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Designing Writing Assignments
The time and effort that an instructor puts into developing a writing assignment will be a key factor in contributing to how successful a student is in completing the assignment. The following is a brief overview of some key components to consider when designing an effective writing assignment, followed by numerous links to other resources that provide examples and more in-depth, detailed suggestions for developing effective assignments.
Effective writing assignments explicitly define the writing task. That is, the assignment sheet itself should clearly explain the expectations for the assignment, such as including a clearly defined thesis statement , the format (APA, MLA. etc.), and required length. In regards to format, it's helpful for students if the instructor sticks to the most recent version of a particular format. Some instructors will be teaching the formatting guidelines for MLA 3rd edition while their other instructors are teaching 7th edition, which ultimately confuses the student.
Effective writing assignments clearly define the audience. Often times students will naturally assume that the audience is just the professor when in fact the professor is expecting that the paper is written for a general academic audience.
Effective writing assignments explain the type of thought process (think Bloom's taxonomy) that students should engage in when developing their ideas. The most common key words that indicate this expectation are analyze, define, compare, evaluation, etc. Be careful of taking for granted that students will necessarily understand what these terms mean. Often times the meaning behind these terms will need to be explained to the students and contextualized to connect back to the purpose behind the thesis statement.
Effective writing assignments are written out, passed out in class in hard copy, and posted electronically on the class website. Writing an assignment on the board or just orally giving the instructions for the assignment can lead to students misinterpreting the assignment or incorrectly copy down the instructions. When writing out the assignment, be sure to use effective white space so the assignment is easy on the eyes and inviting to the reader.
Effective writing assignments are scaffolded--broken down into smaller components that underscore the writing process--which discourages plagiarism and prevents students from trying to complete the entire assignment the night before it's due. Having the students complete a tentative thesis, submit a research question, complete library research, compose an annotated bibliography, or turn in an outline or initial draft are all effective ways of scaffolding assignments.
Effective writing assignments provide clear guidelines for how the paper will be evaluated. Providing the students with a sample paper from a previous semester can be very helpful for students. Rubrics that delineate exactly what the instructor is basing the grade on (format, structure, grammar/mechanics, ideas, etc.) eliminates confusion about constitutes an "A" paper. At the very least the rubric should be passed out along with the assignment sheet and also posted electronically on the class website. An even more meaningful way to engage students in the evaluation process is to collaboratively develop the rubric together as a class.
Adapted from the following source:
Clark, Irene. Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing. 3rd Edition. New Jersey: Lawrence Erblaum, 2003.
University of Hawaii at Manoa's website provides insightful research into how students actually read and interpret writing assignments: Writer Matters: Designing Writing Assignments.
The University of Wisconsin at Madison's Writing Across the Curriculum program provides helpful examples of effective writing assignments.