Information Sheet #133

February 20, 2002

CREATING EFFECTIVE ASSIGNMENTS

Research has shown that the more detailed a writing assignment is, the better the student papers are in response to that assignment. Often it is beneficial to make explicit for students the process or steps necessary to complete the assignment because many students treat assignments as though they were step-by-step instructions.  Explicit descriptions of assignments on a syllabus or an assignment sheet might include such details as:

      • The kind of writing expected

      • Scope of acceptable subject matter

      • Length requirements

      • Formatting requirements

      • Documentation format

      • Amount and type of research expected (if any)

      • Writer's role

      • Deadlines for first draft and revision(s)

As you design your assignment, it can help to specify your goals:

1. How does this assignment fit with course objectives?

2. What do you want the students to learn or experience from this writing assignment?

3. Should assignment be an individual or a collaborative effort?

4. What should students show you in assignment? Demonstrate mastery of concepts or texts? Demonstrate logical and critical thinking? Develop an original idea? Learn and demonstrate the procedures, practices, and tools of your field of study?

Defining the writing task:

1. Is the assignment sequenced so that students write a draft, receive feedback (from you, fellow students, or Writing Center consultants), and then revise it?

2. Does the assignment include so many sub-questions that students will be confused about the major issues? Can you give more guidance about the paper's main focus?

3. What is the purpose of the assignment: e.g., review knowledge already learned? Find additional information? Synthesize research? Examine a new hypothesis?

4. What is the required form: e.g., expository essay? Lab report? Memo? Business report?

Defining the audience for the paper:

1. Can you define a hypothetical audience to help students determine which concepts to define and explain?  For example, writing to an intelligent lay audience may require more analysis of concepts than writing specifically for you, the instructor.

2. What is the probable attitude of the intended readers toward the topic? Toward the writer's thesis? Toward the student writer?

Defining the writer's role:

1. Can you make explicit what persona you wish the students to assume? For example, one option is to see the student writer as a "professional in training" who uses the assumptions, the perspective, and the conceptual tools of the discipline.

2.  What is the writer trying to accomplish: description?  Communication of data?  analysis?  Persuasive argument?

Defining your evaluation criteria:  Explain the relative weight the following factors may have in determining the assignment grade:

organization focus
critical thinking original thinking
use of research logic
format correct use of sources
grammar and mechanics professional tone and style
depth of coverage examples, evidence, illustrations
correct use of course-specific concepts and terms  

Sequencing Writing Assignments

There are many benefits in sequencing writing assignments:

1.  Improves students’ sense of coherence for the course.

2.  Helps students see progress and purpose in their work rather than seeing each assignment as separate exercise.

3.  Encourages complexity through sustained attention, revision, and consideration of multiple perspectives.

4.  Mirrors professional work in many fields.

Techniques for sequencing related assignments:

• Assign and check prewriting.  In its simplest form, "sequencing an assignment" can mean establishing some sort of "official" check of the prewriting and drafting steps in the writing process. This step guarantees that students will not write the whole paper in one sitting and also gives students more time to let their ideas develop.  This check might be something as informal as having students work on their prewriting or draft for a few minutes at the end of class. Or it might be something more formal such as collecting the prewriting and giving a few suggestions and comments.

•  Submit drafts. You might ask students to submit a first draft in order to receive your responses either written or provided in one-on-one conference.  Or have them submit written questions or commentaries about the content and scope of their projects after they have completed their first draft.

•  Establish small groups. Set up small writing groups of three‑five students from the class. Allow them to meet for a few minutes in class or have them arrange a meeting outside of class to comment constructively on each other's drafts.  They could also work via e-mail or by participating on a group web page forum available on the Blackboard.

•  Require consultations. Have students consult with a Writing Center consultant and/or other students at any stage of the writing process–from brainstorming for ideas to editing of final draft.  Require that students submit working drafts and commentary on conferences when submitting a later draft to you.

