Assignments in W & C Courses

Words of Wisdom

The first law of writing, that law to which all other laws are subordinate, is this: that the words employed shall be such as convey to the reader the meaning of the writer.

— T. B. Macaulay

The Rhetorical Situation

Experienced writers and speakers know that the rhetorical situation is the first thing to consider when anything has to be composed. It should also be included in your assignment.

Simply put, the rhetorical situation is that situation which calls for a spoken or written response addressed to an audience; for example, a funeral calls for a eulogy, and an academic conference calls for a poster presentation or, in some disciplines, the reading of an academic paper. Some situations elicit a letter to the editor, while others, such as a discovery, may warrant an article in an academic journal. The elements of a rhetorical situation are often referred to as the context. To help novice writers, you can break the context into the following areas of consideration:

  1. Audience. The audience may be simple, such as the readers of an academic journal. But even when the audience seems simple, it can also have secondary or complex elements. In the case of some academic journals, the audience may be interdisciplinary. A technical report may be written for both managers and engineers. The memo written in a business setting may be used both to discipline an employee and as evidence in a courtroom.

  2. Purpose. The writer/speaker usually has an agenda. He or she may want the audience to accept a thesis, take action, change positions, or just think about or remember something or someone. Writing is easier and usually more unified if the composer keeps a purpose in mind.

  3. Aim/Genre. The composition may take many forms, from written or spoken to any of the various types of speeches or documents. Generally, we think of the aim as the genre's typical goal. The most common aims are to persuade, to express, to explain, to entertain, and to argue. An example of a genre would be a scholarly article, a newsletter, a letter, a report, etc. Notice there are many ways to taxonomize genres and sub-genres: a letter to the editor, a personal letter, a thank you note, a love letter, etc. The important point is that each genre elicits particular expectations. We seldom call a stranger or a colleague "dear," although it is expected in a letter. The style, vocabulary, format, and message will all be influenced by the rhetorical situation. The writer/speaker who starts with these elements in mind has a roadmap.

Planning the Assignment

Developing an assignment requires that you make some decisions before you produce a prompt:

  • Clarify the assignment's genre (i.e., the type of document or performance), purpose, and audience

  • Clarify your expectations in relation to your students' level of knowledge: Is the task difficult enough to challenge but still within their reach?

  • Decide if it will be a high-stakes (for a major portion of the final grade) or a low-stakes assignment (for a token grade, if any, but for practice or to build up to another assignment).

  • Decide if it will be a team or collaborative assignment.

  • Decide how the assignment relates to other course assignments: will it be scaffolded, for example? Will students write the same type of paper all semester to master a genre or audience or work with different genres and audiences?

  • Consider resources and instruction students will need to complete the assignment.

Writing the Assignment Prompt

After planning, craft the written prompt to give to your students. Make sure you include the following elements:

  • Learning outcomes for the particular assignment

  • Description of the rhetorical situation (see below for details), format, length, topic or task

  • Grading criteria (might be done as a separate grading rubric)

  • Time available for completing the assignment and any required steps to be completed before the final product is due; you may want to include a deadline for grade appeals

  • Expectations for research, including documentation style and number and type of sources

  • Resources such as (Help Desk Central), University Libraries' class guides, or the University Writing Center. For the latter, see Help for Students for a syllabus blurb

If your syllabus does not do so, specify:

  • Late paper and plagiarism policies

  • Grading and responding policies

  • Grading symbols/notation you commonly use.

Grading Policies: Some instructors suggest a 24-hour cooling off period before students dispute grades; others require written memos. It is also useful to establish a policy that explains how you grade; for example, you may want to set a limit on the amount of corrections you'll do of basic grammar and punctuation. Or you may want to let students know that you will not read papers with so many errors that you are distracted (in which case you'll have to include conditions for re-submission).

Presenting the Assignment

Some instructors bring a draft of their assignment to class, ask students to critique it for clarity and completeness (What words do they need defined? Do they understand basic terms such as "analyze" or "summarize"? Do they understand the grading criteria?), then revise the draft for final presentation and another round of discussion. When you make the assignment in class, be sure to do the following:

  • Read the assignment aloud.

  • Solicit questions and feedback on the task.

  • Clarify the assignment and your expectations. Doing so can cut down on time you will spend giving feedback or grading because students who understand the assignment will perform better and better fulfill your requirements.

    Creating Effective Writing Assignments: 8 Tips

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.

Additional Resources

Designing Writing Assignments and Presenting Them to Students, brief advice from the University of Toronto.

Designing Effective Writing Assignments (scroll down to "Designing Effective Assignments") from James Madison University Writing Center.

Lindemann, Erica with Daniel Anderson. A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers.  4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

White, Edward M. "Assessment and the Design of Writing Assignments." Teaching and Assessing Writing: Recent Advances in Understanding, Evaluating, and Improving Student Performance.  2nd ed.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994.

Hobson, Eric H.  "Designing and Grading Written Assignments."  New Directions for Teaching and Learning 74 (Summer 1988): 51-57.

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