I was talking with one of our writing tutors about how difficult it is sometimes for our students (and tutors!) to decipher “what professors want” on writing assignments. Sometimes the writing prompt is too general or vague and sometimes the prompt is so detailed that it leaves students paralyzed that they might mis-step outside of the parameters provided by the instructor.

This got me thinking about my own prompts for writing assignments. I think they’re brilliant of course, but I wonder if I am expecting my students to read my mind or if I am being so prescriptive that I eliminate a student’s ability to think and write creatively. I have spent many weekends grading writing assignments with my chin on the floor, so I’ve clearly got room for improvement in this department.

Have you ever just asked your students to “write a paper on…”? The attached article talks about striking the Goldilocks balance between ambiguity and a pre-flight style checklist of paper requirements.

  1. Reverse-engineer the assignment description. Start with, “what would a successful product look like?” Create a question or an assignment based on the result you desire.
  2. Consider the formatting of the assignment sheet. If questions are formatted as a dense paragraph without a clear differentiation between the central question and the details, students will feel overwhelmed and willl not know where to start or focus. Instead, consider keeping the main charge or question in one section. You could even call it the “Main Question” section.
  3. Keep the wording simple. If students have to pull out a dictionary to understand your question or prompt, you should re-write it.
  4. Consider reducing the requirements. Can you meet the learning outcome with only 3 questions instead of 8? There should be a balance between stimulating students to think and overwhelming them with too many questions to address.
  5. If there’s ever a doubt about whether the prompt is effective, ask a student to read it first. Is your assignment understandable by the audience who will read it? The further away we are from being in their shoes, the more difficult it is to accurately gauge whether we are being clear.

Well-written essay prompts are a win-win for professors and students and create more accessible opportunities for learning.

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