expertise and command of the material), or for some other reader (an individual such as a business manager or museum curator, the public audience of a scholarly journal, etc.)? If the latter, what should students understand about that reader's relationship to the course material, ideas and terms? Does the assigned genre suggest a type of reader?
  • How much latitude do students have to choose focus or direction? Are students to address every question you mention in your assignment statement, or pick one? If they are to make use of particular text, do you expect them to choose an interesting or challenging passage (or idea) to write about, or do you want them to take up the text as a whole?

Share examples of work in the genre you are assigning

We sometimes assign students to do a kind of work that they have never seen or studied. Providing them with successful examples--and explaining what makes them successful--can help your students succeed.  

Students can benefit from seeing both professional work and what other students have done. If possible, choose examples on topics that are close enough to their assigned topics that they can understand them and see parallels with their own work, but not so close that they will take them for simple models of what you want them to write. If you present three or four examples that represent an acceptable range of practices within the genre, students will not get the sense that there is a single "right way" to do the assignment and you won't get a stack of copycat papers to wade through.

Showing students counterexamples can also be effective. Most fields have their share of less successful or problematic texts that get disseminated and even published. Sharing your criticism of some of these with your students can help them better understand what you consider good work. However, sharing student papers that are of low quality overall should be avoided.