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Creating Effective Writing Assignments

Duke Thompson Writing Center: Creating Effective Writing Assignments

Some excerpts:

Duke Thompson Writing Center: Creating Effective Writing Assignments

Crafting Effective Writing Assignments

… students often wait until a paper is nearly due before getting seriously to work and then finish it in a single draft.   These behaviors limit our students' learning and the quality of work they produce.  

We can encourage better writing practices (and reduce plagiarism) by explicitly guiding them through a structured process of writing and revision.  

Including sufficient detail in our assignments can also lead to better writing, since the more students know what we expect, the more likely they are to do what we want

Make the level of difficulty appropriate for students at that place in the term

  • We often forget how complex and challenging the kind of work we routinely do is for students who are new to it.   Scholarly work usually includes a complicated interweaving of summary, analysis, argument, and explanation.   Students who have not had practice in doing such tasks in isolation in your discipline are rarely prepared to do them in combination.  

Build in a plan for revision

  • Although we understand that producing our best work requires rethinking it in substantial ways, students are still learning this.   And even If we give them instructions to "revise" their work, they are likely to less than we hope for unless we explain precisely what kind of work we want them to do.  
  • We can help students do more substantive revision by giving them structured guidelines and drawing clear distinctions between revising and editing.  
  • If there are certain aspects of writing that you want the entire class to work on for the next draft (e.g., improving support for claims or taking up counterarguments), make a revision assignment directing students to those particular considerations.   Otherwise, help students decide on priorities individually as part of your response to their work.   Asking students to write a short revision plan (stating where they intend to direct their efforts) before beginning work on the next draft can help keep them from lapsing into mere line editing and make it easier for you to assess their progress.

Make your expectations explicit

  • One of the most effective ways to help students do better writing is to tell them exactly what we expect.   We often have a certain kind of product in mind when we give students an assignment, but…we should not assume they will always interpret general instructions ("Write an essay on..." or "Do a case study of...") in the ways we intend.   And since we are immersed in our discipline we sometimes forget that for students--especially those new to the field--disciplinary norms and expectations are unknown or unclear.

Share examples of work in the genre you are assigning

  • We sometimes assign students to do a kind of work that they have never seen or studied.   Providing them with successful examples--and explaining what makes them successful--can help your students succeed.  
  • Students can benefit from seeing both professional work and what other students have done.   If possible, choose examples on topics that are close enough to their assigned topics that they can understand them and see parallels with their own work, but not so close that they will take them for simple models of what you want them to write.  
    • If you present three or four examples that represent an acceptable range of practices within the genre, students will not get the sense that there is a single "right way" to do the assignment and you won't get a stack of copycat papers to wade through.
  • Showing students counterexamples can also be effective.   Most fields have their share of less successful or problematic texts that get disseminated and even published.   Sharing your criticism of some of these with your students can help them better understand what you consider good work.   However, sharing student papers that are of low quality overall should be avoided.

Adapted from Duke Thompson Writing Program: Creating Effective Writing Assignments,, accessed 7-25-2018. 


Responding to Student Writing

Duke Thompson Writing Program: Responding to Student Writing

Suggestions for making the practice of responding to student writing more efficient and effective. 

Some excerpts:

Skim a set of essays before you begin responding to them

  • Getting a sense of what your students have written allows you to see common problems and issues that you can address in class, rather than repeating comments laboriously on paper after paper.  

Don't correct students' papers for them

  • It helps to remember that papers that contain numerous errors may be a result of a lack of knowledge (including ESL), ineffective proofreading strategies, or mere carelessness.
  • If a paper contains numerous and varied errors, you may choose to return it to the student for correction rather than plowing through it with consternation.   This sends a message to the student that even if you do not intend to "grade them on grammar or punctuation" they are expected to meet the standards of the university.  

Offer focused advice towards revision

  • If a student makes a specific sort of error repeatedly, you may want to provide guidance by marking examples of the error once or twice and then making a note that similar errors exist elsewhere in the paper.   (If you mark all of the occurrences of an error, students will learn to let you find the errors instead of learning to catch them on their own.)
  • …the more precisely you can define the problem(s), the better the result will be.   (Encouraging students who have difficulty with grammar or punctuation to work on specific problems is more effective than telling them, broadly, to "fix their grammar.")
  • …students rarely read comments we have written on the final drafts of papers, especially if they are not happy with the grade and the comments are numerous.
  • Instead, make your comments on earlier drafts of the work.   Students will attend more fully to your comments if they have a chance to apply them directly to the work you are responding to.   And they will be even more responsive if your comments are limited to two or three primary matters--a reasonable number for them to consider as they revise.

Discuss student writing in class

  • Students will take their writing more seriously if you take it seriously.   And one effective way of attending to your students as writers is by using their work as the subject of class discussion. This doesn't mean that you need to direct your course away from its subject matter.

Grade a piece of writing on its overall success in meeting its goals

  • One effective practice is to comment on early drafts without assigning a grade, and to assign a grade to final drafts with only minimal comments about the paper and explaining the grade.   This puts your effort will it will do the most good.
  • …it is important that students know what your priorities are for the assignment and how you will be grading their work.   Whether you use a rubric or grade holistically, your students should know what you expect before they begin work on a paper.

Adapted from Duke Thompson Writing Program: Responding to Student Writing,, accessed 7-25-2018.  Some of these suggestions are adapted from Joseph Harris (English professor and writing instructor formerly at Duke and Pittsburgh, now at the University of Delaware), who teaches workshops to faculty at many schools, in a variety of disciplines, who work with students on their writing.  

UNC Writing Center Resources for Faculty

UNC Writing Center

Writing Center Online Handouts (for students).  Online and free; some include .pdf downloads or multimedia demos. All aspects of academic writing for different disciplines and contexts. 

Faculty Resources from the Writing Center: , includes information on resources and services the Writing Center provides to faculty and the following that include additional links

Writing Center Policies and Focus:  With regard to students, the main focus is on undergraduates in Arts & Sciences and, then, graduate/professional students in Arts & Sciences.  More information is here: 

Plagiarism and UNC Honor Code

Plagiarism Checkers (from HSL's Plagiarism & Citing Sources Guide)