Clarifying the Writing Assignment
Are you tired of your students not responding appropriately to the assignment? Read on for how to clarify the assignment so your students better understand what’s expected of them.
Approach the Assignment as a "Package"
You should approach each assignment as a group of activities—a “package”—that collectively focuses on the writing process. These activities will include clarifying the assignment for your students; breaking down the assignment into stages; helping them with the process of drafting and revising, if permitted; and, finally, evaluating their work with points or a grade.
Let's begin with the first part of the assignment package: the prompt itself.
Take the Assignment Quiz
Example #1: Analyze the account of religion offered by two or more of Marx, Durkheim, Weber.
1. Probably not this one because it’s too broad. The “account of religion” is a huge concept to tackle and may well invite unfocused writing. Instead the prompt should explain how students are to “analyze” and what critical framework they should use.
Example #2: What does racial identity and/or thinking of oneself as African "mean" in the minds and daily lives of the people depicted in Nadine Gordimer's My Son's Story or in Doris Lessing's A Perfect Marriage? What do the people in these novels, white and black, struggle against? What are their motives or reasons? What arguments do Europeans make on behalf of colonial or apartheid arrangements? In examining the situation of Rhodesia (as it was then called) and/or South Africa, what do you find distinct about these countries' experience from that of other countries in Africa? What do you find in common to those of other African countries in the 1950s and early 1960s? If you so choose, refer in your discussion to the political thought of some of the better known African leaders of that time, such as Nelson Mandela or Kwame Nkrumah and perhaps consider as well how well their ideas have faired the passage of time.
2. Probably not this one because it’s pretty unwieldy. It’s asking for a jumbled analysis of texts, political figures, and historical situations. Are students supposed to answer all these “helper” questions or are they just supposed to consider them? And instead of giving the student more possibilities, the “and/or” and “[i]f you so choose” options are just confusing. The interdisciplinary scale of this assignment might work for a doctoral dissertation, but not for a five-page essay.
Example #3: We have read a number of articles on gender roles, and on feminism, that assume sometimes very different definitions of their subject. For this assignment, argue for your own extended definition of feminism. What are some of the beliefs that feminists have in common? How do they differ from the views of anti-feminists? You should base your definition in the patterns you find in the readings listed above. To illustrate and support your definition, examine the beliefs of three or four writers (including at least one anti-feminist writer).
3. This prompt is the best because it clearly expresses the central question, “argue for your own extended definition of feminism,” and the assignment’s scope. It specifies the readings students should draw from as well as what they should do with them: “base your definition in the patterns” of your readings and “illustrate and support your definition” by examining “three or four writers (including at least one anti-feminist writer).”
Clarify the Prompt
Most of the writing assignments you will be given by your faculty instructor, however, will probably not be as lucid as Example #3. It’s your job, then, to clarify the prompt for your class so they have the chance to write well.
Determine the Assignment’s Thinking and Writing Objectives
After you receive the assignment from your faculty instructor, your first step is to define its primary intellectual and writing tasks. Although it should be obvious, the main thinking and writing tasks implied by a given prompt are often vague or buried.
Look again at the examples we discussed on the previous page. Example #1, for example, says “analyze,” but it’s really asking for a comparison. And it’s difficult to determine the main focus of Example #2. By contrast, Example #3 is clearly asking for the definition of a concept, namely feminism.
Although not every assignment will call for these skills, the following master list of intellectual and writing skills is useful. Thinking through them can help your students understand the work ahead of them and assist you in evaluating their performance.
Does your assignment expect students to:
- introduce a topic or material to less knowledgeable readers?
- present results of an experiment, survey, observations, study?
- describe or explain an idea, theory, or phenomenon?
- summarize an argument or text?
- define a concept?
- synthesize material?
- argue a position?
- analyze a text (written, visual, musical, or object)?
- solve a problem?
- apply a theory to new data or texts?
- evaluate or critique an argument, object, or phenomenon?
- compare/contrast texts, experiences, theories?
Adapted from Cynthia Merrill’s UCLA Writing II TA handbook.
Now that you’ve established the assignment’s primary intellectual task, let’s think about why your students are writing.
Reveal the Assignment’s Purpose
It’s worth spending a moment talking with your students about why they are writing this particular assignment. True, your students have to write the assignment. But you’ll get better results if they view the assignment as having real relevance.
You’ll find it useful early in the quarter to consider the function of this sort of writing in its discipline or even outside of the academy. Explain to your class why this sort of writing is produced. What’s at stake? Why should they care? What are they learning?
A comparison of two first-person accounts of the same public event, for instance, shows History students that “historical truth” is a complex concept. This understanding of the past is important not just for reading historical texts but for thinking about political discussions in the media.
Trouble Shooting-Think Like Your Students
You’ll be able to anticipate major misconceptions about the assignment by thinking about it the ways your students do. Often, students are confused by the way an assignment is written. It may feature vague verbs, such as “discuss” or “consider.” Questions included to stimulate student thinking may not be clearly marked as such, and students may try to answer all of them in their essays, with tragic results. Also, the central question itself may be hard to grasp.
