Designing Writing Assignments

Designing Writing Assignments

We know that when students write, they learn, but research has shown that more writing alone does not necessarily produce more learning.  Instead, it is writing in response to well-designed writing assignments that produces deep learning and student engagement, according to a large-scale study conducted jointly by the Council of Writing Program Administrators and the National Survey of Student Engagement.

Good writing assignments:

  • make writing interactive: they give students the opportunities to receive early feedback on their work, and they promote writing as a process of inquiry and revision
  • require meaning-making: they ask students to think critically about problems that matter to them and to their audience
  • and clearly explain the instructor’s expectations and purpose.  (Anderson et al.)

With these principles in mind, how can you design assignments that promote student learning and invite the kind of writing you want to read?

Start by Asking Questions

Why do you want students to write in your class?  

Will students be writing to learn course material, to master writing conventions in a discipline, or both?  What writing products will meet your learning goals for your students? Do you plan to assign a take-home essay exam, a policy memo, a research-based proposal for action, or something else altogether?  

What do you want your students to accomplish in these written products?  

Beth Finch Hedengren offers these six questions to guide the development of writing assignments:

  • What is the assignment’s purpose?  

    • Think about what you want your students to do.  You may want your students to apply course concepts, such as the law of diminishing returns or hybridity.   You may want them to practice specific writing skills such as summary or synthesis.  Or you may want them to practice discipline-specific genres such as a lab report or historiographic essay.

    • Many writing assignments ask students to explore or to discuss.  But these verbs do not tell students much about the argumentation and style you’re expecting.  Even “analyze” can stymie student efforts if you have not shown your class what counts as analysis in your discipline.  Use active, specific verbs when describing the writing task.

  • Who is the audience?   

    • You, of course, are their first reader. But consider giving your students a “real” audience such as a panel of regulators for a policy brief, a team of research scientists for a poster presentation, or an editorial board of a journal for a research essay to make the writing situation as concrete as possible.

  • How does the course contextinfluence the assignment?  

    • Think about how the assignment relates to what comes before and after it in the course.  At what point in the quarter will you give the assignment, and when will it be due?  And given its length and difficulty, have you allowed enough time for the students to complete the task well, to pre-write, write, revise, and edit?  

  • What is the scopeof the assignment?  

    • How much of the class content do you expect students to cover, if any?  In a literature class, for example, you might ask them to trace a theme from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, or you might ask them to focus on a single work.

  • What styleis appropriate?  

    • Given the genre and audience of the assignment, you may expect a formal, “high style,” to use Cicero’s phrase. Or, you may accept a more familiar style.  Why?

  • What formatis expected?  

    • If you have in mind specific font size, margins, line spacing or heading requirements, make those explicit. If documentation is expected, specify which style you prefer and point students to resources such as the Chicago Manual of Style, available on-line through Stanford libraries, to help them document responsibly.

Erika Lindemann and Ed White add this important question:

  • How will you assessthe assignment?  

    • Decide what constitutes a successful response to the assignment, and whether or not other students or the writer have a say in evaluating the paper.

Answering these questions will help you define the writing task and demystify your assignment.  When you precisely describe the type of writing you expect as well as its purpose, students are more likely to produce it.  

Sequence writing assignments across the quarter to build reading, researching, and writing skills.

Kiniry and Strensky recommend that assignments be sequenced recursively, “so that even as students move on to more complex tasks, they find themselves increasingly capable of turning back profitably to those expository strategies they have already begun to master” (192). For example, you might ask your students to grapple with writing more and more complex definitions across the quarter. In week one, you may ask them to define a key term; in week four, to define a process or phenomenon; and in week ten, to craft an argument of definition.

Earlier assignments are often referred to as scaffolding assignments; the metaphor refers to the support that construction workers need to reach higher levels of a building.

Plan your course writing assignments by designing the last assignment first.

  • Students find it reassuring when they come to the final, often largest assignment of the course to learn that they’ve already practiced most of the skills needed to perform well (e.g., presenting evidence in discipline-appropriate ways).

