What Makes a Good Writing Assignment?

Teachers have been known to assign writing tasks without articulating to themselves what the task is intended to accomplish for the students. Good writing assignments always begin with a goal articulated by the instructor, typically on the assignment sheet so that students can comprehend it as well.

Likewise, effective writing assignments are frequently shaped by thinking backwards. Effectively, teachers consider, “What do I want to read at the conclusion of this assignment?” By anticipating the final product’s appearance, teachers can provide students with detailed instructions for both the writing task and the final written product.

Five Precepts

Consider the following five guidelines when composing writing assignments.

Connect the writing assignment to specific pedagogical objectives, especially those articulated in the overall course objectives.

Consider rhetorical aspects of the assignment, such as audience, purpose, and writing context.

Divide the undertaking into manageable steps.

Clarify all aspects of the task.

Include criteria for grading on the assignment sheet.

First, writing should serve educational purposes.

Asking such questions about your assignment will help ensure that writing tasks align directly with your teaching objectives.

Which course objectives will be met by the writing assignment?

Informal or formal writing better meets educational objectives?

Will students write to learn course material, discipline-specific writing conventions, or both?

Is the assignment comprehensible?

Work Backwards from Objectives

Working backwards from what you hope the final drafts will look like often results in the best assignment sheets, despite the fact that it may initially feel awkward. We suggest jotting down several points that will assist you with this step of assignment writing:

Why should your students compose essays? Specify your final product’s objectives as precisely and concretely as possible.

Determine which writing products will meet these objectives and your teaching philosophy/preferences.

Specific skills that will contribute to the final product should be highlighted.

Organize activities (reading, research, writing) so that they contribute to the final product.

Beyond the Essentials

Writing assignments serve a variety of purposes for students, so defining quality writing assignments begins with the instructional context. Therefore, the first key to writing a good assignment is to align the task with the course objectives. After considering your class and its objectives, however, several additional principles can improve the writing tasks you assign and the writing your students produce.

Consider the Situational Rhetorical Context

As stated in the section on the five principles, it is crucial to consider the rhetorical context. By this, writing experts imply that you should carefully consider the audience for which you want your students to write, as well as the genre and format of the final document and its larger context.

Setting up your writing assignment for a reader other than yourself, the instructor, may result in the greatest improvement in student writing. Students have extensive experience writing to teachers, and they are aware that teachers are captive audiences. Your job requires you to carefully read and respond to their text messages. According to Chinn and Hilgers (2000), this role for teachers is frequently limited to “corrector.” By varying writing tasks, encouraging peer collaboration, and emphasizing professional contexts for writing, instructors can move beyond the role of corrector and into that of “collaborator.” Consequently, the teacher is not necessarily a reader or audience that will motivate students to produce their best writing for a given assignment. In fact, Hilgers et al. (1999) report an intriguing statistic from their interview research with 33 upper-division students: “56 percent of the interviewees also described one or more nonteacher audiences” (328) for their academic tasks. In many cases, the assignment specified a readership other than the teacher. However, even when the assignment did not specify a readership other than the teacher, students still addressed their work to “a person they believe to have specific content knowledge, such as a CEO, coworker, or technician” (328).

Although some experts (Freedman et al., 1994) argue that setting up a fictitious scenario with a specified audience does not motivate students more than simply writing for the teacher, other practitioners in a variety of disciplines have observed an improvement in student writing when they use cases with embedded audiences for students’ documents. (See, for instance, Brumberger, 2004; Cass & Fernandez, 2008; Stevens, 2005; Sulewski, 2003.)

Writing assignments that actually target real readers are a further extension of this trend toward providing rich writing contexts beyond the teacher. Numerous senior design and management projects in engineering and natural resources pair students with actual clients, requiring students to consider the specific needs of their readers. Teachers in a variety of disciplines are investigating alternative ways to connect undergraduate writers with real audiences, such as client-based partnerships (Kiefer & Leff, 2008; Kreth, 2005; Planken & Kreps, 2006;) and service-learning opportunities (Addams et al., 2010; Bourelle, 2012).

