Effective Writing Assignments

Troubleshooting Prompts: Seven Easy Fixes

1. Give students a written prompt.
  • Most commonly, we forgo a written prompt when students are working on low-stakes writing, like weekly response papers or blog entries. Yet no matter how clearly you detail the requirements of the assignment aloud, it’s helpful to provide students with a written set of expectations.
2. Hand out and review prompts during class, even if you include them on the syllabus.
  • Including prompts on your syllabus is a generous impulse: students know from the first day of class exactly what will be expected of them, and the prompt is always easily accessible. However, even if you do include it on your syllabus, distributing and reviewing a prompt in class ensures that students have an opportunity to ask questions about the assignment at a time when they have enough context to do so.
3. Separate Prompts from Writing Guides.
  • This is one way to prevent prompts from becoming overwhelming. Sometimes, students who are struggling end up having difficulty prioritizing the parts of the writing task. Separating prompts from writing guides clearly signals your priorities for the paper and distinguishes between the skills or knowledge you want students to display (as outlined in the prompt) and the conventions they should use to display those skills (the writing guides themselves).
  • Separating prompts from writing guides also encourages knowledge transfer across courses and disciplines by making it easier for students to identify patterns within and across assignments.
  • For more information on developing writing guides, please see our page Writing Guides. If models are helpful, lists of links to online writing guide are available here and here.
4. Try to avoid prompts that are accidentally vague or deliberately generic but fail to explain why.
  • Although the reasons behind these two common missteps are different, the effect is often the same: students don’t understand what is expected of them.
  • Prompts that are accidentally vague often hinge on verbs like “discuss,” “consider,” or “respond to.” For suggested replacements for vague phrases, check out our examples of precise language. In Writing Instructional Objectives, Victor J. Soto lists more specific verbs you might try, including: “analyze,” “classify,” “describe,” “summarize,” “justify,” “evaluate,” “recognize,” “explain,” “identify,” or “define.”
  • Prompts that are deliberately but inexplicably generic are another story. Sometimes a key part of the assignment is for students to determine their own topic, organization, or even genre for writing. By including this self-direction on a list of goals that explain what you hope students will learn from your writing assignment, you can prevent confusion and needless anxiety.
5. Try to avoid prompts that are overly specific.
  • Although templates can certainly be helpful to students, studies show that assignments that outline the information that should be included in a step-by-step way or that break down the required content for each paragraph end up producing papers that are less thoughtful, and that students report are less challenging, than assignments that require more student intervention.
  • Returning to the goals of your assignment is one way to check and ensure that your prompt encourages demonstration of critical thinking skills as well as a demonstration of knowledge or understanding.
6. Organize and format the prompt to reflect your priorities.
  • Because we want to warn students away from common mistakes, we may lead with them, or put them in bold print. However, the format of the prompt frequently signals the priorities of the professor, so it’s worth considering the organization and the formatting of your prompt to ensure that the criteria that get the most attention are, in fact, your highest priorities for the assignment. Six Parts of an Effective Prompt offers one possible model for prompt organization.
7. Be sure to include all necessary logistics.
  • Generally, the prompt for a paper should include the due date, page length, and citation style (although the last is a disciplinary convention, it is perhaps the most common question about prompts students bring to the DEWC, and one we can’t answer).
  • Of course, sometimes this information is withheld deliberately (“the paper should be as long as it needs to be”) but if so, as in #3, it’s helpful to simply include such direction on the prompt.

Better Assignments. Writing Center. Yale College. Web. 1 June 2014. 

Boye, Allison. How Do I Create Meaningful and Effective Assignments? Teaching, Learning, and Professional Development Center. Feb 10, 2014. Texas Tech University. 1 June 2014.

Creating Effective AssignmentsCenter for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. New Hampshire University. 2004. Web. 1 June 2014.

Gardner, Traci. Ten Tips for Designing Writing Assignments. Pedablogical. 2001. Web. 1 June 2014.

Nelson, Jeannie. This Was an Easy Assignment”: How Students Interpret Academic Writing Tasks.” Technical Report 23, The National Writing Project. October, 1990. Web. 1 June 2014.

Soto, Victor. Writing Instructional Objectives. Core Curriculum Evaluation Committee. Mountain View College. Web. 1 June 2014.

Writing Assignments. Center for Teaching and Learning. Hobart and William Smith Colleges. n.d. Web. 1 June 2014.