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Assigning Writing

Selecting Writing Assignments for Your Course
Scott Wible, Director, The Professional Writing Program

This document discusses how writing assignments in your field can be linked to learning outcomes rather than to acquiring a body of knowledge.  The focus here is on learning how to think and act like a member of a particular discipline.  You will find that there are surprising cross-disciplinary overlaps.  The document:

Creating Effective Assignment Sheets

Leigh Ryan, Director, University of Maryland Writing Center
Mark Forrester, The Professional Writing Program

After you have decided what you want students to accomplish in a writing assignment, it is important to create an assignment sheet that clearly conveys your requirements and expectations. Remember to:

1.  Categorize the information
Organize your assignment to make it as easy as possible for students to follow and to understand.  Separate what you are asking them to do (review a book , define photosynthesis, compare and contrast two styles of architecture, etc.) from advice on how to go about it.  Then offer details about logistical and formatting requirements and about how the paper will be evaluated. 

2. Include all necessary information

Be sure to include all necessary information (length, due dates, formatting requirements, sources and citation specifications, etc.). Consider providing details about helpful resources (such as specialized library databases or the Writing Center). You might also specify an audience (the professor, classmates, etc.) to help students decide what to include and how to present it. But be careful not to overwhelm your students with unnecessary information!

3. Select words carefully
Use words (especially verbs) that clearly indicate the kind of thinking and the task you are requesting students to do.  Do you want them to analyze, synthesize, explain, refute, etc.? Be specific about what you ask for, expect, and will evaluate.

4. Organize information visually
Just as you expect your student writers to accommodate their audience by providing organizational and visual cues, so should you.  Include information in a logical order, and use section headers, lists, bolding, indentation, etc. to make it easier for students to readily locate the specific information they are looking for. 

5.  Model correctness
In everything from writing well to proofreading, model the correctness and clarity you expect from your students.  Depending on the document type being assigned, you may be able to model certain formatting requirements as well.

6.  Explain the assignment
Present and discuss the assignment in class, so you can explain and elaborate, but more importantly, so students can ask questions. Consider providing sample papers (used with permission) as examples. Note: It’s also helpful to situate the assignment within a larger framework, so students can see how it fits in (e.g., “We are reading about many aspects of X in class; here is your opportunity to focus on one aspect of X in detail”).

One last tip: Many instructors find it helpful to work backwards from an excellent paper: what kind of assignment sheet would allow a student to write that ideal paper?

Good luck with your assignments!

Here is an expanded pdf version of "Creating Effective Assignment Sheets."