One of the best ways for students to determine what they know, think, and believe about a given subject is to write about it. To support students in their writing, it is important to provide them with a meaningful writing task, one that has an authentic purpose, clear guidelines, and engages students in their learning. In this section, you can read about key principles of assignment design, review examples of effective writing assignments, and use a checklist to guide your own designs. You can also consult with a Writing Across the Curriculum Program team member. We’re happy to think with you about your writing assignment, whether it is in the inkling stage or undergoing a few minor tweaks.
What makes an assignment effective?
A good deal of educational research points to the benefits of writing assignments that exhibit the following features:
Meaningful tasks. A task is given meaning by its relevance to and alignment with the learning aims in the course. What counts as meaningful in one course context might not be meaningful in another. As Eodice, Geller, and Lerner (2016) have shown, meaningful writing assignments do occur across all disciplines and they are typically ones that “offer students opportunities to engage with instructors, peers, and texts and are relevant to past experiences and passions as well as to future aspirations and identities.”
Maximized learning time. As Linda Suskie argues, effectiveness is determined by the “learning payoff,” not by size of the assignment. Will students learn four times as much on an assignment that takes 20 hours outside of class than one that takes 5? Longer research-based assignments and elaborate class activities (mock conferences, debates, poster sessions, etc.) can greatly maximize learning, but there must be an appropriate level of writing and learning time built into the task. Term papers are much more effective when students have time to draft and revise stages of the assignment, rather than turning in one final product at the end.
Logical sequencing. A writing task that includes discrete stages (research, drafting, review, revising, etc.) is more likely to be an effective learning experience than one that only specifies the final product. Furthermore, these stages are more effective when they are scaffolded so simpler tasks precede more complex tasks. For example, a well-sequenced 10-12 page essay assignment might involve discrete segments where students generate a central inquiry question, draft and workshop a thesis statement, produce a first draft of the essay, give and receive feedback on drafts, and submit a revision. Read more about sequencing assignments.
Clear criteria will help students connect an assignment’s relevance to larger scale course outcomes. The literature on assignment design strongly encourages instructors to make the grading criteria explicit to students before the assignment is collected and assessed. A grading scheme or rubric that is handed out along with the assignment can provide students with a clear understanding of the weighted expectations and, thus help them decide what to focus on in the assignment. It becomes a teaching tool, not just an assessment tool.
Forward-thinking activities more than backward-thinking activities. Forward-thinking activities and assignments ask students to apply their learning rather than simply repeat it. The orientation of many writing prompts is often backward, asking students to show they learned X, Y, and Z. As L. Dee Fink (2013) points out, forward-thinking assignments and activities look ahead to what students will be able to do in the future having learned about X, Y, and Z. Such assignments often utilize real-world and scenario-based problems, requiring students to apply their learning to a new situation. For Grant Wiggins (1998), questions, problems, tests, and assignments that are forward-thinking often:
- Require judgment and innovation. Students have to use knowledge and skills to solve unstructured problems, not just plug in a routine.
- Ask students to do the subject. Beyond recitation and replication, these tasks require students to carry out explorations, inquiry, and work within specific disciplines.
- Replicate workplace and civic contexts. These tasks provide specific constraints, purposes, and audiences that students will face in work and societal contexts.
- Involve a repertoire of skills and abilities rather than the isolation of individual skills.