But even if your class does not permit pairing students with actual clients or other readers, consider creating a meaningful context with readers beyond the teacher (see, for example, Ward, 2009). Using resources from The Council of Writing Program Administrators and The Foundation for Critical Thinking, Chamely-Wiik et al. (2012) developed a case study writing context for first-year general chemistry students. As they clarify,

Our initial case-study assignment for the first two years of the course required students to investigate the scientific principles underlying the Bhopal disaster, in which thousands of people perished as a result of an industrial chemical accident…. The second assignment, given in the third year, required students to construct and defend an argument regarding the continuation of funding for cold fusion research. Students write with both a local audience of peers and a larger institutional context of the university community in mind. Students responded positively to affective surveys, which is typical of their responses to carefully crafted writing assignments. Significantly, “students in this chemistry course outperformed the majority of students at the university’s undergraduate level” (506). (For additional examples of science students writing for a general audience, see Martin, 2010; McDermott & Kuhn, 2011; Moni et al., 2007; Sivey & Lee, 2008).

In addition to audience concerns, it is beneficial for students to comprehend how and why a particular format or genre facilitates communication with a specific audience (especially when we think of genres as those recurring rhetorical reactions to typical communicative situations). From YouTube videos in organic chemistry (Franz, 2012) to position papers in public relations (Powell, 2012) to posters in physiology (Mulnix, 2003), teachers are assisting students in writing in genres that connect them immediately with the real readers of their future professional settings. (See also Blakeslee, 2001; Guilford, 2001; Jebb, 2005; LeBigot & Rouet, 2007; Mizrahi, 2003; Motavalli et al., 2007; Schwartz et al., 2004; Wald et al., 2009.)

Why does this focus on audience and genre appear to be so important in student writing? In recent years, a number of studies (Adam, 2000; Beaufort, 2004; Belfiore et al., 2004; Freedman & Adam, 2000; Spinuzzi, 2010) have investigated the reasons why context-aware writers are more successful. Particularly, workplace literacy and socio-cognitive apprenticeship theory (among other related theoretical perspectives) emphasize the role that knowledgeable mentors play in introducing newcomers to the communicative context in the workplace. (See particularly Beaufort (2000) and Ding (2008) for research on social apprenticeship, and Paretti (2008) for information on situated learning and activity theory.) As Dias et al. (1999) explain, writing is not a set of skills that we learn once and then plug into communication situations as needed. Rather,

Written discourse… is regularized but not fixed; fluid, flexible, and dynamic; emerging and evolving in exigency and action; reflecting and incorporating social needs, demands, and structures as well as being responsive to social interpretations and reinterpretations of necessarily shifting, complex experiences. (23)

And, as a result of the fluidity of discourse in various workplace settings, writers entering new workplaces should be prepared for significant development of their communication skills. MacKinnon’s (2000) qualitative study of new Bank of Canada analysts and economists revealed that

Overall, the writing-related changes were substantial, consequential, and jarring for some participants: “It’s like going to China,” one of them remarked. For the majority of the ten participants, the complex totality of the writing-related changes they experienced amounted to a “sea change”: a significant shift in their understanding of what writing is and does in an organization, a revised understanding of the roles they saw for themselves as writing workers and working writers, and frequently significant changes in various aspects of the macro writing process. (50)

When students have opportunities as undergraduates or graduate/professional students to anticipate these significant shifts, transitions to all types of workplaces are facilitated. In addition, the majority of students recognize that apprenticeship learning in academic contexts provides both a more structured scaffolding for writing tasks and a lower-stakes learning environment. Therefore, they take advantage of the learning opportunities presented to them in academic classes.

3. Divide the Task into Easily Manageable Steps

The fifth principle outlined in the general section titled “What Makes a Good Writing Assignment?” is to divide the assignment into manageable steps. Numerous instructors approach this aspect of good assignment design by carefully considering assignment sequence. Leydens & Santi offer a particularly thorough explanation of this procedure (2006). This writing specialist and geoscientist design assignments with an eye toward course objectives. As they explain their specific process of questioning their assignments, they also consider the importance of not overwhelming teachers and students (the Less is More method) (pp. 493-497). Also see Lord (2009) and Greasley & Cassidy (2010).

