Assignment Instructions

Instructors who are frustrated by student papers may find it helpful to take a fresh look at the assignments that prompted those papers. There are many strategies to help faculty develop assignment instructions in a way that facilitates good student response, and spending a little more time designing a writing assignment can pay dividends in terms of students meeting your expectations.

When creating writing assignments, or prompts, it is a good idea to start the process with the end goal in mind:

  • What is it that you want students to demonstrate in a particular writing task?
  • What will a successful student text look like?
  • How is this writing assignment related to the course goals?
  • How will you evaluate students’ work?

By answering these questions, you will be able to situate the writing task in a particular context for a particular purpose with a clear end goal in mind.

Once you have established what the writing task needs to accomplish, you can begin to think about what form the assignment may take:

  • What kind of writing will students need to do to reach your goals? A traditional research paper? A series of journals? On-line discussions?

Decisions about the kind of writing then lead to questions about time and process:

  • How many drafts will you allow? Will you comment on them all? Will there be peer review?
  • What is a reasonable time frame from the moment students get the assignment to when they turn in a draft to be graded?
  • Does the assignment require any work that may require extra time like going to the library or conducting an experiment?

When you are clear about what you want students to do and how long it will take them to do it, you are ready to write-up your instructions (the prompt).

It is always a good idea to give students a short description of what you are expecting for each writing assignment. Prompts, however, do not need to be complicated and lengthy. In fact, the most effective prompts are those that provide the necessary information without overwhelming students with details.

Effective prompts include:

  • A specific description of what students are being asked to do. If you want students to write a research paper with an argumentative thesis, you need to tell them that is what you are looking for. Likewise, if you want students to report on some experimental findings without any editorializing, you should spell that out for them.
  • A statement about citation system. If you want students to use a specific citation style (MLA, APA, CBE, etc., tell them at the beginning.
  • Final length of project. If there are page requirements, state these clearly in the prompt.
  • Any miscellany that will affect their grade. If you are a teacher who deducts a certain amount of points for comma splices, students need to be made aware of that up front. If you don’t want students to write in first person, make that clear.

Finally, spend some class time reviewing the prompt and answering questions.

Melissa Nicolas, 2011.