•  Explore a subject in increasingly complex ways. A series of reading/writing assignments may be linked by the same subject matter or topic. Students encounter competing perspectives with each new reading.  They must adopt a position that considers and evaluates the various points of view.

•  Change modes of discourse.  For example, students' assignments could shift from description and narration in an initial paper to an argumentative, position paper at the end of the term.

•  Change audiences. In this approach, students create drafts for different audiences, perhaps moving from personal to public (e.g., from self‑reflection to an audience of peers to an audience of specialists). Each change would require different tasks and more extensive knowledge.

•  Change perspective through time. In this approach, students might write a statement of their understanding of an issue at the beginning of a course and then return at the end of the term to write an analysis of that original stance in the light of the experiences and knowledge gained in the course.

•  Use a natural sequence.  Create a series of assignments culminating in a final writing project. In scientific and technical writing, for example, students could write a proposal requesting approval of a particular topic, followed later in term by a progress report (or a series of progress reports), and the final assignment could be the report or document itself.

•  Submit sections. A variation of the previous approach is to have students submit various sections of their final document throughout the term (e.g., a review of the literature, a methods section).

Selecting an Effective Writing Assignment Format

In addition to the standard essay and research report formats, other formats might give students a different slant on the course material or allow them to write in multiple genres.   Some tasks might be part of a sequence of papers that at the end of a term could be transformed into persuasive, argumentative, thesis-driven composition. Here are some suggestions:

•  Journals. In-class journal entries can spark discussions and reveal gaps in students' understanding of the material. Having students write an in-class entry summarizing the material covered that day can aid the learning process and also reveal concepts that require more elaboration. Out-of-class entries involve short summaries or analyses of texts, or are a testing ground for ideas for student papers and reports. Although journals may seem to add a huge burden for instructors to correct, in fact many instructors either spot-check journals (looking at a few particular key entries) or grade them based on the number of entries completed. Journals are usually not graded for the precision of their editing or ir prose style.

• Letters. Students can define and defend a position on an issue in a letter written to someone in authority. They can also explain a concept or a process to someone in need of that particular information. If you wish to add a creative element to the writing assignment, you might have students adopt the persona of an important person discussed in your course and write a letter explaining his/her actions, process, or theory to an interested person (e.g., "pretend that you are John Wilkes Booth and write a letter to the Congress justifying your assassination of Abraham Lincoln," or "pretend you are Henry VIII writing to Thomas More explaining your break from the Catholic Church").

• Editorials. Students can define and defend a position on a controversial issue in the format of an editorial.

• Cases. Students might create cases particular to the course's subject matter for other students to solve.

• Position Papers. Students define and defend a position, perhaps as a preliminary step in the creation of a formal research paper or essay.

•  Imitation of a Text. Students can create a new document "in the style of" a particular writer (e.g., "Create a government document the way Woody Allen might write it" or "Write your own 'Modest Proposal' about a modern issue").

•  Instruction Manuals. Students write a step-by-step explanation of a process.

•  Dialogues. Students create a dialogue between two major figures studied in which they not only reveal their theories or thoughts but also explore areas of possible disagreement (e.g., "Write a dialogue between Claude Monet and Jackson Pollock about the nature and uses of art").

•  Collaborative projects. Students work together to create such works as reports, questions, and critiques.

[This information sheet was adapted from a handout produced by the MIT Online Writing and Communication Center.  Copyright © 1999, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.]

* * * * *

“As late as 1806 I was waiting for genius to descend upon me so that I might write. . . . If I had spoken around 1795 of my plan to write, some sensible man would have told me ‘to write every day for an hour or two.’  Genius nor no genius.  That advice would have made me use ten years of my life that I spent stupidly waiting for genius.”
--Stendhal

“Don’t get it right, get it written.” 
--James Thurber

“God does not much mind bad grammar,

but He does not take any particular pleasure in it.” 
--Erasmus

"My method in writing a poem is to expand, expand, and then slice, and then expand, then slice, then slice, cut.  And that's the way it always works." 
--Anne Sexton


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