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Create Engaging Assignments and Clear Assignment Sheets

“If we want students to produce meaningful writing, we must design meaningful assignments, tasks that encourage students to use writing to act.” --Erica Lindemann

Many instructors provide a brief overview of the writing assignment on their syllabus and then talk through the assignment in class. While this provides a forum for students to take notes and ask questions, consider supplementing the classroom explanation and Q&A with a formal assignment sheet articulating your purpose
for assigning the project, the specific requirements, a model and/or how-to for getting the paper done, due dates with suggested process of writing, and rubric. Such an assignment sheet will not only help students, but also will assist any tutors or peers who try to assist the writer with the project. For example, the Smarthinking online tutoring service requires students to provide information about the goals of the assignment. Students can copy and paste if they have a formal assignment sheet, rather than summarize—perhaps inaccurately—from their lecture notes. The tutor will therefore have a better understanding of your goals.

Nine strategies for making sure your assignment is engaging, and the formal assignment sheet is helpful and clear to students.
  1. Provide a purpose or goal statement. What do you want the students to know or be able to do by the end of the project, and why will that knowledge or skill will be beneficial for them? If you don’t have clear goals for the assignment, students will have trouble achieving them.
  2. Consider alternatives to an essay. Letters, memos, reports, personal reflections, case studies, literature and other reviews, newspaper articles, annotated bibliographies, and other genres may be more useful for graduates in your discipline.
  3. Use directing verbs precisely. Avoid nebulous directions like “discuss,” or “explore.” Remind your students about the differences in meaning among: analyze, narrate, describe, compare, contrast, evaluate, summarize, explain.
  4. Provide and discuss models. Imagine you were asked to produce a Petrachan sonnet. Would you know how without looking up the form and seeing some examples? Students often face the same situation, with less ability to locate guidelines and suitable models. If students don’t know what the end product is supposed to “look like” or “sound like,” they will have trouble producing that end product. Ask your students how familiar they are with the kind of document they are to produce, and provide support and perhaps models/samples. It is a good idea to provide at least three models when possible, so students don’t think there is only one way to construct the assignment. These can be posted to Blackboard to minimize an instructor's printing, or even emailed directly to students using the banner email function if you do not use Blackboard.  Review the format and styles of the models with your students and articulate for them exactly what is “good” about those models.
  5. Schedule the process. Create step-by-step instructions rather than providing only a list of what the project must accomplish. Then, let students know when various stages of the assignments are due. For example, library research orientation, answers to research questions, a partial or full bibliography, a first draft, submission to Smarthinking or Writing Lab, peer workshop, instructor conferences, final paper. While students are working on portions of their project, consider providing them some nights off of regular homework. Remember that the student portion of this WAC website includes resources for students at all stages of the process. If you are asking for an in-class presentation, ask for this before collecting the final paper draft, so that students can get feedback from you and peers. Consider recording these presentations so that students can see their presentation skills and better understand your comments for improving them. Contact staff at the Office of Faculty Development (Former CITL) for more information about recording presentations.
  6. Clearly explain the requirements. What questions or issues should each project address? Also specify length, style guide for page set-up and citation, and research requirements.
  7. Help students understand use of sources. Keep in mind that undergraduates may not finish the research-based writing course (ENGL 120) until their sophomore year, while returning students may have completed this requirement years ago. Few students will have experience using citation formats other than MLA style. Try to assess how prepared your students are to research and cite properly in your disciplines. Consider holding a workshop for students on how to incorporate research or contact the WAC Activities Director for more assistance.
  8. Be aware of cultural differences. Students have various learning experiences; build on these or distinguish them from typical U.S. academic writing conventions and expectations. Some cultures encourage students to reflect the learned opinions of authorities or the community rather than make their own arguments; some cultures do not view plagiarism the same way American academics tend to. If short assignments in class, homework, and exams allow students to repeat textbook or lecture notes verbatim, they may believe this is the preferred method of writing research papers, as well. Plan office hours or out of class Q&A sessions, possibly online, to let students ask about the project.
  9. Consider building a publication component into the writing assignment. Doing so may be especially helpful for graduate students. Remember publication means sharing with the public, so final drafts can be shared on Blackboard (through discussion board, blogs or wikis), anthologized in a class publication, posted on the web, submitted to a journal, presented at a conference, developed into a poster presentation for the research fair, and so on. Hunt out venues of publication for your students.
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