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Writing clear assignments can be challenging for many instructors. However, over time and with practice, this task does get easier. These guidelines are intended to provide pointers for instructors across all disciplines. Whether project work, presentations, experiential activities, essays, or research, there are some general guidelines that apply for all kinds of assignments.
Even after writing clear assignment instructions, you may still get questions from students. Share this email template with students to help them clarify their questions.
Keep your readers (students) in mind as you determine the purpose and scope of the assignment.
- Ensure you and your students understand the purpose of the assignment. You should be able to articulate why you are asking them to write this paper or do this project.
- Explicitly link your assignment to at least one learning outcome (purpose) and make this connection clear to students.
- Ensure students (your intended audience) understand the assignment. Define (or ask students to define) unfamiliar terminology.
- Articulate academic integrity expectations and review every time you introduce an assignment.
If your content is clear and well organized, students will have an easier time understanding what you are asking them to do.
- Explicitly state what you want your students to do (E.g. write a rhetorical analysis, compare the Black Lives Matter protests to the Civil Rights Movement, reflect on their recent clinical experience, argue/take a position on…, etc.).
- Be concise. If possible, keep your assignment description to one page. If it is longer, use headings to make it easier for students to follow. Include enough detail so students know what you expect but not so much detail that they feel overwhelmed.
- Break down lengthy assignments into clear, concrete steps (consider using headings); in your course outline, include deadlines for each step.
- Include key information about due dates, acceptable forms of submission, length, grade weighting of the assignment, and a rubric that indicates the criteria you will use for evaluation.
Write your assignment with diversity and universal design for learning principles in mind, so that it is comprehensible and achievable for all of your students.
- Use plain language as much as possible. If you must use discipline-specific language, ensure students understand it.
- Use clear, directive language: instead of “it is expected that papers will be double-spaced and use 12 point font” (passive voice); “double space your paper and use 12-point font” (active voice).
- Consider using you (second person) to speak directly to your students: “in this assignment, you will…” instead of “in this assignment, the student will…” This slightly less formal approach is less intimidating to students. This approach will also give you an opportunity to discuss your expectations about which point of view (I, you, they, etc.) students should use in your assignments.
The following strategies will help you support students through all the stages of their process.
- Ensure your students know where to find the assignment in D2L. Even if you have already walked students through the steps, keep in mind that they are probably taking multiple courses: the layout of D2L varies from one instructor to another.
- Ask students to mark up a hard copy of the assignment as you review it together in class. If students are unable/unwilling to print the assignment, they can download it to their computer and make electronic notes.
- Review the assignment with students in class at least twice: once when you first present the assignment, and then again just before students are about to begin.
- Check in with students periodically to ensure they are progressing through the stages.
- Encourage students to discuss their assignments with classmates, family, and friends. Good quality work is supported by researching, talking, reflecting, and revising.
- Ask your students if the assignment is clear. Invite them to provide anonymous feedback if you think they might be confused about what you are asking of them.
- Some students are reluctant to approach instructors with questions about assignments. Share this email template with your students. It can be adapted to suit different courses. It contains polite language and helps students to focus their questions. Students can get assistance completing the template at the Writing Centre or a Help Centre.
Tips specifically for writing clear writing assignments (essays, research papers)
- Avoid combining different types of writing into one prompt: for example, reflection (usually written using first-person) and research (usually written using third person).
- Embed discipline-specific requirements into your assignment (for example, citation style, peer-reviewed journal articles for sources, etc.).
- Include the paper length, citation style/format, number and type of sources required (for research papers), and any discipline-specific requirements.
- Follow the same citation style your students will use in their papers.
- Periodically throughout the term, encourage students to use Camosun’s writing support, WriteAway online tutoring assistance, research help, and citation guides.
- Help students approach writing as a process by embedding deadlines into your course outline (planning, drafting, revising, editing, proofreading).
- Show your students how to use a Writing Assignment Calculator to break down the writing assignment into steps.
- Integrate some low-stakes writing assignments into your course.
- Build in time for students to comment on their own writing. Consider asking them to use an academic writing checklist before they submit the paper, require in-class peer review sessions, etc.
- Well before the due date, provide strong writing models based on a similar assignment and analyze them with your students. Collect strong models from your students (with their permission) and renew your supply regularly so you always have plenty of exemplars to analyze together.
- Consider sharing your own writing process with students. What steps do you follow when you write a new assignment (or revise an existing assignment)?
Put yourself in your students’ shoes and take a critical look at your own writing. What grade would you give yourself on the assignments you write?
- Use your grading rubric to evaluate how you would do on the assignment.
- Ask a colleague to review your assignment or submit it to the Writing Centre for feedback.
- Use these tips to edit and proofread your assignment before you post it to D2L. If your assignment is full of errors, you are not sending the right message to your students.
Resources for further information