Creating Effective Writing Assignments:
8 Tips

Alphabetical list of Handouts & Guides

Words of Wisdom

In 1961, the publication of Webster's Third New International Dictionary set off a maelstrom of controversy because it took a descriptive rather than prescriptive stance toward language. Among the protested usages endorsed by the Third were "like" for "as," "due to" for "because," and "different than." "Enthuse,"  "finalize," "contact," and "yak" were among the verbs that numerous grammar pundits felt should not have been included.

— Edward Finnegan

Nancy Vazquez, Director, University Writing Center

This article has been re-published from our faculty newsletter, Writing Matters, Spring 2004

Writing helps students become actively engaged with course material—in other words, writing facilitates learning. But what should your students be writing? Creating effective writing assignments can be challenging, even for veteran instructors.

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Think It Through: Consider how each written assignment relates to your course goals, not only in terms of the knowledge and skills you want students to acquire, but also in terms of their development as critical thinkers. Don’t hesitate to share those goals with students, since they’re more likely to be engaged with an assignment when they know its purpose.

2. Break It Up: Writing is best learned over time, through practice. It’s helpful to give students several shorter assignments earlier in the semester, rather than assigning only one long end-of-term paper. Perhaps your students could submit an initial proposal for a longer project or write an annotated bibliography of sources they’ll use in their final research. Or you might have them write evaluations of several other proposals before producing their own.

3. Say What: Specify what kind of document you want students to produce—a letter, proposal, review, essay, memo, or e-mail—and discuss the different conventions for that specific genre. For example, while it may be perfectly appropriate to state your purpose outright in the opening line of a memo, doing so in an essay might seem abrupt.

4. Say Who: The best writing is appropriate to its audience. Who are your students writing for: a layperson, a fellow student, a potential client? Providing students with an audience makes the writing less hypothetical and encourages them to consider issues—such as tone and word choice—which they may ignore in writing for a teacher.

5. Put It in Writing: While you’ll want to present your assignment orally in class, be sure to give your students a written copy, too, so they can refer to it as they work. Putting it down on paper may also help you clarify your own expectations about the assignment.

6. Anticipate the Inevitable: You’re enthusiastically explaining the limitless intellectual possibilities of your well-crafted assignment, when a hand shoots up. “How long does it have to be?” It’s best to spell out parameters so students know what you expect. But don’t let the details overwhelm them: you don’t want students so focused on margins and typeface that they lose sight of their ideas.

7. Try It Out: Want to know how effective your assignment is? Write your own response. It’s a great way to find potential problems (or unexpected possibilities) in an assignment. Invite students to offer their input as well.

8. Don’t Go It Alone: Share assignments with other instructors; you might just learn from another’s mistakes—and successes.

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