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Teaching Guide: Designing Writing Assignments

To read more about designing effective writing assignments, see the following:

Five Principles

As you think about creating writing assignments, use these five principles:

Writing Should Meet Teaching Goals

To guarantee that writing tasks tie directly to the teaching goals for your class, ask yourself questions such as the following:

Working Backwards from Goals

Although it might seem awkward at first, working backwards from what you hope the final papers will look like often produces the best assignment sheets. We recommend jotting down several points that will help you with this step in writing your assignments:

Guidelines for Writing Assignments

Successful writing assignments depend on preparation, careful and thorough instructions, and on explicit criteria for evaluation. Although your experience with a given assignment will suggest ways of improving a specific paper in your class, the following guidelines should help you anticipate many potential problems and considerably reduce your grading time.

I. Purpose

  1. Explain the purpose of the writing assignment.
  2. Make the format of the writing assignment fit the purpose (format: research paper, position paper, brief or abstract, lab report, problem-solving paper, etc.).

II. The assignment

  1. Provide complete written instructions.
  2. Provide format models where possible.
  3. Discuss sample strong, average, and weak papers.

III. Revision of written drafts

Where appropriate, peer group workshops on rough drafts of papers may improve the overall quality of papers. For example, have students critique each others' papers one week before the due date for format, organization, or mechanics. For these workshops, outline specific and limited tasks on a checksheet. These workshops also give you an opportunity to make sure that all the students are progressing satisfactorily on the project.

IV. Evaluation

On a grading sheet, indicate the percentage of the grade devoted to content and the percentage devoted to writing skills (expression, punctuation, spelling, mechanics). The grading sheet should indicate the important content features as well as the writing skills you consider significant.

Resource: Checksheets

Visitors to this site are welcome to download and print these guidelines.

Checksheet 1: (thanks to Kate Kiefer and Donna Lecourt)


Have I


Checksheet 2: (thanks to Jean Wyrick)

  1. Is the assignment written clearly on the board or on a handout?
  2. Do the instructions explain the purpose(s) of the assignment?
  3. Does the assignment fit the purpose?
  4. Is the assignment stated in precise language that cannot be misunderstood?
  5. If choices are possible, are these options clearly marked?
  6. Are there instructions for the appropriate format? (examples: length? typed? cover sheet? type of paper?)
  7. Are there any special instructions, such as use of a particular citation format or kinds of headings? If so, are these clearly stated?
  8. Is the due date clearly visible? (Are late assignments accepted? If so, any penalty?)
  9. Are any potential problems anticipated and explained?
  10. Are the grading criteria spelled out as specifically as possible? How much does content count? Organization? Writing skills? One grade or separate grades on form and content? Etc.
  11. Does the grading criteria section specifically indicate which writing skills the teacher considers important as well as the various aspects of content?
  12. What part of the course grade is this assignment?
  13. Does the assignment include use of models (strong, average, weak) or samples outlines?

Four Sample Assignments

Sample Assignments

Sample Full-Semester Assignment from Ag Econ 4XX

Good analytical writing is a rigorous and difficult task. It involves a process of editing and rewriting, and it is common to do a half dozen or more drafts. Because of the difficulty of analytical writing and the need for drafting, we will be completing the assignment in four stages. A draft of each of the sections described below is due when we finish the class unit related to that topic (see due dates on syllabus). I will read the drafts of each section and provide comments; these drafts will not be graded but failure to pass in a complete version of a section will result in a deduction in your final paper grade. Because of the time both you and I are investing in the project, it will constitute one-half of your semester grade.

Content, Concepts and Substance

Papers will focus on the peoples and policies related to population, food, and the environment of your chosen country. As well as exploring each of these subsets, papers need to highlight the interrelations among them. These interrelations should form part of your revision focus for the final draft. Important concepts relevant to the papers will be covered in class; therefore, your research should be focused on the collection of information on your chosen country or region to substantiate your themes. Specifically, the paper needs to address the following questions.

