5. Creating Good Assignment Prompts


Regardless of your course theme or topic, every first-year writing class is built around its writing assignments. As Gottschalk and Hjortshoj note, “Whether we use assignments to help our students understand the material of a course, to evaluate their understanding, or to teach specific skills, assignments are the springboards that propel our students into action. What they do next will depend on what we say” (Elements of Teaching Writing 30). Therefore, creating clear, organized, and scaffolded assignments is crucial to help students become better thinkers and writers. Particularly for first-year students, who may know little about the expectations of college-level writing, guidelines must be explicit and understandable.

There are many different ways to create effective assignments for a first-year writing class. The following module will walk you through the process and offer some general suggestions as well as specific strategies that you may want to use or adapt in the classroom.

Effective Writing Prompts: Consider the Sequence

In a first-year writing class, most of your readings, activities, and discussions are typically clustered around each writing assignment (most often a formal essay). Your assignments should be sequenced, or ordered in ways that help students develop, and reinforce, skills. You want to create a series of assignments that build on each other over time, each strategically adding to and even to some extent repeating skills and knowledge gained in the ones before.

Assignment sequencing exists in just about any learning environment. Before you learn to paint, for example, you must understand basic elements of color theory, space, and brushstroke techniques. When developing your writing assignments, in other words, you aren’t looking at each assignment as discrete and separate from the others, but as deliberately ordered.

Here are a few more basic ideas to keep in mind as you build your assignment sequences:

  • Build a sequence of assignments from simple to complex tasks. It’s important to develop a sequence of assignments over a course that allows students to develop discrete skills before they move on to more complex skills. When assignments are sequenced this way, each assignment provides a scaffold for the next. You can find some examples of successful assignment sequences in Supplement 1: Assignment Sequences & Skills Templates.
  • Each writing assignment should serve as a bridge to the one that follows and allow for some repetition. As noted, the most effective assignments build on one another, so that no assignment is entirely disconnected from what came before, and each assignment allows students to practice old skills and learn new skills. Further, research shows that students need repetition to begin to master a new skill or concept, so it’s best if some of the skills from previous assignments carry over into the next.

The Writing Prompt: Where to Begin?

Assuming you have a solid sequence of assignments built into the syllabus, how do you create an effective prompt that elicits, even inspires, students to write authentically, confidently, and creatively?

Edward M. White offers a helpful heuristic (see FYWR Course Preparation Packet 8) for instructors to consider when creating their assignment prompts. He provides a series of questions around these five aspects of the assignment.

  • Task definition, meaning, and sequencing. These questions focus on the purpose of the assignment, such as “What do I want students to do?” and “What is being assessed”? You need to know–and articulate to your students–what’s the point: what skills the assignment is asking for and how the assignment fits in to the overall course goals.
  • Writing process. Now you want to think about the process by which students must complete the assignment, from brainstorming to revising. Within every assignment, you want to build in prewriting, writing, and revising activities.
  • Audience. Instructors and students alike sometimes forget to think about audience in first-year writing courses. Obviously, the instructor will read each essay, but is there a broader audience for the writing task? Even if the audience is exclusively the instructor, you want to make sure that students know what they can assume about you  and your expectations as their primary audience.
  • Schedule. You must build into your prompt a clear sense of the timeline. This includes, most importantly, deadlines for all work, from prewriting to revisions. But students should also have a sense of what other activities might be associated with the writing process, such as readings, workshops, or peer review, from beginning to end.
  • Assessment. Students need to know what you are looking for in your assignment. You may want to include rubrics in your assignment prompt, but beyond specific rubrics, White reminds us to consider such questions as “Have I attempted to write the paper myself? What problems did I encounter?” The more intimately you know the assignment, the better able you are to anticipate problems and challenges. Such challenges might be transformed into activities in your assignment prompt. (For more on rubrics, see Module 8).

Prompting the Process

Most of us have made the mistake of staying up all night writing a paper in one go. We also remember that doing so probably did not elicit our best writing. One of the main tenets of courses that fulfill the FYWR is to help students build into their writing process a routine of drafting and revision.

Effective first-year writing prompts should not allow for such all-nighters because the process–which includes prewriting, writing, peer review, and revising–is folded into the prompt. Your assignments should be scaffolded, which means it should broken down into manageable tasks that add up to a whole.

