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Tips for New Teachers #2: Thinking About Writing Assignments

posted: 5.5.11 by Andrea Lunsford

We all probably remember writing assignments we wish we hadn’t been given.  In middle school, my English teacher assigned me to copy out every alliteration in “Evangeline” (!!) and then write a paragraph about why I did or did not like them.  In graduate school, one of our assignments came in the form of one word:  “Tragedy!”  I don’t remember doing well on either one of these exercises.  What, I wondered, were these teachers up to?  What did they want me to do?

Perhaps because of my own experience, I am pretty cautious in designing assignments for my students.  Here are the guidelines I set for myself for each major assignment:

  • Why am I asking the students to do this assignment?  Can I explain to myself and to them what’s in this assignment for them as well as for me?
  • What will it take to do this assignment well?  How much time, for example?  Will research be necessary and can it be accomplished in time to meet the assignment deadline?  What steps do I expect students to take–and how can I model those steps for/with them?
  • What will I need to provide to get the students ready for the assignment?  I almost always build in short brainstorming activities, for example, that help me know what the students know—and don’t know—about how to do a good job on the assignment.
  • What are my expectations in terms of length, structure/genre, format, use of sources, and so on?  When are drafts and final versions due—and are these deadlines reasonable?
  • Can I do this assignment myself?

Once I have answered these questions for myself, I begin to draft the assignment.  My assignments are usually between one and two pages long, and I tend to divide them into sections:  description of the assignment (here I state the goals); tips on how to get started on the assignment—and then how to complete it most effectively; expectations for format, length, citation style, etc.; and criteria for evaluation.   When I have time, I do write a “sample” assignment, seeing if I can follow my own directions.  Finally, I go over these assignment sheets carefully—and more than once—in class, often breaking the class into groups so they can look at the assignment in detail and then come back together for clarification and discussion.

This may seem like a lot of time spent on an assignment.  Once you have a good assignment, however, you can use it in future classes.  Even better, the more carefully the assignment is designed and delivered—the better the student writing!

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