Workshop Recap: Effective Assignment Design

Last Thursday WAC kicked off the fall semester with our first workshop, Effective Assignment Design. For those who couldn’t make it, or those who want to refresh their memories, here’s a quick recap:

Writing Fellows Claire Hoogendoorn and Drew Fleming began by explaining the difference between formal and informal writing. Many of us are familiar with formal student writing, end-of semester term papers are a classic example, which can be categorized as writing to communicate. Informal writing is writing to learn and it can take any number of forms, including:

  • Notetaking
  • Paraphrase or summary
  • Generating questions
  • Reflection or response

What informal writing tasks have in common is that they are not focused on grammar or organization, and they are low-stakes (they are ungraded or have a minimal impact on the course grade).

An effectively designed formal assignment should include a number of smaller informal or semi-formal assignments that help students develop the required skills to achieve the grade they want. This is called scaffolding, and all high-stakes assignments can benefit from it.

Scaffolding will look different for each assignment and each instructor, the point is to put steps in place so that students practice the skills they will need to succeed before the final assignment comes due. This may mean giving informal assignments in which they defend a thesis, write out methodology, explain a key concept, or paraphrase a source. Again, the number and type will vary.

The workshop wrapped up with a reminder of how important it is to give students typed assignment handouts. Handouts minimize student confusion by providing all of the details of the assignment, such as:

  • The specific task(s)
  • The assignment requirements (such as formatting and citation)
  • The audience for the assignment
  • Grading criteria
  • How many required drafts

The workshop PowerPoint and handout can be found here:

PowerPoint Slides


Remember that this is workshop one of four offered this semester. Workshops are open to all faculty, regardless of whether they are going through the WAC certification process. If you are interested in hearing more about the WAC certification process (there are still some open spots in the program this semester) or if you have further questions about WAC, feel free to email a WAC Fellow or leave a comment below!

Why Using Samples?

Have you ever tried to solve a jigsaw puzzle without looking at the picture on the cover? I have. It’s frustrating, and I gave up after a very short time. And yet, I handed many of those ‘blind jigsaw puzzles’ to my students when I assigned a writing assignment without explaining what the final result should look like. To my defense, I didn’t do it on purpose. It’s how I was taught to write, and it’s probably how must of us are, and were taught up until today. But when I started to progress from being an undergraduate student to I discovered how useful samples can be. Before writing my first grant application I gathered grant applications that have been successful. Before and while writing my first journal article I read many, many articles in the journal I wanted to submit the article to. I am not copying what has been written, but I am trying to get a sense of what the final result (the jigsaw puzzle) should look like to be successful.

For some reason, I have denied the same right to my students. I often expected them to come up with formal assignment that meets my expectations without ever explicitly showing them what those expectations are. Luckily, my students are vocal enough to let me know about their frustrations when trying to solve the puzzle. Their objections reminded me of my own frustrations when writing without knowing what’s expected, and I started to incorporate WAC principles, and my own experiences into my teaching.

Here is what I do:

  • I scaffold assignments, and assign many explorative writing assignments that lead up to a larger, more formal assignment. That helps students not to feel overwhelmed, and prevents the attempt to plagiarize.
  • All my assignments are handed out in writing, and as explicit as possible. I use Blackboard to post assignments, and I provide hard copies for students.
  • I always check in with students and ask if the assignment is clear (we do that during class time). If something is unclear, I make changes and ask my students to help me clarifying the assignment.
  • I do my best to provide samples for formal assignments. My formal assignments are often a combination of smaller, informal assignments. As a final step, I ask students to combine the smaller assignments they’ve done to a larger assignment.


Providing my students with samples of what that formal assignment should look like has produced very good results in my students’ writing, and they have found the experience to be much less frustrating.

Quick Fixes That Can Help Improve Student Writing

Ideally, we want to introduce students slowly to the process of creating formal research papers. A research paper – or any formal paper for that matter – is a complex task that assumes a wealth of knowledge on the side of the student. What is an appropriate source? How to use evidence? Who is the intended audience the voice of the paper should be directed at? How to organize one’s thoughts? What is considered an appropriate thesis? All these, and many more, are questions students have to have tackled before they will be able to write a successful paper. It is because of the complexity that is inherent in each formal assignment that we will see better results when we break down assignments into smaller, doable tasks. Scaffolded assignments that break down larger formal assignments into small tasks help students to focus, and understand the smaller pieces a research paper is made of.

