Designing Effective Assignments

A Quick Checklist and FAQ

Question  Yes  No
 Is the purpose of the assignment clear?    
 Did you state an intended audience?    
 Did you provide a model(s) for students to use?    
 Did you build time into the assignment for feedback?    
 Will the students be allowed to revise their work?    
 Have you provided clear evaluative criteria?    


FAQ About Designing Assignments

Why is it important for students to know the purpose and intended audience for each assignment?

Knowing the purpose and intended audience for an assignment helps students make key decisions about developing and organizing their papers.  It also helps students decide the level of diction they will use.  For example, if you ask students to write a research article to submit to a professional journal, they will need to choose the form that journal adheres to and they will need to use the formal terminology that professionals in their field employ.  However, if you ask students to explain a particular concept to a seventh grade audience, they can choose a very different format and they can use much less formal language.  In this less formal approach, though, they will still need to demonstrate a clear understanding of basic concepts.

Why are models such a useful learning tool?

When we ask students to write field reports, laboratory notes, research projects, or journal articles, to name a few common assignments, we often assume that students know what these things look like as far as form.  We also assume that students know what sorts of cognitive tasks they will need to perform as they approach the composing process.  In actuality, though, students may have no idea how a research project should be formatted or what a field report should look like.  Moreover, they may not be aware of the cognitive tasks they will need to perform as they work through the assignment.  Saving examples of various types of writing so that students can see exactly what you expect can be very useful.  When a class discusses well-written models, students can come up with a checklist of things that make these pieces effective.  If you have also saved examples that are not well-written, students can suggest steps the writer could have taken to improve.  Reminding students to keep these ideas in mind as they approach their own assignments can help them become stronger writers.

Why is it important to provide enough time for feedback and revision?

Typically, students complete an assignment and then turn it in for a final grade.  What we often receive, though, is really a first draft.  If we provide even minimal feedback while students are in the midst of writing, students can use our responses to revise their work, thus becoming better writers and more effective learners. 

Giving students feedback before they turn their papers in for a final grade can be a powerful learning strategy and needn�t take up too much of your time.  For example, if you ask students to turn in a one or two paragraph proposal before they begin a research paper, you will be able to read through the proposals fairly quickly to see if there is a clear focus and you can share this information with the writer; without a well defined main idea, there seems little point in your commenting further.  Reading through a first draft can be helpful because, as a reader, you can indicate places where you got stuck or needed more information.  This accomplishes two things.  First, students become aware of the sorts of questions real readers might have and they learn to adjust their writing to a reader�s needs.  Second, students can use your feedback to improve their writing and, by extension, their learning patterns. 

Why is it important to provide clear evaluative criteria for each assignment?

Students often spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out exactly what teachers want.  Telling our students exactly what we will be looking for as we evaluate their work makes it much more likely that they will submit writing that meets our expectations.