traci's lists of ten

Traci's 34th List of Ten:
Ten Tips for Designing Writing Assignments

Posted to WPA-L, WCenter, NCTE-Talk, and TechRhet on 3/27/01.

Since I worked out the info on responding to assignments, it seemed appropriate to explain my thoughts on designing assignments in the first place. There are lots of resources that talk about how to design a writing assignment, and I don't pretend to have the absolute best stuff here. These are just the ideas that I keep in mind when I design assignments. They're sort of a guide to what I'm thinking when I compose these lists or when I am modifying one of the list items for a specific class of students. Naturally all these ideas aren't executed in a List of Ten — for instance, I rarely give due dates in my lists :) —but many of these ideas do shape what I'm doing as I write.

  1. Deal with the business details.
    Outline any specific facts about the assignment. You may need to answer questions such as the following:
    — when it the assignment due?
    — how long should it be?
    — does it need to be typed? double-spaced?
    — is research necessary? If so, how much?
    — does the assignment need a cover?
    — what needs turned in? Is a rough draft required?
    In addition to answering the basic questions, be sure that students understand all the underlying or related issues. For instance, does it matter how wide the margins are or the font size that a student uses on that 5-page paper you've assigned? Likewise, show students how to use the tools they have at hand (e.g., does the word count command on their word processor calculate fairly? where is is located?)

  2. Explain the purpose of the document.
    Your assignment should tell writers why they are writing — what is their document supposed to achieve. Your assignment should have enough information to establish a full rhetorical purpose without guesswork on the student's part. Here's an example assignment:

    There has been a problem in local schools with discipline and violence. Your school board has decided to institute a school uniform policy in order to cut down on these problems, based on the positive examples that they have seen at other schools. What is your position on this issue? Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper stating your position on this issue and supporting it with convincing reasons.
    An assignment that didn't go to the trouble of establishing a purpose might simply say, "Write a persuasive paper about school uniforms." That's not very helpful. It leaves the students floundering to figure out what they're supposed to be doing. The example assignment grounds the writing so that the writer has a purpose: to explain why he or she thinks school uniforms will or won't help with the problems that the administration is targeting.

  3. Identify the audience for the piece.
    The audience for an assignment should be evident as well. You don't need to spell out every member — part of your goal may be for your students to think about who composes an audience, what that audience cares about, and so forth. In the example assignment above, the audience is implied in the fact that the student is writing "a letter to the editor of your local newspaper." I expect my students to think through the specific characterisitics of the audience who will read such a letter, but the audience itself is made clear. The audience analysis is still up to the writers, but the audience they are to analyze is made clear in ways that it's not if your assignment is simply the ineffective "Write a persuasive paper about school uniforms."

  4. Focus on a specific situation.
    I've never liked simple assignments that give students little information or setting for their task. An assignment such as "Write a persuasive essay about school uniforms and violence," or perhaps worse yet, simply "Write a persuasive essay" is inadequate. Neither is close to an authentic writing assignment. Both put the burden of creating an adequate writing task on the student writer. When I create assignments, I try to ensure that a complete, specific situation is part of the original assignment. Rarely in a job setting does the boss walk up to you and ask you to write something in such vague and unclear terms. I can't think of a single time someone walked up and said, "Why don't you write a memo, or maybe you could write a recommendation report." There's always a clear purpose for writing. When we ask students to make up the rhetorical situation on their own, we often end up with shallow, unfocused, or simply inadequate topics. By establishing the writing situation for them, I allow students to focus their attention more meaningfully.

  5. Rely on open-ended questions.
    Focus on questions that lead students to thinking and explaining rather than simple yes-no anwsers, whether explicitly part of the assignment itself or in invention heuristics. When you do use a yes-no question, be sure to follow up with a "why" or use the questions to help lead students to answers and explanations they can expand on. Here's an example from the Descriptive Prewriting Questions:
    Five Senses. What do you see? What objects, plants, or animals are in the place? What colors do you see? What do you hear? What would a hidden microphone record in the place you're describing? What does the air smell like? Is it annoying? pleasant? What does it remind you of? Where does the smell come from — are there blooming flowers? cooking food? cans of oil? What do you taste? Are you touching anything? (Skip any questions that don't make sense for the place you're describing.)
    Most of the questions are open-ended. Where there are yes-no questions — "Is it annoying? pleasant?" — the questions are meant to help writers explain another question — in this case, "What does the air smell like?" The yes-no questions are simply to get them started. Most of the questions that are included beg for explanation and details.