When thinking about scaffolding, consider the following definition:

Scaffolding in a developmental/educational sense entails providing temporary support as a student learns a new concept or task. The role of the instructor is to provide that support as the student climbs toward the next level of understanding or capacity, and to gradually remove (or shift) that support as the student becomes more skilled and confident (as the metaphoric building stands more securely on its own). By scaffolding, our model supports students in moving up to the next closest level, one step at a time, rather than expecting them to make huge strides without support. (Williams Howe et al. 47)

It’s useful to think about this definition as it applies to writing assignments. As students learn a new writing skill or task, the instructor provides “scaffolds” to help the students “climb towards that next level of understanding.” Just as in a physical structure, the scaffolds may be taken away as student writers gains skills and confidence.

What do the scaffolds look like? Instructors often integrate low-stakes writing into their assignment process and schedule. The benefits of assigning low-stakes writing have been well established students learn more when they are required to articulate their knowledge in writing. Low-stakes writing can also help students keep up with reading, better understand course concepts, or take a more active role in the course. These low-stakes writing assignments can often build into a longer and higher-stakes formal writing assignment. (For more on low-stakes writing, as well as some sample assignments, please see Integrating Low-Stakes Writing into Large Classes. You may also find information about low-stakes writing in Module 4).

Revision options or requirements can be a great way to incorporate more writing as students develop stronger arguments. The goal is to delay students’ urge to consider their work  done after a first draft by making the process of revision (of rewriting and rethinking) a normal and necessary part of writing. Taught to view their writing in this way, students can develop their thinking and gain confidence as writers. Built-in, low-stakes revision activities also have the benefit of undermining common bad habits by positioning writing as more than the typical two-stage drafting process which often can boil down to the minor sentence-level revisions students make before they turn a first draft in, and the  final revision that responds only to what was  marked by the instructor. Approaching revision as an ongoing process allows students to gain ownership of their writing through collaborative discussions with peers and teachers, as well as the opportunity genuinely to re-view their writing.

You may also consider folding into your writing prompt a reflection activity for students after they have handed in their final draft. Reflection is an act of looking back in order to process experiences. Metacognition, a type of reflection, is a way of thinking about one’s thinking in order to grow. At its best, reflection is not a static form. It can work in many dynamic ways: talking, blogging/vlogging, writing letters, or formal essays. Teaching your students to practice reflection in a variety of ways can facilitate more effective and fulfilling metacognition. (See Cultivating Reflection and Metacognition,” for more on reflection strategies.)

Finally, What Next?

After you have given students the written assignment prompt, you should plan on discussing it with them in class; it’s never a good idea to hand out prompts and assume students will understand them fully, no matter how clear and thoughtful it is. Along with answering questions, you may want to provide student samples for students to read and discuss. You also should go over deadlines and schedules, reiterating the importance of revision in the process. If this is not the first assignment of the semester, you might also remind students of the place of the assignment within the “sequence”–that is, let them know which skills they have already developed from an earlier assignment, and which new skills they will be asked to demonstrate. Some instructors even give students a low-stakes writing activity in which they parse the prompt and come up with questions or concerns.

While you might not feel the need to give a quiz on your writing prompt, it’s important to remember that students may not read the prompt very carefully at first. That’s why it’s well worth taking time in class to discuss the prompt–and revisit it when necessary throughout the process.

One thing you may notice as you develop and revise your writing assignments: the better they are, the more satisfying and illuminating it will be to read your students’ work. Said another way: Instructors often realize, as they labor through a stack of particularly tedious essays, that the students did not understand some aspect of the assignment, or that something about the assignment did not elicit meaningful, engaged, or productive student work. This doesn’t mean that all good assignments produce excellent student writing–if only that were the case! But they do produce work in which you can see students meaningfully grapple with the topic and with the skills they are being asked to demonstrate. A “weaker” essay may still be exciting to read if it helps you understand your student’s challenges as a thinker and a writer.

Canvas Tip: Assignments

Canvas makes it pretty easy to organize your assignments around modules or topics, so that students see how each assignment connects to readings, discussions, and other class activities. Students will then submit their work through the Assignments page. If you are scaffolding smaller tasks into the assignment, you can keep track of them easily by including them in the module or “cluster,” and assigning these tasks specific percentages or points. For example, if the assignment itself is worth 100 points, you might make a pre-writing exercise worth 5 points, and the first draft worth 10 (for a total of 115 points). For more ideas about how to use Canvas to grade the assignments, see Module 8.

Further Reading

For detailed strategies for the classroom, including strategies for a new media assignment, see Sequencing and Scaffolding Assignments.

Two chapters in books you might find useful:

Gottschalk, Katherine, and Hjortshoj, Keith. “Designing Writing Assignments and Assignment Sequences.” The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in All Disciplines. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2004. 29-46.

White, Edward M. “Writing Assignments and Essay Topics.” Assigning Responding, Evaluating. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 1999. 1-24.