  1. Population - Developing countries have undergone large changes in population. Explain the dynamic nature of this continuing change in your country or region and the forces underlying the changes. Better papers will go beyond description and analyze the situation at hand. That is, go behind the numbers to explain what is happening in your country with respect to the underlying population dynamics: structure of growth, population momentum, rural/urban migration, age structure of population, unanticipated populations shocks, etc. DUE: WEEK 4.
  2. Food - What is the nature of food consumption in your country or region? Is the average daily consumption below recommended levels? Is food consumption increasing with economic growth? What is the income elasticity of demand? Use Engel's law to discuss this behavior. Is production able to stay abreast with demand given these trends? What is the nature of agricultural production: traditional agriculture or green revolution technology? Is the trend in food production towards self-sufficiency? If not, can comparative advantage explain this? Does the country import or export food? Is the politico-economic regime supportive of a progressive agricultural sector? DUE: WEEK 8.
  3. Environment - This is the third issue to be covered in class. It is crucial to show in your paper the environmental impact of agricultural production techniques as well as any direct impacts from population changes. This is especially true in countries that have evolved from traditional agriculture to green revolution techniques in the wake of population pressures. While there are private benefits to increased production, the use of petroleum-based inputs leads to environmental and human health related social costs which are exacerbated by poorly defined property rights. Use the concepts of technological externalities, assimilative capacity, property rights, etc. to explain the nature of this situation in your country or region. What other environmental problems are evident? Discuss the problems and methods for economically measuring environmental degradation. DUE: WEEK 12.
  4. Final Draft - The final draft of the project should consider the economic situation of agriculture in your specified country or region from the three perspectives outlined above. Key to such an analysis are the interrelationships of the three perspectives. How does each factor contribute to an overall analysis of the successes and problems in agricultural policy and production of your chosen country or region? The paper may conclude with recommendations, but, at the very least, it should provide a clear summary statement about the challenges facing your country or region. DUE: WEEK15.

Sample Assignments

Landscape Architecture 3XX: Design Critique

Critical yet often overlooked components of the landscape architect's professional skills are the ability to critically evaluate existing designs and the ability to eloquently express him/herself in writing. To develop your skills at these fundamental components, you are to professionally critique a built project with which you are personally and directly familiar. The critique is intended for the "informed public" as might be expected to be read in such features in The New York Times or Columbus Monthly; therefore, it should be insightful and professionally valid, yet also entertaining and eloquent. It should reflect a sophisticated knowledge of the subject without being burdened with professional jargon.

As in most critiques or reviews, you are attempting not only to identify the project's good and bad features but also to interpret the project's significance and meaning. As such, the critique should have a clear "point of view" or thesis that is then supported by evidence (your description of the place) that persuades the reader that your thesis is valid. Note, however, that your primary goal is not to force the reader to agree with your point of view but rather to present a valid discussion that enriches and broadens the reader's understanding of the project.

To assist in the development of the best possible paper, you are to submit a typed draft by 1:00 pm, Monday, February 10th. The drafts will be reviewed as a set and will then serve as a basis of an in-class writing improvement seminar on Friday, February 14th. The seminar will focus on problems identified in the set of drafts, so individual papers will not have been commented on or marked. You may also submit a typed draft of your paper to the course instructor for review and comment at any time prior to the final submission.

Final papers are due at 2:00 pm, Friday, February 23rd.

Sample Assignments

Animal/Dairy/Poultry Science 2XX: Comparative Animal Nutrition

Purpose: Students should be able to integrate lecture and laboratory material, relate class material to industry situations, and improve their problem-solving abilities.

Assignment 1: Weekly laboratory reports (50 points)

For the first laboratory, students will be expected to provide depth and breadth of knowledge, creativity, and proper writing format in a one-page, typed, double-spaced report. Thus, conciseness will be stressed. Five points total will be possible for the first draft, another five points possible will be given to a student peer-reviewer of the draft, and five final points will be available for a second draft. This assignment, in its entirety, will be due before the first midterm (class 20). Any major writing flaws will be addressed early so that students can grasp concepts stressed by the instructors without major impact on their grades. Additional objectives are to provide students with skills in critically reviewing papers and to acquaint writers and reviewers of the instructors' expectations for assignments 2 and 3, which are weighted much more heavily.

Students will submit seven one-page handwritten reports from each week's previous laboratory. These reports will cover laboratory classes 2-9; note that one report can be dropped and week 10 has no laboratory. Reports will be graded (5 points each) by the instructors for integration of relevant lecture material or prior experience with the current laboratory.

Assignment 2: Group problem-solving approach to a nutritional problem in the animal industry (50 points)

Students will be divided into groups of four. Several problems will be offered by the instructors, but a group can choose an alternative, approved topic. Students should propose a solution to the problem. Because most real-life problems are solved by groups of employees and (or) consultants, this exercise should provide students an opportunity to practice skills they will need after graduation. Groups will divide the assignment as they see fit. However, 25 points will be based on an individual's separate assignment (1-2 typed pages), and 25 points will be based on the group's total document. Thus, it is assumed that papers will be peer-reviewed. The audience intended will be marketing directors, who will need suitable background, illustrations, etc., to help their salespersons sell more products. This assignment will be started in about the second week of class and will be due by class 28.

Assignment 3: Students will develop a topic of their own choosing (approved by instructors) to be written for two audiences (100 points).

The first assignment (25 points) will be written in "common language," e.g., to farmers or salespersons. High clarity of presentation will be expected. It also will be graded for content to assure that the student has developed the topic adequately. This assignment will be due by class 38.

Concomitant with this assignment will be a first draft of a scientific term paper on the same subject. Ten scientific articles and five typed, double-spaced pages are minimum requirements. Basic knowledge of scientific principles will be incorporated into this term paper written to an audience of alumni of this course working in a nutrition-related field. This draft (25 points) will be due by class 38. It will be reviewed by a peer who will receive up to 25 points for his/her critique. It will be returned to the student and instructor by class 43. The final draft, worth an additional 25 points, will be due before class 50 and will be returned to the student during the final exam period.

Sample Assignments

Integration Papers - HD 3XX

Two papers will be assigned for the semester, each to be no more than three typewritten pages in length. Each paper will be worth 50 points.

Purpose: The purpose of this assignment is to aid the student in learning skills necessary in forming policy-making decisions and to encourage the student to consider the integral relationship between theory, research, and social policy.

Format: The student may choose any issue of interest that is appropriate to the socialization focus of the course, but the issue must be clearly stated and the student is advised to carefully limit the scope of the issue question.

There are three sections to the paper:

First: One page will summarize two conflicting theoretical approaches to the chosen issue. Summarize only what the selected theories may or would say about the particular question you've posed; do not try to summarize the entire theory. Make clear to a reader in what way the two theories disagree or contrast. Your text should provide you with the basic information to do this section.

Second: On the second page, summarize (abstract) one relevant piece of current research. The research article must be chosen from a professional journal (not a secondary source) written within the last five years. The article should be abstracted and then the student should clearly show how the research relates to the theoretical position(s) stated earlier, in particular, and to the socialization issue chosen in general. Be sure the subjects used, methodology, and assumptions can be reasonably extended to your concern.

Third: On the third page, the student will present a policy guideline (for example, the Colorado courts should be required to include, on the child's behalf, a child development specialist's testimony at all custody hearings) that can be supported by the information gained and presented in the first two pages. My advice is that you picture a specific audience and the final purpose or use of such a policy guideline. For example, perhaps as a child development specialist you have been requested to present an informed opinion to a federal or state committee whose charge is to develop a particular type of human development program or service. Be specific about your hypothetical situation and this will help you write a realistic policy guideline.

Sample papers will be available in the department reading room.

