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Formal Writing Assignments

Connect Assignment Goals with Course Goals

At the beginning of any assignment, include a sentence or two that lets students see how this particular paper fits the overall goals of your course (which may be determined by the department or by you as the instructor).  Including the goals at the beginning of the assignment helps students understand why this paper “matters.”

Understand How Students Read Assignments

Understanding the differences between how students and faculty look at writing assignments can help you create better assignments for your course.

Work “Backwards”

Colorado State’s writing program recommends writing your ideal paper and then working backwards to be able to name the clear goals that you want to set forth for students.  Or, you could analyze an existing “ideal” student paper to define those goals and features.  Also, an instructor-annotated student paper can be very helpful as a model for students.  Once you’ve identified successful (and even unsuccessful) responses to an assignment, annotate it with comments that identify the relevant features.  Going over such models in class (with names removed) helps students understand your expectations.

Identify Your Grading Criteria

A rubric or a list of grading criteria helps students understand the goals of the paper and the features you want to see.  Students can be overwhelmed or mystified by assignments–so giving them guidance about how to prioritize what they need to do can be a huge help.  Obviously, different disciplines and different assignments call for different rubrics.  Below is a list of sites you can look through to help you articulate the criteria that work for your assignments.  The more specific your rubric is, the more helpful it will be in guiding your students to write successfully.

Strive for Clarity in Your Assignment Sheet

  • Use “active voice” commands as you write your assignment sheet.  It might feel more polite to write, “You might try comparing A to B,” but students need to see “Compare A to B.”
  • Use language that your students will understand.  Students may not know exactly what you want when they see phrases such as “the cogency of your argument.”
  • Don’t take for granted that students already know what is required when you assign a particular type of essay (e.g., a “review essay”)—so go ahead and define it for them.  Even writing terms such as “thesis” can mean different things from discipline to discipline, so provide a sample thesis that illustrates what you expect.
  • Provide models of the sort of writing you expect from your students.

Structure the Assignment Sheet Clearly

Many of us create assignments that are too long–and students need to decode them in order to move forward.  When students see a full page (or more) of text on an assignment sheet, they often feel overwhelmed.  Similarly, if students see only one sentence, they may feel that they do not know where to go next.  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Begin with a condensed section with the most important information.
  • Secondly, include goals and preparation steps.
  • Clearly highlight important items with bullet points or bold letters.
  • End with the least important information: formatting, page numbers, etc.
  • Make sure you have clearly separated the “getting started” section on your assignment sheet from the “features of the finished paper” section.