  • It can be helpful to chart not only the due dates of your writing assignments, but also to compare and contrast the rubrics to be sure you aren’t asking students to perform too many disparate writing tasks in a single quarter.

  • Think about how your writing assignments fit together and then explain those relationships to your classes.

Craft effective assignment sheets

You can give writing assignments verbally, but if you write out your expectations, students are likely to use your assignment sheet to focus their efforts.  

Effective assignment sheets follow the Goldilocks principle: you need to give students just the right amount of information. Too little and you’ll spend a lot of time in office hours clarifying your expectations; too much and students might miss the most important details. Think first about the problems your students are likely to have with the assignment and anticipate those in your description.

Your assignment sheet should:

  • Link the writing task with specific learning goals
  • Describe rhetorical aspects of the task, i.e., audience, purpose, genre
  • Make constraints such as word count minimums and maximums explicit
  • Specify formatting requirements
  • Break down the task into manageable steps
  • Include grading criteria.

Effective assignment sheets prioritize information about the task.  

  • At the top, vital information should be quickly and easily discernible (due dates and how much the assignment contributes to the final grade in the course).
  • A compact description of the assignment’s goals as well as its purpose helps students understand what they’re being asked to do and why.
  • Once you’ve concisely established these fundamentals of the assignment, you may become more expansive as you share tips that will help students succeed and avoid pitfalls.

Should I give my students models?

Selecting models for an assignment can help you identify your priorities for the assignment. Models can also help students understand the conventions of a genre and the values of a new discourse community.

  • Professional modelsshow students that they’re working on “real-world” communication skills, which can be motivating. But professional examples can also be intimidating, and if they’re very technical, it can be difficult for students to see the patterns in the language.
  • Student modelsshow novice writers that the writing task is achievable. Further, students find it helpful to compare first and final drafts of a writing sample to see how the task was achieved; revealing the process behind the “A” grade can motivate students to begin early and work steadily on the assignment.
  • As you help students analyze models, use the language of your grading criteria to align your assignment with your assessment.  
  • In class, you can have students compare and contrast model papers. Ask students to describe the persuasive “moves” in the writing as specifically as possible. Among other questions, you might ask: how does the introduction motivate the reader?  How is evidence presented? How does the author respond to the previous research?  When students identify the moves of a piece of writing for themselves, they can be encouraged to think of these moves as goals for their own writing and to work to achieve them.

Final Thoughts

How you communicate with your students through your assignment sheet not only sets the tone for your relationship with them, but also impacts the quality of writing they produce. Donald Murray, Pulitzer-prize winner and Professor at the University of New Hampshire, provocatively claims, “You can command writing but you can’t command good writing” (83). Instead of assignments that command, he urges teachers to craft “invitations that attract writing” (83). When your assignments offer intriguing problems that motivate a response, your students will not only produce writing, they will also accept your invitation to think carefully and creatively on the page.

What’s your experience with good writing assignments? Please comment below.

Sarah Pittock is the Associate Director (Writing) of Stanford’s Hume Center for Writing and Speaking.

Further Resources

Anderson, P., Anson, C., Gonyea, B., and Paine, C. Using results from the Consortium for the Study of Writing in College. Webinar handout. National Survey of Student Engagement, 2009.

Bean, John. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2011.

Hedengren, Beth Finch. A TA’s Guide to Teaching Writing in All Disciplines. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004.

Kiniry, Malcolm, and Ellen Strenski. “Sequencing Expository Writing: A Recursive Approach.”  CCC 36 (May 1985): 191-202.

Lindemann, Erika. A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.

Murray, Donald M. A Writer Teaches Writing, 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

“Teaching Guide: Designing Writing Assignments.”  Writing@CSU. The WAC Clearing House. Colorado State University.

White, Edward M. Assigning, Responding, Evaluating: A Writing Teacher’s Guide, 4th ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.


These resources from Stanford's "Undergrad" site will help your students in their writing assignments: