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Alexandra (AJ) Gold is a PhD Candidate in English at Boston University. Follow her on Twitter or check out her website.

230. That’s the number of undergraduate tutoring sessions I’ve had at my university’s writing center over the past year and a half. That’s 230 papers read, discussed, and collaboratively revised. You know what else that’s a lot of? Assignment sheets.

Each tutoring session begins with a review of the student’s assignment sheet, which provides a way for me to quickly familiarize myself with a student’s task and topic. In these sessions, I’ve seen all matter of assignment sheets – ones for low-stakes writing exercises, academic essays, and alternative genre assignments. They’ve spanned several course levels, including classes that serve second language learners. At every level, I’ve seen excellent, thought-provoking prompts and nearly incomprehensible ones.

This is not a condemnation of my university’s writing instructors, who are among the most dedicated and effective teachers I’ve encountered. Bad assignment sheets do not equal bad teachers. Bad assignment sheets, however, do often lead to poor student outcomes, and the problem is one with ready solutions.

Lost in Translation

As a tutor, I act as a mediator between students and teachers. Though most students come in with works-in-progress or full-fledged drafts, a good number of them seek help because they don’t know where to begin. Some of their “writer’s block” is a matter of confidence – and I, in turn, adopt the role of cheerleader. Still, many students’ hesitation is borne of confusion and uncertainty about a teacher’s expectations, stemming directly from the assignment sheet itself. In these scenarios, I become a translator — a task that’s not always easily accomplished.

Part of the problem, as Rebecca Weaver points out, is that students “aren’t in [teachers’] heads.” As Weaver elaborates: students, especially in their first and second-year, do not always have access to the “academic conventions and disciplinary discourses” instructors “take for granted.” The goals and lessons teachers want students to take away from the assignment sheet might consequently be unclear.  

Part of the problem  is even more basic: many assignment sheets are, quite simply, poorly written.

The assignment sheet is its own genre with its own rhetorical situation and conventions. At the end of the day, though, it is still a piece of writing like any other – something that’s easy to forget. As Leigh Ryan, Founder and Former Director of the University of Maryland Writing Center, advises: “the assignment sheet itself [should] serv[e] as a model of good writing, and the kind of writing that you expect students to produce in the assignment.” In my experience, Ryan is spot on. The strongest assignment sheets I see are those that model the elements of “good writing” we drill into students heads: clarity, concision, strong thesis (main point), audience awareness. The most confusing tend to neglect them.

Pitfalls & Fixes

Here some of the common pitfalls I’ve encountered along with some pointers for crafting more effective assignment sheets — especially for graduate students tasked with creating them for the first time, sometimes without any pedagogical training or guidance.

Pitfall #1: The assignment sheet is too long.
I’ve seen assignment sheets that run over several pages and are full of context about the topic that could be or likely was covered in class. Having to sort through this excess, students may not able to identify what information is most important. Excessively lengthy assignment sheets also tend to be discursive rather than directive, leaving students to glean what is relevant to the task and what is not. Sometimes they’re not equipped to do so, especially if they’re still learning critical reading strategies.

The Fix: Keep it short and to the pointThough length does not determine clarity, the best assignment sheets are limited to about a page and get quickly to the main point (think of it as an assignment sheet “thesis”). These don’t read like academic essays that have been dropped into assignment sheets. They might give a few sentences of context, but they move directly to the task at hand. In addition, they avoid too much information from texts students have never encountered. One quote might be fine, but ample text from a source students aren’t going to be or have not been responsible for can be extremely confusing.

Pitfall #2: The assignment sheet offers too many possible directions.
One very common pitfall I see is assignment sheets that pose a series of questions. These are well-meaning, as the questions are meant to guide students’ thinking, but students can’t always decipher which or how many questions they’re “supposed to” respond to. They may attempt to do too much, leading to incoherent essays. In addition, offering too many possible directions might deter students from developing original claims, either because they feel beholden to address the concerns laid out or because they are looking to work quickly.

The Fix: Offer a set number of distinct essay choices or one broad theme/idea. Giving students a choice of essay topics can be very empowering for them, but instead of including an endless series of questions (What is the author’s tone? What role does the narrator play? How does it compare to the tone of book x?) present these questions either as a choice between definitive essay topics (compare the tone of book x to book y; discuss the role of narration in book x) or delineate one main, but broad point you’d like students to focus on (nalyze how the author creates irony in book x)

Pitfall #3: The assignment sheet lacks active verbs.
This follows from #2. Notice how, in the series of questions, the assignment sheet doesn’t use active verbs. It asks questions, but doesn’t provide a method or approach for students to employ. In effect, it doesn’t clearly define the task.

The Fix: Strong directives. Tell students exactly what you’d like them to do. Utilize strong verbs like: “compare,” “contrast,” “analyze,” “summarize,” “use x to critique y,” “read y through the theoretical lens of z.” One verb to avoid: consider. It’s somewhat weak directive and leaves room for student doubt; does “consider” mean you have to or just might do whatever is asked?

Pitfall #4: The assignment sheet lacks guidelines.
Sometimes I see assignment sheets that don’t give specific directions. If you want students to use a certain citation format, make sure that is spelled out. It may not be obvious to students or they may forget even if you tell them repeatedly. Remember, you are responsible for one of their many courses, each with different project guidelines.

The Fix: Specifics, specifics, specifics. This is the easiest fix of all. I’ve learned (the hard way) that students like to have all of the information up front: give them the deadlines neatly plotted out, specific numbers for pages, etc. Write it down. The same goes for page count, due dates for all stages of the writing and revision process, the list of permissible texts, number and kind of sources, etc. This applies to low-stakes assignments, too: if you want solid 10 minute oral presentations, state exactly what you expect them to include.

Additional Suggestions

Beyond the major pitfalls and fixes I’ve addressed, here are three more things effective assignment sheets can include:

A stated “purpose” – if, for instance, the assignment’s goal is to make students think about audience, state that somewhere on your sheet. As GradHacker Travis reminds us, you should also think about how one assignment fits in with the others in the course; while each assignment sheet will have distinct purpose, they should ultimately work together.

Some grading criteria – you might briefly mention what you are looking for (e.g. an “A” paper will have an arguable thesis, strong transitions, clear organization, and few grammatical errors). You don’t have to provide an entire rubric, but you can establish some expectations in advance.

Examples – if you want your students use MLA citation, you could direct them to a relevant reference source like Purdue Owl, but you could also provide one works cited entry on your assignment sheet. Likewise, if you’re using a less familiar genre of text – e.g. if your students have never analyzed poetry before – you might provide a sample line citation. Same goes for songs/visual media, etc. If there’s anything that might not be intuitive about formatting, it’s worth providing a quick example.

The goal is to eliminate as much speculation and ambiguity as possible. Your assignment sheet shouldn’t be a guessing game or a source of undue frustration. By providing clear, to the point directions and ample specifics, you can help your students down the right path. It’s on them, of course, to hold up their end of the bargain, but we should ensure that they have the tools to do so.

And while I can’t promise you that students won’t still email you to ask basic questions the assignment sheet addresses, I can promise that if you follow these guidelines, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve provided answers in advance. Sometimes in grad school you have to take what small victories you can get.

Do you have any tips for creating effective assignment sheets? Let us know in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user fschnell and used under a Creative Commons License.]

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