How do you create a writing assignment?

Video created by Elizabeth Uva Employee on Oct 16, 2015

    Sommers: When I first started teaching writing back in that Pleistocene age, we were like the grand emperors of composition, and we'd sit back and toss off some kind of assignment and sit there and wait to see what the student would bring to us.  Now what we understand, of course, is that assignments are much better when they're sequenced. And so, it's, I think sequencing assignments has been one of the things that's most improved my teaching and has made students a lot happier.


    Schilb: What I'll do is at the top of the sheet--I'm old-fashioned--I have the due date, the first draft's, the second draft due date and so on, point value of the assignment and so on, but then I have two or three sentences at most where I'm saying this is what this assignment is all about, what you're going to have to produce.  I try very much to convey what the genre of the assignment is going to be: is it going to be an analytical summary, is it going to be a weighted comparison, what is it going to be?  And what sort of main claim you're going to have to make and develop on the assignment.  Then I'll have at most three or four short paragraphs about the kinds of things and the kind of preparation this assignment will involve.  And then here is something that I didn't necessarily use to do in all of my courses.  I have worked with grading rubrics.  In other words, I'll say here are the criteria, and if you do this and this and this and this sort of thing on the assignment, you'll get this kind of mark.  If you don't do this, or at best you do this, then you're going to get in the B range, and so on.  So I'm much more exclusive than I used to be about outlining criteria for success in the assignment and the point range on the assignment or the grade range on the assignment, and what the different categories of evaluation might be, as far as whether you get a B grade, whether you get a C grade, and so on.  And it's very much a matter of keeping it to that one page.  That one page becomes a springboard for various oral discussions about the assignment as we proceed from class to class to class. But I'm trying to simply things, I'm trying to really identify the core essentials of the assignment, and I'm trying to state very much this criteria for success for the assignment.


    Reynolds: I design a writing assignment that will give students plenty of latitude and plenty of choices.  And I try these days to think about more than just writing a paper.  It might be designing a brochure or a Web page. Or, it's not anymore just about a writing assignment that's going to result in a paper.  I try to give students the structure or perhaps the genre but let them choose the topic.  I really believe in Nancie Atwell's time, ownership, and response.  Ownership of a topic is crucial to students' engagement with the work.  So I try to give them the situation, perhaps, or the genre -- you're going to write an I-search paper, you're going to design a brochure that's informative for a particular audience, but they have to decide on what that brochure is going to be about.  It has to be a rich assignment that they can stay engaged with for weeks at a time.  It's not something they're going to finish in two weeks and never pick up again.  They may well choose to revise and edit and polish it for a best works portfolio, so it needs to be an assignment that's conducive to a portfolio-based writing class.


    Huot: I think one of the things that I see as a tension in the work that we do is what you need to be a student, and that is do what people tell you and fulfill assignments and all this other junk, and being a writer, which is someone who creates and assumes a whole lot of control and is really knowledgeable about things.  So in an assignment, I think, you need to supply the kind of support that students need, but at the same time you have to give them the opportunity to be writers, or you won't like what you get.  And something I often tell teachers is if you don't like the student writing that you're reading, look to your assignments.