Writing Across the Curriculum at the University of New Haven
Designing Writing Assignments That Work

Designing Writing Assignments That Work

Designing an effective writing assignment can be an important skill because an effective assignment guides students through the writing process and sets your expectations for quality writing. Here are some tips for constructing effective writing assignments:

  • Prompt learning by asking students to construct meaning or solve a problem.
    • When possible, give students a real audience, context, and purpose. Examples:
      • “A nine-year-old diabetic child needs to understand the glycemic index of foods. As a pediatric nurse, prepare a short talk that will explain glycemic index in language the child will understand.”
      • “Your boss needs an informative report on competitors’ marketing and pricing strategies for selected items that are not selling well in your stores. Do the research and write your report for the boss.”
      • “The design team for the circumferentially mounted radiator fan has recommended air bearings, but you believe this decision is a mistake. Write a memo to your project manager laying out your best case against air bearings.” (Bean, 2011, pp. 42-43)
  • Connect the assignment to the goals and outcomes of the class. (It can be helpful to list the related outcomes on my assignment sheet.)
  • Remember to include the details. List page length, citation requirements, format specifications, and so forth. Consider using the citation format specific to your discipline rather than just using MLA, even though students may be more familiar with MLA.
  • Consider building in extra credit points for a tutoring session or even requiring evidence of a tutoring session.
  • Tell students how you will evaluate not only their understanding of the content but their writing. Include a rubric if you’re using one.
    • Treat the rubric and assignment sheet as part of a recursive process. Look back and forth at each as you set requirements and grading criteria, adapting as necessary.
  • Consider if there are ways to scaffold learning through shorter assignments that build up to this paper. If so, consider adding those assignments and dates to the assignment sheet.
  • Discuss the assignment sheet in class so students can ask questions. Consider sharing it as a Google Drive or Word Online document and adapting the language based on students’ questions or concerns.
  • Consider designing the last assignment in your class first and working backwards (Bean, 2011).
  • Whenever possible, provide examples of the genre you are asking students to compose. It can be helpful to give a student example that received a “B” so that students don’t model too closely because they know there is room for improvement.

A study conducted by the NAEP & National Writing Project—which looked at writing assignments and the writing students composed, along with interview transcripts of instructors and students reflecting on the assignment—found that the following were characteristic of the strongest writing assignments:

  • The content and scope of the assignment asked students to focus on critical thinking rather than reiteration
  • The organization of the assignment provided a scaffolding that supported students’ writing process
  • The assignment had a clear audience, such that the assignment asked the student to communicate with an authentic group of readers, on a topic in which the student was an expert
  • A range of choices for students was balanced with support and direction so students could engage in the process rather than just complete teacher-driven tasks (as cited in Gardner, 2008, p. 2)

On our Resources page, we have shared a variety of assignments sheets from different disciplines. We will discuss the benefits and constraints of different instructors’ approaches in the workshop.


Bean, J. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking,and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gardner, T. (2008). Designing writing assignments. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

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