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How do I create, support, and grade writing assignments?

I. Five Tips for Designing Writing Assignments that Work (for You & Your Students)

  1. Connect each task with a specific course goal
    • What do you want students to accomplish by completing this assignment?
    • How does this assignment relate to your larger course goals?
    • What do you want students to learn about the content of your course from completing this writing assignment?

  2. Put the assignment in writing - all of it
    • What is the task? Explain what you want students to do in the paper. Do you want students to summarize an article, critique a text, create an original argument, report on an experiment they conducted?
    • Who is the audience? Why does that matter? Students need practice in envisioning different writing situations and different audiences, but they haven’t always had that practice yet.
    • What is the genre that students are writing in? Are they supposed to write a report, a review, an argument? Don’t assume that students can read a paper topic and automatically know this.
    • When is the assignment due? If students are expected to turn in drafts or stages of the assignment, make sure those due dates are clear on the assignment sheet as well. Hand out and discuss the assignment at least two weeks before the final draft is due, especially if you expect students to revise.
    • How long should it be? This may be a range, but this is necessary to help students understand the scope of the assignment. Don't expect that undergraduate students will know how long a piece of writing needs to be to get the job done.
    • How does the paper need to be formatted? What style guide should students use? Are there particular guidelines that are specific to the way YOU want them to hand in assignments?
    • Should students use outside sources? If so, give some guidelines for the types of sources that are acceptable. If not, make sure this is an explicit part of the assignment.
    • What are the grading criteria for the assignment? Tell your students what the characteristics of an “A” paper are and show them what an “A” paper looks like. If you are using a grading rubric, give a copy of that rubric to students as part of the written assignment and explain how you will use it.

  3. Use specific language in your writing prompt.

    Asking students to “discuss” or “explore” can lead to unfocused writing. Instead, prompt them to:
    • “Explain”
    • “Compare”
    • “Contrast”
    • “Argue”

    Also make sure the prompt focuses on the MAIN question students are supposed to answer. While sub-questions can help inspire students’ thinking, too many of them will potentially draw their attention away from the task they are being asked to complete, especially if they can’t make the distinction between the larger and smaller questions.

  4. Break down the writing task into smaller steps
    • Have students complete the written assignment in stages. For example, if the students need to complete a literature review in order to set up an argument, make the literature review its own short assignment that they complete well in advance of the final paper due date.
    • Use short writing assignments (which can even be done in class and may be ungraded) to give students some practice in the kind of thinking you’re going to be asking them to do in a longer paper. For example, you might begin by having students summarize an article that they are going to be responding to or critiquing. If you expect students to make an argument in their papers, give them some practice at finding and summarizing arguments first.

  5. Provide models of successful assignments
    • These don’t have to be student responses to the exact assignment you are giving (in fact, if the model is too close, students may follow it too blindly), but it is useful to show them successful responses to similar tasks so that they know what a strong paper looks like.

Additional resources about creating and communicating writing assignments

University of Hawaii Manoa Writing Program, Designing Writing Assignments

John Bean , Features of an Effective Assignment Handout

University of Minnesota Center for Writing, Designing Effective Writing Assignments

For more tips on writing from ITLAL, see these pages: