Designing Effective Writing Assignments

Before designing any assignment, it is necessary to first assess the course objectives and what is the best way to meet those objectives. There are several important aspects to consider when creating assignments:

  • Teacher’s assignment goals
  • The writer’s purpose
  • The context of the assignment
  • The audience of the assignment
  • Format and method
  • Teacher’s response and evaluation
  • Opportunities for revision
  • Communicating expectations

Teacher’s assignment goals: To make a successful assignment, you must first be clear about what the assignment should accomplish. You may want to use some assignments to generate discussion in class or to give students the opportunity to present their ideas in class. Other goals are to give students the opportunity to express questions and confusion; to demonstrate understanding of course concepts and information; to respond to class readings and discussion; to prepare for other assignments or exams; or to clarify ideas for themselves.

There are two main kinds of writing assignments for content courses:

Writing to Learn assignments are usually short, informal assignments. The audience for such assignments can be the student herself, peers, or the teacher. These assignments can be in-class writing, or out of class writing. The primary purpose of writing to learn assignments is for students to grasp the ideas and concepts presented in the course for themselves.

Other writing assignments are used primarily to demonstrate knowledge. The audience for these assignments is most often the teacher. These are formal assignments written for a grade.

These two types of assignments are not mutually exclusive. An assignment can both aid students in the learning process and demonstrate a student’s knowledge and understanding. However, it is important to determine the primary purpose the assignment must serve in order to decide what kind of writing to assign.

Other things to think about in terms of your goals for the assignment: What part does this assignment play in the rest of the course? Is this assignment part of a sequence of assignments that includes both formal and informal writing? Sequenced assignments are helpful in incorporating informal writing to learn assignments with formal demonstrative assignments. For example, thesis writing, reading responses, and short microthemes or abstracts can lead to a formal essay or term paper.

The writer’s purpose: The writer’s purpose dictates what kind of product the students will end up with. There are a number of different purposes for assignments to fulfill; the purpose dictates the form and content of an assignment. For example, students might be asked to articulate questions they have about course content; compose an article explaining course concepts to peers; respond to course reading or discussion; or argue a position on an issue related to the field of study. Whatever the writer’s purpose, it will determine the context, audience, and format of the assignment as well.

The context of the assignment: Will this be an in-class or out-of-class assignment? Some assignments take place in the field of research. Will the students be working alone, or in groups or pairs? To what is the student responding – one or more readings, discussion, research? Will you assign a particular issue or allow students to identify the issues themselves? Part of determining context is deciding the audience the students are to address.

The audience of the assignment: The implied audience may be the same as or different from the real audience. Both the implied and real audiences influence the shape of the assignment. To whom are the students directing their writing? The implied audience can be the teacher, peers, scholars in the field, or the general public who is unfamiliar with the concepts of the discipline. Specifying the implied audience will help students determine what common ground is available in the form of shared assumptions or theoretical perspectives. Also important is the real audience. Who is actually going to read this assignment? The student only? The teacher only? Peers only? A small group of peers? The teacher and peers? Will there be multiple drafts? Will the student get comments from you or from peers before the final product is graded?

Format and method: What should the completed assignment look like? Is there a particular way students should go about fulfilling the assignment? Is there a particular field protocol? Are students expected to use research?

Teacher’s response and evaluation: Some writing to learn assignments are not graded or receive nontraditional grades. How will this assignment help fulfill course objectives, and how much of the course grade should be determined by this assignment? Will students get your comments before the final grade or after? What should students learn from your comments?

Opportunities for revision: Another important aspect to designing an assignment is deciding whether and how to incorporate revision. There are several ways to allow students to revise their work:

  • Allowing students to revise after an assignment is graded for the possibility of raising their grade.
  • Assigning multiple drafts as part of the final grade. Such an assignment would be graded as a process-based on how the student challenged her own ideas-rather than as a product. The student would receive either teacher comments, peer comments, or both on early drafts that will guide them in revision.
  • Using peer evaluations on early drafts. Reading and commenting on fellow students’ work helps students learn to read critically and be responsible members of the discourse community of the classroom and of the field. If you are using peer response, what is the format? Students can respond to the writing of their peers in writing or orally, in groups or one-on-one. Will you provide detailed instructions and specific protocols for responding to student writing or allow them to develop their own format?

Communicating your expectations: Once you have determined the assignment objectives and how best to meet those objectives, you should give your assignment in writing to the students. Have you designed the assignment so that the students understand your goals and their purpose? Are the terms clear? Have you specified the audience, context, format, and means of evaluation? It is often helpful to get feedback on your assignments from colleagues who can tell you whether or not your expectations are totally clear.

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