Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Designing Assignments

Making a few revisions to your writing assignments can make a big difference in the writing your students will produce. The most effective changes involve specifying what you would like students to do in the assignment and suggesting concrete steps students can take to achieve that goal.

Clarify what you want your students to do…and why they’re doing it

Kerry Walk, former director of the Princeton Writing Program, offers these principles to consider when designing a writing assignment (condensed and adapted from the original): “At least one sentence on your assignment sheet should explicitly state what you want students to do. The assignment is usually signaled by a verb, such as “analyze,” “assess,” “explain,” or “discuss.” For example, in a history course, after reading a model biography, students were directed as follows: ‘Your assignment is to write your own biographical essay on Mao, using Mao’s reminiscences (as told to a Western journalist), speeches, encyclopedia articles, a medical account from Mao’s physician, and two contradictory obituaries.’ In addition, including a purpose for the assignment can provide crucial focus and guidance. Explaining to students why they’re doing a particular assignment can help them grasp the big picture—what you’re trying to teach them and why learning it is worthwhile. For example, ‘This assignment has three goals: for you to (1) see how the concepts we’ve learned thus far can be used in a different field from economics, (2) learn how to write about a model, and (3) learn to critique a model or how to defend one.’”

Link course writing goals to assignments

Students are more likely to understand what you are asking them to do if the assignment re-uses language that you’ve already introduced in class discussions, in writing activities, or in your Writing Guide. In the assignment below, Yale professor Dorlores Hayden uses writing terms that have been introduced in class:

Choose your home town or any other town or city you have lived in for at least a year. Based upon the readings on the history of transportation, discuss how well or how poorly pedestrian, horse-drawn, steam- powered, and electric transportation might have served your town or city before the gasoline automobile. (If you live in a twentieth-century automobile-oriented suburb, consider rural transportation patterns before the car and the suburban houses.) How did topography affect transportation choices? How did transportation choices affect the local economy and the built environment? Length, 1000 words (4 typed pages plus a plan of the place and/or a photograph). Be sure to argue a strong thesis and back it up with quotations from the readings as well as your own analysis of the plan or photograph.

Give students methods for approaching their work

Strong writing assignments not only identify a clear writing task, they often provide suggestions for how students might begin to accomplish the task. In order to avoid overloading students with information and suggestions, it is often useful to separate the assignment prompt and the advice for approaching the assignment. Below is an example of this strategy from one of Yale’s English 114 sections:

Assignment:In the essays we have read so far, a debate has emerged over what constitutes cosmopolitan practice, loosely defined as concrete actions motivated by a cosmopolitan philosophy or perspective. Using these readings as evidence, write a 5-6-page essay in which you make an argument for your own definition of effective cosmopolitan practice.

Method:In order to develop this essay, you must engage in a critical conversation with the essays we have read in class. In creating your definition of cosmopolitan practice, you will necessarily draw upon the ideas of these authors. You must show how you are building upon, altering, or working in opposition to their ideas and definitions through your quotation and analysis of their concepts and evidence.

Questions to consider: These questions are designed to prompt your thinking. You do not need to address all these questions in the body of your essay; instead, refer to any of these issues only as they support your ideas.

  • How would you define cosmopolitan practice? How does your definition draw upon or conflict with the definitions offered by the authors we have read so far?
  • What are the strengths of your definition of cosmopolitan practice? What problems does it address? How do the essays we have read support those strengths? How do those strengths address weaknesses in other writers’ arguments?
  • What are the limitations or problems with your definition? How would the authors we have read critique your definition? How would you respond to those critiques?

Case Study: A Sample Writing Assignment and Revision

A student responding to the following assignment felt totally at sea, with good reason:

Write an essay describing the various conceptions of property found in your readings and the different arguments for and against the distribution of property and the various justifications of, and attacks on, ownership. Which of these arguments has any merits? What is the role of property in the various political systems discussed? The essay should concentrate on Hobbes, Locke, and Marx.

“How am I supposed to structure the essay?” the student asked. “Address the first question, comparing the three guys? Address the second question, doing the same, etc.? … Do I talk about each author separately in terms of their conceptions of the nation, and then have a section that compares their arguments, or do I have a 4 part essay which is really 4 essays (two pages each) answering each question? What am I going to put in the intro, and the conclusion?” Given the tangle of ideas presented in the assignment, the student’s panic and confusion are understandable.

A better-formulated assignment poses significant challenges, but one of them is not wondering what the instructor secretly wants. Here’s a possible revision, which follows the guidelines suggested above:

[Course Name and Title]

[Instructor’s Name]

Paper #2

Due date: Thursday, February 24, at 11:10am in section

Length: 5-6pp. double-spaced

Limiting your reading to the sourcebook, write a comparative analysis of Hobbes’s, Locke’s, and Marx’s conceptions of property.

The purpose of this assignment is to help you synthesize some difficult political theory and identify the profound differences among some key theorists.

The best papers will focus on a single shared aspect of the theorists’ respective political ideologies, such as how property is distributed, whether it should be owned, or what role it serves politically. The best papers will not only focus on a specific topic, but will state a clear and arguable thesis about it (“the three authors have differing conceptions of property” is neither) and go on to describe and assess the authors’ viewpoints clearly and concisely.

Note that this revised assignment is now not only clearer than the original; it also requires less regurgitation and more sustained thought.

For more information about crafting and staging your assignments, see “The Papers We Want to Read” by Linda Simon, Social Studies; Jan/Feb90, Vol. 81 Issue 1, p37, 3p. (The link to Simon’s article will only work if your computer is on the Yale campus.) See also the discussion of Revising Assignments in the section of this website on Addressing Plagiarism.