But what happens when we cannot scaffold an assignment to help students to write more successfully? Sometimes the constraints of the course curriculum do not allow us to break down assignments, sometimes we inherit a course, and do not have the time to make substantial changes to the course’s assignments, or we assign a paper that we think is doable to students only to find out later that we asked too much of our students. There are a few things we can do to help students write more successfully, to be more engaged in the process of writing, and to get more consistent results throughout:

Take 20 minutes of your class time to go over the assignment with your students. Many of the questions students deal with when writing a paper can be solved by a Q & A session in which students have the possibility to learn about their professor’s expectations. I find an in-class discussion much more fruitful than an email or office hour conversation with single students, as students will learn from each other while talking about the assignment. Some of the questions students have may be questions others would not have thought about, or were reluctant to ask. By going over the assignment together students will teach each other a valuable lesson on how to approach the writing of a research paper.

Be open to revisions. You may know this already but professors, too, can be terribly unclear and implicit. It is difficult to put yourself into the mind of an undergraduate student who is asked to perform the required task for the first time. We can learn from our students how to write clearer assignments by asking them to explain what parts of the assignment they find confusing, or unintelligible. I found students to be more engaged, and motivated about an assignment when I took into consideration their suggestions and revised the assignment I had given them. Apart from making the assignment clearer, and therefore more doable for my students they would learn another important lesson:

Ask your students to revise their own assignments before submitting them. Revision is one of the most essential parts of the writing process. It organizes the writer’s own thoughts, it turns a wild first draft into a piece that is comprehensible to others, it detects grammar and spelling errors, typos, and missing words. The practice of revision is at the very heart of the academic tradition. And yet, we fail to engrain the process of revision into our student teaching all too often. More than once did I expect my students to come up with a well-organized, error free, and thoughtful first draft. Boy, am I glad they never saw one of my first drafts. Ideally, we would want to assist our students’ efforts to develop a strong final draft by scaffolding the assignment and/ or have them submit multiple drafts that they then can revise (by peer reviewing each other for instance). But even if students have only one opportunity to submit their assignment they should take time to revise it; and since students are beginner writers they need instructions on how to do it. A good technique that is easy to perform is to read aloud the first draft. Ideally, students should find a listener who can give feedback. But even without somebody else present reading aloud will help to detect errors. This is a particularly good exercise for students whose first language is not English, and who might find it easier to hear mistakes rather than reading them. The instructions on how to revise their essays should be part of the assignment sheet, and talked about in class. If class time permits, instructors may also want students to bring in their assignments, read them to each other in class, take notes, and revise them later at home based on the assignment’s instruction, and possibly grading rubrics. Which brings me to my next point:

If you use grading rubrics, give them to your students along with the assignment. It is much easier for students to perform a good job when they know what is expected of them. Personally, I use “checklists” that tell students what is expected of them in each part of the assignment (introduction, methods, and results section) instead of traditional grading rubrics. Again, students are at a beginner stage when it comes to producing written work that is research based, and they benefit tremendously from clear guidelines that lay out what is expected of them.

A final option to consider, particularly when your discipline requires students to write similar assignments, such as lab reports, multiple times, is to focus only on one aspect of the assignment rather than the entire assignment. In some cases scaffolded assignments may not seem feasible, and students are required to produce complete assignments all at once. In that case, you may want to consider focusing only on one aspect of the assignment per cycle. Let’s say your students have to submit 12 lab reports in your course each semester. You can have them write 12 reports, but in your grading feedback focus on one aspect for each lab report. By focusing on only parts of the assignments (such as the introduction, the formatting, results section, and so on) students will think more deeply about the requirements, and complexities of each section, and you, on the other hand, can pay more attention to the details of each section in your feedback. At the end of the course, students will be able to write an entire paper more easily, and with more consistent results.

These are only a few of many “quick fixes” that can be used when assigning papers to students, and that will help students to become better writers, and scholars. The fixes offered are largely based on the principles of Writing Across the Curriculum, as well as personal teaching experience at various CUNY campuses.