Designing Writing Assignments

A well-designed assignment can focus and guide students’ work as they write papers and develop projects, and it can also make evaluating students’ work easier for faculty.  As Rebecca Hacker argues in The Chronicle of Higher Education, creating an assignment sheet is a challenging writing task, one that requires faculty to think not only about what they want students to produce but also what students need to know in order to produce good work.

What makes a good assignment?

Purpose: The assignment should develop students’ understanding of the most important concepts, content, and methods of the course or give students an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding – or both.

Alignment: The scale, form, and task of an assignment should fit with course goals. While traditional essays and research papers can accomplish many things, they’re not the only way to foster or measure students’ understanding of course ideas or methods. Sometimes, informal assignments or alternative projects fit better (and they can be easier to incorporate into your course and your workload).

Context: All writing happens in context, and good assignments specify the context. That might mean saying a few words about how the assignment fits in the unfolding of a course, but it could also mean inviting students to imagine writing for an audience other than the professor or in a professional or civic situation.

Engaging: Good assignments engage students in the concepts and content of a course. In addition, students produce better work when they tackle challenging questions that matter and when they write in ways that build on but also stretch their skills. Good assignments should also be interesting for faculty. Writing Studies scholar Irv Peckham encourages faculty to avoid assigning papers that we don’t want to read.

This Assignment Design MadLib template will help you think about how an assignment can help students learn the key content of your course. Want more help? Check out this example for an informal reading response and another example for a multimedia project.

What, Why, and How: Guiding Questions for Assignment Design

WHAT does the project involve?

  • What are you asking students to do?
  • In what context are they writing — for whom, with what expectations or needs, with what situational constraints or challenges?
  • How should students develop these projects? For example, what kinds of research should they do? Do you want them to use specific analytical approaches or particular course materials or concepts?
  • Practical details – form, length, documentation, style, due dates

WHY are students doing the project?:

  • What do you want students to learn by doing this project?
  • What do you hope these projects will demonstrate about students’ learning?
  • How does the project develop, build on, and/or deploy the central knowledge and approaches of the course?

HOW you will evaluate students’ work?:

  • Criteria – What qualities are you looking for?
  • Rubric – How well does a project need to demonstrate each criteria? Note that some faculty like rubrics, because they make the standards for assignments clear and facilitate grading. Others find them limiting.

Here are two examples that show how the MadLib translates into an assignment:

You can also download a Writing Assignment Template to follow as you write your own assignment sheet.


More Ideas and Resources 

The goal of a course is for students to understand a set of ideas, concepts, materials, or methods, so assignments ought to focus on generating and demonstrating that understanding. If we begin course planning by articulating the end goal in concrete terms – what could students do if they understood the core ideas of the course? – then we can design assignments that emphasize those goals.

Students generally produce better work if they develop large projects over time, rather than doing all the work at the end of the semester. Scaffolding assignments by asking students to complete several parts of a project over the course of a semester will generate better papers at the end. While responding to incremental assignments takes time, doing a little more work in the middle of the semester can make grading final papers easier.

Digital and multimedia assignments – what Writing Studies experts call “multimodal assignments” – generate interesting and meaningful work, and they can be both engaging and challenging for students and more interesting for faculty to review. Yet they also pose some particular challenges, because they ask students to integrate words with images, sound, and video, and they often involve learning new digital production skills. Faculty also evaluate these projects differently. We’ve posted some ideas about how to approach these assignments under Assigning and Assessing Multimodal Projects.