Making Writing Assignments

Writing Across the Curriculum

Planning Writing Assignments

Successful assignments build on the following principles:
  • Each writing assignment should reinforce the content base of the course.
  • Writing assignments should be sequenced from easier and personal writing to more demanding and public writing.
  • Writing assignments may be sequenced so that a complex task is carried out in several more easily managed stages.
  • Writing assignments should build in an opportunity for response and revision.
  • Writing assignments should be paced to allow feedback before the next writing assignment is due.

Setting Up Writing Assignments

A written assignment sheet is crucial. Even though faculty may be quite explicit in describing the writing assignment, it will be difficult for students to remember details unless the assignment is in print.
The sheet should include the following kinds of information:
  • the kind of writing expected (analytical, argumentative, etc.)
  • the range of acceptable topics or research questions
  • the length requirements
  • the source or citation requirements (if applicable)
  • the documentation style expected (if applicable)
  • the formatting requirements
  • due dates for drafts, other preliminary materials, and final version
  • penalties for not meeting basic requirements and deadlines
  • any other criteria used in evaluating the paper

Some Short Writing Assignments (In Class)

The following short writing assignments are meant to suggest some possibilities for your consideration. Additional ideas can be found in the resources listed at the end of this pamphlet.

  • In-Class Writings: Without taking more than five minutes of class time, impromptu in-class writing can be used in a variety of ways: to ask students to summarize the key points covered, to stimulate flagging discussion, to provide an opportunity for reflection on complex issues, to check comprehension of reading material, and the like. These brief writings need not be graded, though you might use them as an indicator of class participation in determining a course grade.
  • Essay Exams: Instructors often ask if essay exams “count” as part of the writing requirement, and the answer is yes. The easiest way to keep track of the number of pages of writing is to specify an approximate number of words for each answer on the exam itself. Students find the guidelines useful, too.

Some Short Writing Assignments (Outside of Class)

The following short writing assignments are meant to suggest some possibilities for your consideration. Additional ideas can be found in the resources listed at the end of this pamphlet.

These assignments may be adapted to fit a variety of classes and instructional purposes. They can be especially helpful in giving students an opportunity to grasp and synthesize new concepts.
Abstracts or Précis: Ask students to write brief summaries of their readings in their textbook or supplementary materials. Writing a one-sentence précis requires careful reading and revision. The resulting sentence can reveal much about how well a reader has grasped a writer’s argument.

  • Critiques: Have students critique the material they are reading, perhaps asking them to identify the writer’s claim and the evidence used to support that claim and then to assess its effectiveness. Such assignments should be helpful in getting students to think in terms of argument, something they can be encouraged to carry over into their own papers.
  • Position Papers: Ask students to write a one-page paper justifying a given position on a controversial issue. A series of two or three papers on the same topic might become the basis of a longer paper. You could also provide a thesis for students to support or refute.
  • Definition and Application: Ask students to define an important term or concept and then illustrate the definition by applying it to some situation outside the classroom. Alternatively, you might ask whether a definition applies in a given case.
  • Focused Responses: Give students a question to consider as they read assigned material. A one-page answer might be the starting point for class discussion.
  • Annotated Bibliography: Have students identify and evaluate potential sources for a longer research paper.
  • Partial Research Paper: Ask students to submit individual sections of a research paper in progress. For example, writing a brief statement defining the nature and scope of the research problem might prove useful, as might a survey of the literature on the subject.
  • From Exam to Essay: If you give essay exams, brief answers might become the basis of longer papers written outside of class. You might also ask students to write more briefly about other sorts of exams; for example, they might explain how and why calculations went awry or explain their reasoning for incorrect choices on multiple choice exams.

What Students Want to Know About Writing Assignments

The staff of the campuswide writing program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa interviewed over 200 students about their experiences in writing intensive classes. Their responses—which will seem very familiar to any experienced teacher—can be condensed into four questions. Here are their questions, along with some commentary and suggestions.

The same survey that produced these four questions includes some student comments that confirm the suspicions of seasoned teachers—what we think we say is not always what our students think they hear.

How Students “Read” Writing Assignments

What Instructors Expect What Students Understand
“For the short paper on a video, I wanted students to make connections among the archeologist’s questions, the methods used to get answers, and principles from their reading.” “This assignment was like writing a high-school movie review. I wanted to give my own personal understanding about the video, so I was go-ing to write a narrative.”
“In the journals I wanted students to really wield their own opinions and grapple with issues, to really think about course material.” “When I first heard the assignment, I thought I was sup-posed to write anything, like a reaction, just to show if I learned something.”
“I wanted students to really wrestle with the questions on the assignment sheet, to give in-depth answers. I wanted students to distinguish be-tween the author’s words and “I was supposed to write a 6-page analysis on a reading and juice up the answers. I tried to make it sound good by adding lots of details and sounding excited in my writing.”


Comparing instructors’ expectations and students’ perceptions provides a striking demonstration of the importance of clear communication about the purpose of the writing we assign. We cannot simply assume that our intentions are always understood.