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Designing Good Writing Assignments

Writing assignments that have a clear task, purpose, audience and format yield much stronger learning, require less clarification, and are more enjoyable to read.

In The Elements of Teaching Writing, Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj offer guidelines for making sure a writing assignment is clear to students.

After reading your assignment, students should be able to answer some basic questions about the subject, audience, purpose, and form of their work:

 

  • What am I, the author, writing about?

  • For whom?

  • For what purpose? In what form

10 Tips for Designing Good Writing Assignments

1) Align the writing assignment with core learning objectives for your course. Ideally, the writing assignment will provide students with an opportunity to enact concepts they’ve been exposed to in reading, discussion and lecture.

2) Be explicit about the rhetorical situation for the assignment. Successful writers understand that effective writing depends a great deal on context; they adjust their words to fit the specific rhetorical situation. Making clear the purpose, the audience and the specific genre (e.g. lab report, prospectus, white paper, memo, literary analysis, memoir, etc.) for your assignment will help students produce more focused and authentic writing.

3) Design the writing task with an authentic scenario, problem-solving situation, or inquiry question in mind -- rather than by topic. Topic-based prompts tend to produce what John Bean has called unfocused “all about” writing.

4) Provide clear details about the stages, deadlines and grading guidelines for the assignment. A strong practice is to provide the grading guidelines (rubrics, etc.) with the assignment, so students have a clear idea of what is most important. 

5) Be attentive to how and when the writing assignment fits in your course.  Longer writing assignments often benefit from segmenting, and shorter assignments from sequencing. For longer, research-based assignments, consider having students submit their work in stages. The Sequencing Assignments resource offers specific strategies for scaffolding your assignments.

Teaching writing can be a kind of research on the ways in which students learn the subject of your course.  From this perspective, you can also think of writing assignments as research instruments: tools for finding out what students know, think, and believe on a given subject.  

— Gottschalk & Hjortshoj, 29

6) Share drafts of your assignment with colleagues. As with other forms of writing, assignments benefit from collegial review. Ask your colleagues to consider the following questions (adapted from John Bean’s Engaging Ideas):

  • If you were a student, would you find the assignment interesting and challenging?
  • If you were a student, how difficult would this assignment be?  How long do you think it would take?
  • Is the assignment clear? How might a student misread the assignment and do something not anticipated?
  • Does the assignment focus on an intriguing problem – either directly or implied?

7) Utilize students questions and suggestions to improve the assignment. Students are adept at unearhting out ambiguities. Revise your assignment to address those issues that students most frequently need clarification on.

8) Avoid “counter-productive clarification.” Writing assignments can be unclear because of a lack of detail, but they can also become confusing due to too much clarification. As Gottschalk and Hjortshoj point out, student writers – especially novice ones – will often interpret suggestions as hard-and-fast rules and examples as prescriptions.

9) Provide templates, formulas, and schemas judiciously. While schemas and templates can help students learn the “academic moves” that effective writers use, too much structure can stultify the writing. A better practice is to provide and discuss exemplars of the writing you want students to produce.

10) Work with the CTLT and University Writing & Rhetoric Center on the development of your writing assignment and supporting materials and resources. If the University Writing & Rhetoric Center tutors are involved with the assignment before the day it is due, they will be able to better support students through the entire process of the assignment.

Consider the difference between these two assignments:

Option 1: Write a research paper on life in 10th-century Spain. Your paper should specifically include information about Andalusian culture and offer comparisons and contrasts with other areas of Spain.

Option 2: Imagine that you are an Andalusian adib living in tenth-century Córdoba. Write a letter to a like-minded friend in North Africa (or Barcelona) and describe your life so as to convince him to join you at the Umayyad court.  Also tell him something about your favorite genre of poetry and what you have been hearing and writing lately (Gottschalk & Hjortshoj, 36).

Overwhelmingly, students prefer option 2 because it offers a vivid purpose (persuading a friend to visit), a specific audience (a friend in North Africa or Barcelona), a clear task (describing life in the Umayyad court and the popular genres of poetry), and a clear format or genre (a letter). A student working with option 2 is more apt to meet the learning objectives of the course and to engage in more sustained and focused writing.

Useful Sources:

Bean, John. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Gottschalk, Katherine and Keith Hjortshoj. The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in all Disciplines. New York: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2003.

Soliday, Mary. Everyday Genres: Writing Assignments Across the Disciplines. NCTE/CCCC and Southern Illinois University Press, 2011.

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