Shelley Reid .


Shelley's Quick Guides for Writing Teachers:
Designing Writing Assignments


  1. Design rhetorical assignments, especially for major essays.  Writing outside of the classroom (for which we're ultimately trying to prepare students) nearly always happens for a purpose and with an intended audience, even if the audience is "myself" and the purpose is "don't forget the milk." 

    You don't need to go all the way to Saving the World or create intricate scenarios ("Imagine you've been elected president of Alpha Centauri, and you've just made first contact with Earthlings via postings to MySpace…"), but you should be prepared to tell -- and/or ask -- students about their possible audience(s) and purpose(s) for writing.  Why are they "comparing and contrasting"?

  2. Assign problems rather than topics, or help students develop questions, problems, challenges, and/or options based on topics.  Help students "build time" into their writing and thinking processes so that they don't feel pressured to go with a first or an easy topic or argument.

  3. Balance freedom and guidance in assignment prompts, according to your overall principles about teaching and learning writing.  What will the benefits be to writing-learners if they choose their own topics?  What might the benefits be if you've limited some of their options or focused their attention?  Anticipate some students' preferences for the paths of least resistance, which often lead them back to familiar (but perhaps unsuitable) essay types.

    Note:  The more open country you give students to move around in, the more you may want to check-in with them, early in the process, about their destinations.

  4. Design assignment prompts and evaluation procedures together.  Even if you choose not to share your grading expectations with students, you yourself will benefit from thinking ahead about what your evaluation criteria will be as you write an assignment prompt.  You need not establish a 16-point rubric, but knowing what your primary and secondary criteria-sets are for this assignment can help you choose what to emphasize in classroom activities, avoid modal confusion, prepare to comment efficiently and effectively, and "stay firm" to mark an essay with a lower grade if it does not fulfill the assignment. 

    Note:  Even if you've posted a general description of what's required in all essays, specifying what you particularly want students to be learning from this essay will speed your grading and enable their learning.

  5. Assign backwards from goals:  Consider the overall learning goals for the course, and create major assignments that will help students move toward those goals.  It makes sense for some early assignments to be less complex than some later assignments (though you may have good reason not to make the hardest assignment of the class due right at the end of the term).  Once you've designed your most complicated, longest, and/or most challenging assignment, work backwards from there.  How can the earlier assignments help students learn some of what they will need for the later ones?

  6. Teach backwards from assignments:  Once you've set up a major essay assignment, take some time to identify the various skills, strategies, and knowledge that students will need to complete it successfully.  Which of these might just need reinforcement of students' previous learning, and so could be addressed in a "transition" period between assignments? Which are newer or more complex, and so might need significant in-class or homework-linked practice?  Which skills or strategies might students overlook if they are one-draft writers, and how can you help them better attend to those steps?  You can "grade for it" even if you don't directly teach it, since these are students who can be expected to do college work -- but your assignment-priorities should be reflected in your teaching-priorities.

  7. Remember Shelley's 20-Minute Rule:  If you really want students to do something well, plan to spend 20 minutes in class having them do it -- not just hear about it -- and get a little (peer) feedback on how they did.  Even your best students might pick up on a new nuance or two.

  8. Assign and teach revision:  If you expect students to revise, build revision into your assignments and spend class time teaching revision (not editing) strategies.  GMU requires that all students in writing or writing-intensive courses have the experience (not just the option) of revising after getting feedback from you; this is good practice for any writing-focused course.  In addition to or instead of reading complete drafts, you can conference -- or you can read and respond to theses, outlines, 1-page "zero drafts" or rants, proposals, intro paragraphs, etc., and orient your comments toward revision.




Last updated June 2008.Email Shelley Reid