Some students may encounter difficulties if they can’t distinguish between primary and secondary sources; if the sources themselves are too dense or difficult; or if the assignment calls for more sophisticated knowledge of the subject than they’ve acquired because it has been assigned too early in the quarter.
To gain perspective on the challenges your students will face, sketch out how you would write the assignment:
- What questions emerge as you outline the process of writing this assignment?
- What immediately seems unclear?
- What would you do first?
- What information would you need to put together?
- How would you do it?
Anticipating where your student writers may encounter difficulty can help you trouble-shoot these misunderstandings, even if you have to create guidelines for your own section.
For example, if you were teaching Example #1 and didn’t receive further specification from the faculty instructor, you could help your students and yourself by advising students to choose just one or two passages from Marx, Durkheim, and Weber to compare.
If you were teaching Example #2, you could distill the central question implied in the first line—“What does racial identity and/or thinking of oneself as African ‘mean’ in the minds and daily lives of the people depicted”—by sorting out the confusing “and/or” construction and use of quotation marks around “mean.”
Increase Students' Awareness of Disciplinary Conventions
“Every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion—invent the university, that is, or a branch of it, like history or anthropology or economics or English. The student has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community.”
–David Bartholomae, “Inventing the University” (1984)
Students may have difficulty writing because they don’t understand their own discipline’s “peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing,” as David Bartholomae observes above. While scholarly standards in our field seem natural to us, they may not feel at all natural for your undergraduate students. Pointing out the assignment’s disciplinary conventions will help your students better formulate their responses to your course’s assignments.
You may want to discuss some of these disciplinary questions as you cover the assignment with your class:
- What is the purpose of writing in this field?
- Who or what is an acceptable source of authority?
- What counts as evidence?
- What kinds of written formats are common in this discipline?
- What key concepts or specialized terminology is used?
- What theoretical concepts or models are assumed and what must be made explicit?
- How are scholars in the field “in conversation” with one another?
Adapted from Cynthia Merrill’s UCLA Writing II TA handbook.
Specify Materials and Sources
Assignments don’t always specify which materials and sources students are supposed to use. You should clarify the expectations for using sources for your class. Check with the faculty instructor to determine if students must draw solely from course materials—the course reader, books, course website materials, texts on reserve—or may use outside sources, which some assignments prohibit students from utilizing.
If your students are allowed to do some outside research, they may not be adept at locating, evaluating, and using primary and secondary sources, regardless of how many years they’ve been at UCLA. To increase their information literacy, your students should be encouraged or even be assigned to take UCLA library’s excellent research tutorial, The Road to Research.
Create Good Writing Assignments
If you’re asked to create a writing assignment, begin by considering what you want your students to learn.
- Do you want them to consider an important question in your discipline?
- Do you want them to compare accounts of an event?
- Do you want them to solve a particular problem?
Choosing a polemic in your field can be helpful in giving students something exciting to argue or investigate.
Once you have a goal for the assignment, determine which texts or materials best serve that end.
The assignment sheet should clearly present the prompt’s central question and guidelines; it should specify the materials students are expected, required, and/or prohibited from using.
If students can revise their work, which is ideal, plot out the revision schedule in the syllabus. Try to give them about a week to revise their drafts.
Sequence your assignments through the term. Begin with more straightforward prompts that build through the quarter in complexity and length.
(See Determine the Assignment’s Thinking and Writing Objectives for a fuller discussion of an assignment’s intellectual objective and relevance and for ideas about what to include on the assignment handout.)
Sequence the Assignments
If possible, assignments should be sequenced so that students build on their thinking and writing skills though the quarter. Assignments should ask students to perform more straightforward writing tasks before progressing to more complex ones. Early in the term, for instance, it’s better for students to analyze a single text, and then ask them to progress to synthesizing several texts.
When moving from one assignment to the next, try to forge connections between them. Explain to your class how they’re related—that is, how they can apply the skills they’ve been developing to the next assignment? Ideally, students writing Example #1 would have examined Marx, Durkheim, or Weber’s theory of religion separately before including them in one essay, for example.
Summary and Resources
Undergraduate writing often goes terribly awry because students are dealing with an assignment’s multiple tasks—conceptual, rhetorical, and compositional—all at once. And if the assignment itself isn’t clear, even the most competent students can have a tough time writing. Present the assignment to your class with the clarification and guidance they’ll need to produce their best possible work by doing the following:
- identifying the assignment’s main intellectual task
- making it relevant
- figuring out where students will get into trouble
- making students aware of disciplinary standards
- specifying materials and sources
- sequencing the assignments
Resources for Clarifying the Writing Assignment
Additional Reading for Clarifying the Writing Assignment
- David Bartholomae, “Inventing the University,” When a Writer Can’t Write: Studies in Writer’s Block and Other Composing-Process Problems, Mike Rose, ed. (The Guilford Press, 1985) 134-165.
Now that the assignment itself is clear, let’s find out how to get your students ready to write.