Creating Effective Writing Assignments

By Jim Burke
  • Grades: 9–12

Let's face it: In some cases, we ourselves have no choice as to what our students will write about on exams for the state or the SAT. Such institutional topics are inevitable fixtures in today's instructional landscape. More often than not, they illustrate one or more of the qualities Edmund Farrell argues are not part of a good assignment. Farrell says that a good assignment does not:
  • Lead to an unfocused or too-short answer, such as "How do you feel about the ozone layer?"
  • Pose too many questions in its attempt to elicit a specific response
  • Ask students for too personal an answer, such as "Has there ever been a time in your life when you just couldn't go on?" or "What was the most exciting thing that ever happened to you?"

What is common to all good writing assignments, according to Farrell, is that they:

  • Are meaningful to the students, though this does not necessarily mean the assignments are personal
  • Are authentic, providing some context for writing that makes sense to the students; this does not mean they must always write a useful document such as a letter or an editorial, but it does mean that the writing should serve a purpose the students recognize as real
  • Ask for writing about "specific and immediate situations rather than abstract and theoretical ones"
  • Suggest a single major question to which the thesis statement of the essay is the answer
  • Help students practice specific stylistic and organizational skills

When you have students write, no doubt you do so with a specific purpose in mind. A social studies teacher might want them to show how one event led to another, or to contrast two cultures, leaders, or periods. For English teachers, writing assignments often involve responding to or interpreting other texts, though if you are teaching composition, the assignment might well call for a persuasive essay as part of a larger unit on argument. Whatever the subject, a good assignment requires clearly stated outcomes, all of which should be written out (instead of spoken or jotted down on the board). Here are some suggestions to keep in mind when designing an assignment:

Determine and clearly state the purpose of the assignment.  Will students: analyze, compare/contrast, define, describe, evaluate, persuade, explain, and/or summarize? Take time to have students underline and discuss these words and their implications for writing. Focus on just one or a few of these skills with each assignment.

Specify the requirements of the assignment in writing. These might include all or some of the following:

  • Genre (e.g., essay, letter, opinion piece)
  • Length
  • Deadline
  • Documentation (e.g., works cited, bibliography)
  • Steps (e.g., brainstorm ideas, outline, draft)
  • Assessment criteria
  • Introduction
  • Directions
  • Standards addressed by this assignment
  • Requirements (e.g., number of texts they must refer to in their research paper, amount of data they must include in their analysis)

Identifying the standards for any given assignment is, in some districts, a requirement; for others, it is simply a useful part of the planning process, one that assures you are teaching your students the lessons the state expects them to learn.

Take time to discuss the assignment with your students, going over key words that signal which strategy to use (e.g., analyze, define, persuade, contrast). In addition to taking time to discuss the assignment, be sure they know what they must do and what a successful performance on this assignment will look like.

Here is a sample assignment, one I created for my freshman class at the end of a unit on our relationship with the natural world.

Our Relationship with the Natural World Writing Assignment

Topic

Compare and contrast the different types of relationships humans have with the natural world. Include examples from your own experience and the different texts we have read or viewed. After comparing and contrasting, make a claim about what you feel are our rights and responsibilities toward the natural world in general. Provide reasons and evidence to support your claim.

Requirements

2- to 3-page typed paper, double-spaced, with appropriate headings and bibliography. Must include examples and quotations from at least three texts

Evaluation

Papers will be evaluated according to the criteria outlined on the attached rubric.

This article is excerpted from Teacher's Essential Series: Content Area Writing

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