Mar 31, 2008

Element of an Effective Writing Assignment

by Kerry Walk, Director of the Princeton Writing Program

The assignment. Surprisingly, many teachers forget to include the crucial ingredient: the assignment itself. At least one sentence on your assignment sheet should explicitly state what you want students to do. The assignment is usually signaled by a verb, such as “analyze,” “assess,” “explain,” or “discuss.”

The purpose of the assignment. Explaining to students why they’re doing a particular assignment can help them grasp the big picture—what you’re trying to teach them and why learning it is worthwhile.

Approaches to the assignment. Some instructors give students assignment sheets that are filled with big blocks of questions and lengthy ruminations on the topic. Students often can’t tell which part is the assignment itself and which is advice for approaching it. To avoid confusing students, it’s best to separate the assignment from methods for approaching it, questions to consider, and pitfalls to avoid.

Logistics. When and where is the paper due? How long will it probably be? What are the formatting specifications (margin width, font size, etc.)? What citation style should be used? By answering these questions on the assignment sheet, you can avoid a host of problems later. For example,

Due date: Monday, February 28, at the beginning of class (don’t be late!)
Length: 4-6pp. (1500 words)
Format: Times 12, one-inch margins, no cover page
Citations: MLA in-text citation style; include a properly formatted Works Cited
Sources: Limit yourself to the source book for this assignment; do not do outside research.

It’s also important to tell students your policies regarding extensions, late papers, and rewrites. Many instructors communicate their policies in the syllabus, where they may also list criteria for grading papers and give information about how final grades are calculated.