Designing Effective Writing Assignments

According to most WAC experts, traditional term papers rarely meet the criteria of a well-designed assignment. I, and most composition specialists, advocate using several well-designed, smaller--possibly sequenced-- assignments in writing intensive courses for first year students.

A well-designed writing assignment usually has several elements. Most WAC experts recommend that we mention all relevant elements within the written instructions that we provide our students. Here at Gustavus, our Faculty Book notes that all students enrolled in WRIT courses (including FTS) should be given written assignment prompts. Note: Many faculty members at Gustavus use the PAPEL schema in order to structure their assignments.

1. Task

Most of us do not want students to simply choose a topic and write about it. Rather, we need to create tasks that require them to, for example:

  • take a position and defend it with appropriate evidence;
  • apply course material to real-world problems;
  • use a particular rhetorical mode;
  • explain difficult material in a way that demonstrates understanding;
  • reflect on class reading in relationship to their own experiences;
  • compare alternative modes of addressing the same problem; or
  • compare current literature to determine similarities, strengths, weaknesses, and omissions.
Once you determine precisely what you want the students to do, make this clear on the assignment. It helps if you can:
  • break down the task into specific steps that students will perform;
  • allow students to choose among a range of alternative problems, questions, or issues to address.
Several informal writing assignments can build up to a larger, more formal writing assignment. My own FTS students are required to: 1) observe their own teachers and respond in writing to their observations (one page response log); 2) construct a descriptive "snapshot" of a specific classroom (another one page response log); and 3) draft a formal paper in which they analyze the relationship between a particular course's content and the instructional approaches utilized within a classroom (4-6 page formal essay).

2. Learning Objectives
Think of the skill or knowledge you want students to master and demonstrate in this assignment.
Once you identify the learning objective, specify it in your written instructions. For example, your learning objective for an FTS course assignment might be to have students read a short passage closely and then demonstrate the ways in which the passage illustrates a larger historical or theoretical concept. Or, you may find yourself needing to teach your students to evaluate internet resources before they tackle a larger research project. You might, then, design a short informal writing assignment that requires students to study a web site and determine who sponsors or maintains it, how current it is, and so on.

3. Audience
How we write depends upon the intended audience. Talk to students about the ways in which your expectations are shaped by a discipline, your own values and educational experiences, and a variety of aspects of your identity. If acknowledging the subjective nature of your reading makes you uncomfortable, you might try playing around with notions of audience in your course. You might have students write:
  • to another section of FTS or to students enrolled in a similar course at another college;
  • to the editor of The Weekly;
  • to potential majors in your discipline;
  • to a supervisor on the job.

It can be particularly interesting to have students draft an assignment for one audience and then have them revise the same assignment for a different audience. Such activities can help them think more critically about choices of style, genre, evidence, argumentative strategy, and so on.

4. Sources
Be specific about the types of sources students may use and discuss why they should use them in the first place. Be explicit.
  • Are there sources students can, cannot, or must use? Can you tell them why?
  • Can you discuss the reasons that academics value sources in the first place?
  • Have you tried thinking about academic writing as a "conversation?"
  • How current do the sources need to be?
  • What citation method should be used to document sources? Why do citation methods differ from discipline to discipline?
5. Format
Provide clear formatting instructions to convey your expectations about professional presentation. For example, give students page estimates to help them understand the depth of coverage that you expect. You might also include details about page length and font size, line spacing, and so on.

6. Process Dates
Set dates for review drafts, peer reviews, and final draft. To illustrate the importance of revision, you might want to require students to submit notes, outlines, and drafts with the final paper.

7. Criteria for Evaluation
Before you draft your assignment, think about how much you value components such as: thesis or controlling idea, argumentative strategies or rhetorical appeals, coherence or structure, mechanics, organization, and appearance. Think about how you will factor in rough drafts, peer response, or trips to the Writing Center.

Thanks to the Virginia Tech Writing Across the Curriculum Program for selected segments of this handout. Check out their web site:

The PAPEL Schema

What change in the world the writer hopes to achieve by writing. Some examples of purposes include to evoke an emotional reaction, to convey information, to influence behavior, to preserve data, to gain assent, and so on.

The person or persons who will read the written product. Multiple audiences are always possible.

The textual form of the writing produced. This might include genre, organizational pattern, structural divisions such as paragraphs or sections, use of pictures, charts, and graphs, documentation style, font and print size, type of binding, etc.

What's necessary in order for the text to be persuasive. This might include data or information, resources, examples, ideas, arguments--the "content" of the paper.

The words and the order of the words. Issues covered under this category include level of formality, vocabulary, the use of specialized jargon, spelling, grammatical correctness, etc.

Rebecca Taylor Fremo
Gustavus Adolphus College, Director of the Writing Center