Information to Include in Writing Assignments
What types of information do effective writing assignments offer to students?
Students often need more specific information about a writing task than faculty anticipate. In some cases, faculty are asking students to compose a type of text students have never written before. In others, faculty may be asking students to write a familiar text but have somewhat different expectations than students have been given in the past. The following types of information, provided in a written prompt and/or during a conversation in class, help college writers understand a writing assignment.
- Assignment description. Provide a concise description (a few sentences) of the most essential elements of the assignment. It is helpful to make sure the most important information about the genre, purpose, topic(s), and length of the paper are very easy to find. You could think of this as the "executive summary" of the assignment.
- Context (or keys to success). This section of an assignment can provide additional explanation of the essential elements of the assignment. It may also highlight the challenges students typically have with the assignment and offer guidance for avoiding those challenges. It should remind students about resources or models faculty have provided that will help them succeed.
- Audience. Most students write with one audience in mind: a professor (or TA) who is grading their paper. This can lead students to either over-explain or under-explain key topics. (They over-explain when they imagine the reader as a grader and hope to demonstrate how much they have learned. They under-explain when they imagine the reader as an expert who already knows all the relevant context and won't need to see it repeated.) When possible, provide students with a real-world audience. For example, for a chemistry research abstract, an audience could be any of the following, depending on course learning goals: "professional researchers in synthetic chemistry," "professional researchers in chemistry who focus on sub-fields unrelated to your topic," "students in next year's section of Synthetic Chemistry 101 who haven't yet learned about dicarboxylic acids," or "high school students taking AP Chemistry." Consider spending time in class discussing what expectations the assigned audience might have.
- Citation. Be clear about your expectations for in-text citation and references. Conventions vary considerably across disciplines. Be clear about if/how students should cite the assigned reading and lectures from the course.
- Generative AI. Let students if the use of generative AI tools is disallowed, allowed, or required. See our guidelines on teaching writing and generative AI for more guidance on this topic.
- Learning goals. Assignments often focus on what students are being asked to do, and they less commonly address why they are being asked to do that work. Clear explanation of the things students will learn from doing an assignment can provide motivation and help clarify the task.
- Grading. Let students know how their work will be assessed. This could be presented as a rubric or a list of top priorities.
- Formatting. Formatting can be important, but often information about formatting gets in the way of more substantive aspects of the assignment. This might include information about document design, file names, or file types.
- Plan of work. If the assignment is highly scaffolded (e.g., it will require the submission of drafts along the way), provide that information here. If the assignment contains minimal scaffolding, consider offering students advice for a pace of work that will lead to success. This can help students see that starting work right before the due date in unlikely to be successful and give them an alternative plan to consider.