Resource: Sample grading criteria

SP3XX Short Essay Grading Criteria

A (90-100): Thesis is clearly presented in first paragraph. Every subsequent paragraph contributes significantly to the development of the thesis. Final paragraph "pulls together" the body of the essay and demonstrates how the essay as a whole has supported the thesis. In terms of both style and content, the essay is a pleasure to read; ideas are brought forth with clarity and follow each other logically and effortlessly. Essay is virtually free of misspellings, sentence fragments, fused sentences, comma splices, semicolon errors, wrong word choices, and paragraphing errors.

B (80-89): Thesis is clearly presented in first paragraph. Every subsequent paragraph contributes significantly to the development of the thesis. Final paragraph "pulls together" the body of the essay and demonstrates how the essay as a whole has supported the thesis. In terms of style and content, the essay is still clear and progresses logically, but the essay is somewhat weaker due to awkward word choice, sentence structure, or organization. Essay may have a few (approximately 3) instances of misspellings, sentence fragments, fused sentences, comma splices, semicolon errors, wrong word choices, and paragraphing errors.

C (70-79): There is a thesis, but the reader may have to hunt for it a bit. All the paragraphs contribute to the thesis, but the organization of these paragraphs is less than clear. Final paragraph simply summarizes essay without successfully integrating the ideas presented into a unified support for thesis. In terms of style and content, the reader is able to discern the intent of the essay and the support for the thesis, but some amount of mental gymnastics and "reading between the lines" is necessary; the essay is not easy to read, but it still has said some important things. Essay may have instances (approximately 6) of misspellings, sentence fragments, fused sentences, comma splices, semicolon errors, wrong word choices, and paragraphing errors.

D (60-69): Thesis is not clear. Individual paragraphs may have interesting insights, but the paragraphs do not work together well in support of the thesis. In terms of style and content, the essay is difficult to read and to understand, but the reader can see there was a (less than successful) effort to engage a meaningful subject. Essay may have several instances (approximately 6) of misspellings, sentence fragments, fused sentences, comma splices, semicolon errors, wrong word choices, and paragraphing errors.

Teacher Comments

Patrick Fitzhorn, Mechanical Engineering: My expectations for freshman are relatively high. I'm jaded with the seniors, who keep disappointing me. Often, we don't agree on the grading criteria.

There's three parts to our writing in engineering. The first part, is the assignment itself.

The four types: lab reports, technical papers, design reports, and proposals. The other part is expectations in terms of a growth of writing style at each level in our curriculum and an understanding of that from students so they understand that high school writing is not acceptable as a senior in college. Third, is how we transform our expectations into justifiable grades that have real feedback for the students.

To the freshman, I might give a page to a page and one half to here's how I want the design report. To the seniors it was three pages long. We try to capture how our expectations change from freshman to senior. I bet the structure is almost identical...

We always give them pretty rigorous outlines. Often times, the way students write is to take the outline we give them and students write that chunk. Virtually every writing assignment we give, we provide a writing outline of the writing style we want. These patterns are then used in industry. One organization style works for each of the writing styles. Between faculty, some minute details may change with organization, but there is a standard for writers to follow.

Interviewer: How do students determine purpose?

Ken Reardon, Chemical Engineering: Students usually respond to an assignment. That tells them what the purpose is. . . . I think it's something they infer from the assignment sheet.

Interviewer: What types of purposes are there?

Ken Reardon: Persuading is the case with proposals. And informing with progress and the final results. Informing is to just "Here are the results of analysis; here's the answer to the question." It's presenting information. Persuasion is analyzing some information and coming to a conclusion. More of the writing I've seen engineers do is a soft version of persuasion, where they're not trying to sell. "Here's my analysis, here's how I interpreted those results and so here's what I think is worthwhile." Justifying.

Interviewer: Why do students need to be aware of this concept?

Ken Reardon: It helps to tell the reader what they're reading. Without it, readers don't know how to read.

Frequently Asked Questions about Writing Across the Curriculum

WAC@NIU ( has two useful items under "Writing and computer-intensive assignments"