Designing effective assignments requires careful planning, but the effort pays off in well-written student papers.
Assignments need to have a purpose in your curriculum; that is, they should contribute to fulfilling the goals
of the course. Each assignment also needs to have a place within the curriculum, building on previous assignments
and laying a foundation for future ones.
Finely drawn assignments establish the parameters of the assignment without constraining individuals' thinking or creativity.
They also combat plagiarism. When assignments demand a thoughtful written response, give them to students in written form to
avoid confusion or misinterpretations as time and peer comments intervene. Information sheets for well-developed assignments
- writing task
- stylistic/formatting information (for example, preferred citations forms).
- resources available to students (for example, preparatory writing useful for this assignment,
readings, library services)
- grading criteria/value of this paper in relation to the course
Review your draft of the assignment to confirm that what you have written models the emphasis and tone you expect of your
students. That is, organize and develop the text of the assignment in a top-down manner, giving space and attention to specific
aspects of the text in proportion to what you expect in the students' writing. In other words, regardless of what you state in
the assignment, if most of the page is devoted to stylistic considerations, you are communicating to your students that style is
most important when, in fact, you may be equally concerned about the quality of the argument. Likewise, as you write the text of
the assignment, establish the tone that you expect students to assume as they write.
Questions to consider as you design writing assignments will be a valuable check as you design assignments. Another strategy to
review the quality of your assignment is to design a checklist that you will later use when you evaluate the paper . Any gaps in
information or reasoning become apparent when the assignment sheet is condensed into this stark form.
Questions to Consider as You Design Writing Assignments
Incorporating Richard L. Larson's list in Writing in the Academic and Professional Disciplines: A Manual for Faculty. Herbert
H. Lehman College (CUNY), 1983.
- How does the assignment relate to the discipline?
- How typical is this assignment of work in this discipline?
- How does this assignment contribute to learning in the field?
- How will the individual assignment build into the overall plan for the semester?
- What course content or goal does this assignment support?
You might want to begin with assignments that demand fundamental intellectual activities: describing, explaining, etc.,
and move onto those which demand more complex intellectual activities: analyzing, critiquing, comparing, etc.
- Why is the student being asked to write the paper?
- What judgment is required?
- What cognitive / conceptual activities are necessary?
- Will it interest the student?
- Will it interest you?
- Will the student acquire new knowledge?
- Is the task clearly defined?
- Does the teacher know the parameters of desirable responses?
- Do students know? (How much should they know and when?)
- Is the basis for evaluation clear to the students?
- How broad do you want the scope of the topic to be?
- What do you want the assignment to yield?
- Do you want the students to
1. Re-state information?
2. Describe a concept?
3. Explain an idea?
4. Analyze an argument?
5. Evaluate an argument?
6. Critique a viewpoint?
7. Compare various theories?
8. Argue one side or another?
- What words would best convey what you want the students to do? Verbs are crucial:
describe, summarize, argue, compare, analyze, explain, evaluate, critique, etc. But other words are important too:
theory vs. argument vs. concept vs. opinion vs. view.
- How explicit do you want to be about where you want them to get the information to respond:
- should they base their responses on the lectures, the textbook, library research?
- Does the student have access to the resources necessary for success on this assignment?
- If a research-based paper, do you have a particular documentation style in mind?
If so, is it clear to the students?
- What would be the best form for the students to respond to the assignment:
1. Short answer in an exam?
2. Long essay in an exam?
3. Short (how short?)
4. Paper? long (how long?)
5. Paper? short in-class writing?
6. Journal entry?
- If this is a collaborative assignment, does it involve work that cannot be done as easily by just one person?
Writing Across the Curriculum Principles of Assignment Design
- Tie any writing in the course directly to your course objectives.
- Engage students in patterns of thinking characteristic of your discipline: ask them to explain, define,
apply, classify, compare and contrast, problem-solve, show cause and effect, illustrate, analyze, persuade.
- Invite analysis and synthesis to force students beyond retention and recall.
- State a purpose and identify a specific audience; also let students know how this task is important to them.
- Use open questions that permit a variety of legitimate responses.
- Segment assignments into manageable steps, allowing opportunities for intervention throughout.
- Sequence tasks within the assignment or writing assignments over the semester from simple to complex, building on
- Include evaluative criteria in the assignment.