By requiring students to collect resources in stages, scaffolded assignments, such as the agricultural economics assignment mentioned in the Additional Resources section, help students achieve a larger objective. Students must transform each of the preceding stages into a final document during the final stage. Sequenced assignments, on the other hand, are independent, but each task builds on specific skills and challenges to help students achieve a larger set of objectives. Herrington (1997) describes a scaffolded assignment (71-72) that consists of a preliminary plan for a major project, an annotated bibliography, an early draft (with a cover note focusing on successes and challenges to date), and a final draft (with cover note). Mulnix and Mulnix (2010) describe a similar argumentative assignment that employs sequenced tasks to repeat and reinforce critical thinking abilities. See also Sin et al. (2007) for a sequence in accounting, Howell (2007) in materials science, Fencl (2010) for a sequence in physics, Zlatic et al. (2000) for a discussion of pharmaceutical education, and Harding (2005) for a discussion of introductory mechanical engineering. In contrast, Coe (2011) describes a series of scaffolded writing tasks designed to help students develop argument skills in philosophy. Alaimo et al. (2009) describe their project for students of organic chemistry at the sophomore level, while Lillig (2008) examines chemistry at the upper division level.

Principles 4 and 5. Ensure that Students Understand the online assignment help – www.myclassassignment.com,

A well-designed assignment will clarify the task’s components for students. This includes identifying intermediate assignments and activities, such as topic proposals and literature reviews for longer assignments, and providing information about relevant writing, research, and collaboration processes. Additionally, it is recommended to include grading criteria on the assignment sheet. Clarifying the assignment for students will assist them in comprehending its scope and difficulty. Additionally, it is likely to improve learning and performance.

Example of an Advanced Undergraduate Agricultural Economics Seminar Assignment

Good analytical writing is a demanding and challenging task. It is common to go through six or more drafts of editing and rewriting. Due to the complexity of analytical writing and the need for drafting, the assignment will be completed in four stages. A draft of each of the sections outlined below is due at the conclusion of the unit on this topic (see due dates on syllabus). These drafts will not be graded, but failure to submit a complete version of a section will result in a deduction from the final grade for the assignment. Due to the time you and I are both devoting to the project, it will account for fifty percent of your semester grade.

Substance, Concepts, and Material

Your papers will center on the peoples and policies pertaining to population, food, and the environment in the country of your choosing. In addition to exploring each of these subsets, papers must emphasize their interrelationships. These interrelationships should be a focus of your final draft revision. Important concepts pertinent to the papers will be discussed in class; therefore, your research should focus on gathering information on your chosen country or region to support your themes. The paper must specifically address the following questions:

1. Population

Population changes in developing nations have been significant. Describe the dynamic nature of this ongoing change in your country or region and the underlying forces that are driving it. The best papers will go beyond description and analyze the given situation. In other words, explain what is occurring in your country in terms of the underlying population dynamics: structure of growth, population momentum, rural/urban migration, age structure of population, unexpected population shocks, etc. DUE: WEEK 4.

2. Food

What are the characteristics of food consumption in your nation or region? Is the average daily consumption less than the recommended amount? Is food consumption rising alongside economic expansion? What is the demand income elasticity? Engel’s law can be used to describe this behavior. Considering these developments, can production keep up with demand? What is the nature of agricultural production: conventional farming or the green revolution? Is food production trending toward self-sufficiency? Can comparative advantage explain this if not? Does the nation import or export food products? Is the political-economic system conducive to an innovative agricultural sector? DUE: WEEK 8.

3. Environment

This is the third topic that will be discussed in class. It is essential to demonstrate in your paper both the environmental impact of agricultural production techniques and the direct effects of population changes. This is especially true in countries where traditional agriculture has been replaced by green revolution techniques in response to population pressures. The use of petroleum-based inputs results in environmental and human health-related social costs, which are exacerbated by poorly defined property rights. Explain the nature of this situation in your country or region by employing the concepts of technological externalities, assimilative capacity, property rights, etc. What additional environmental issues are evident? Discuss the challenges and methods for measuring the economic impact of environmental degradation. DUE: WEEK 12.

4. Final Draft

The final draft of the project should evaluate the economic situation of agriculture in the country or region specified from the three aforementioned perspectives. Interrelationships among the three perspectives are crucial to such an analysis. How does each factor contribute to an overall analysis of the successes and challenges in the agricultural policy and production of the country or region you have selected? The conclusion of the paper may include recommendations, but it should at the very least provide a concise summary of the challenges facing your country or region.

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