Tips for Writing an Assignment and Teaching It to Students

UW-Madison's Writing Across the Curriculum Program

Here are some suggestions to keep in mind as you write your assignment handouts, as well as suggestions for other activities that prepare students to write.

Good writing assignments encourage students’ engagement with course material, promote critical thinking, and help students learn characteristic ways of asking questions, analyzing data, and making arguments in your discipline. No matter what type of writing you assign, how you present the assignments to your students can affect their success.

  1. Be clear about your pedagogical goals and design assignments to meet those goals.
    1. Continually share your pedagogical goals for the course and for writing assignments with students.
    2. Sequence writing assignments to build on developing writing skills by progressing from easier to more difficult kinds of writing and thinking (e.g., move from summaries to arguments, from narrow questions to more complex problems).
  2.  Put the assignment in writing, making sure to explain…
    1. The writing task (what you want them to do)
    2. The student writer’s role
    3. Audience
    4. Format (length, resources to be used, manuscript details, etc.)
    5. Expectations for process (draft dates, peer review workshops, revision dates)
    6. Criteria for evaluation
  1. Discuss the assignment in class.
    1. Discuss how to read and interpret writing assignments.
    2. Ask students how they plan to approach the assignment to clarify any misinterpretations they may have and to help them get started on the right track.
    3. Allow time for student questions.
    4. Model successful sample papers.
    5. Do a “norming” session by asking students to evaluate a variety of sample essays (or parts of essays) and explain why the good papers were successful.
    6. Try writing the assignment yourself and share your efforts with your students.
  1. Provide opportunities for students to approach writing as a process.
    1. Provide students with multiple opportunities for feedback and revision with proposal and draft due dates.
    2. Have students work in peer review groups together, presenting their work and asking each other questions.
    3. Hold brief individual conferences in your office to talk about plans or drafts.
    4. Have students give class presentations on their work.
  2. When evaluating their work, respond to student writers in constructive ways that promote learning.
    1. Respond to writers, not papers.
    2. Resist the urge to comment on everything, which will overwhelm students.
    3. Use written or oral feedback to set a few specific goals for student improvement.
    4. Respond to early drafts; evaluate final drafts.
    5. Ask students to hand in early drafts and your comments with their final drafts so you can respond directly to their revisions (and spend less time responding to final versions).
    6. Have students turn in self-evaluating cover sheets or cover letters with their papers to encourage self-reflection and to guide your feedback.
    7. Consider giving global or models feedback to short assignment