  6. Give pointers to available resources.
    If I know of particular resources and examples that I can direct students to, I like to include the information up front, in the assignment itself. Sometimes, I simply include some information to help students choose a writing topic that is appropriate for the piece they are writing. Here's an example:
    Choose a character in one of the pieces that we've read recently or choose the author of the piece. In this assignment, the character or author whom you've chosen will endorse a product. Your job is to design a letter or short narrative where the character or author tells readers why the product is one they should purchase or support. There are lots of celebrity endorsements in the world today (think Michael Jordan's battery commercials or Tiger Wood's Wheaties ads). Think carefully about the product that your character endorses — it has to fit the character's or author's knowledge, and it has to be a product or service that the character or author would be likely to endorse. It makes sense for Huck Finn to endorse a travel agency, for instance, or a particular kind of boat — or a brand of white paint. He'd be less convincing, however, endorsing denture creme or mascara.
    These last points, on possible endorsements for Huck Finn, demonstrate one kind of pointer to give to students as part of the assignment itself. Likewise, direct your students to pertinent portions of their text or handbook. If they're writing narratives that will include a lot of dialogue, share the page or sections numbers for the portion of their handbook that explains whether that comma goes inside or outside the quotation marks.

  7. Establish the reason for the assignment (if only for yourself).
    Every assignment should have firm pedagogical goals. These goals may not be explicitly stated in the assignment. Heck, they probably aren't. But you should know what you're hoping to achieve by giving this assignment rather than that one. For instance, were I to give the following assignment, I'd intend for writers to sharpen analytical skills while taking a look at how persuasive writing works:
    Assume that you work for an advertising agency, and your job is to create a classification system that explains the kinds of advertisements in a particular magazine to help account executives determine whether their client's products would fit in the magazine.
    In addition to goals for the assignment at hand, I have goals for the assignment as it relates to the rest of the course. I have a reason for doing this assignment before the one that comes next. I might follow this assignment with the celebrity endorsement letters. This analytical/classification assignment would give students some background on persuasive writing. They'll have explored a number of ads as they classify all those in the magazine they're working with. When they turn next to write their own ads, they've already completed some of the ground work — they've done a thorough analysis of a few dozen ads before they go about writing their own.

  8. Share models and student samples.
    If you have examples and models that you can share with students, take the opportunity to pass them out and discuss them in class. Instead of playing a guessing game, show students exactly what the texts that they are to write should look like. In the case of the endorsement letter, for instance, it's fairly simple to gather examples — find that a print verseion of that battery ad with Michael Jordan. Then use the example to talk about the qualities that make the ad work (or don't). Why do we believe what Michael Jordan has to say about batteries in the first place? Sure, I believe him immediately if he's telling me what basketball to buy, but what are the advertisers doing to make me believe that I should take his advice on batteries.

    In addition to expert models, student models and samples can round out your collection by providing more authentic examples of the work that the students are completing. Naturally, we aren't expecting snazzy, spin-doctor advertising copy from our students. We know that they aren't likely to produce text like that battery ad (unless they're parodying or miming the original). What do we expect? What is acceptable? Student samples go a long way toward helping writers understand what is expected of them.

  9. Suggest where writers can get help with the assignment.
    If there are specific places where students can get help with the assignment, include them in the assignment itself. Perhaps there's a specific tutor at the writing center whom you've discussed the assignment with — give students the tutor's name and suggest that they sign up early if they want help developing their papers. If you have student experts in class, identify them. Perhaps you have computer coaches who can help anyone with questions with the grammar checker. Point these folks out so that students know who to ask if they run into trouble. And while we're thinking about computers, if there are specific online resources that you can point students to, include them too. Perhaps there is a collection of samples that you can give them the web page address for, maybe you have some specific Online Writing Lab (OWL) pages that will be helpful for the assignment at hand — whatever the resource, include the address in the assignment so that everyone has the correct information at hand. Likewise, if there are computer-based tools such as spell checkers, grammar checkers, bibliography builders, and so forth, point them out and provide any tips that you can for using them effectively.

  10. Talk about the evaluation criteria up front.
    This tip overlaps with first item on the Responding to Drafts List. Be sure that you talk with your student when you make an assignment or as they're working on their drafts about how you will react to their writing. Tell them what you will be looking for in their work and how you'll go about determining whether they have met the criteria for the assignment. Will you be using a template? Will you just be looking at how they're using supporting details? Will you be paying particular attention to grammar and punctuation? Whatever it is that you'll be looking for, make sure that you share that information with them beforehand.

Originally Posted on the NCTE Web on March 27, 2001.