How to Write an Effective Assignment

At their base, all assignment prompts function a bit like a magnifying glass—they allow a student to isolate, focus on, inspect, and interact with some portion of your course material through a fixed lens of your choosing.

The diagram above represents an assignment prompt which is functioning well. For one thing, the presence of the assignment prompt/magnifying glass (which might, in this case, take the form of an ekphrastic essay) is enabling the student to see and describe qualities or features of the course material (in this case, an Egyptian bust) better than they could were the glass to be absent. Equally important, however, is the fact that the student is not being distracted by the presence of the glass/prompt—it is not so opaque, glittery, unfamiliar, or complicated to use so as to steal student attention from the concept or material (the bust) which is meant to be the assignment’s real focus.

Often, when an instructor consults with us about an assignment prompt that seems to yield disappointing student submissions, we find exactly these kinds of inadvertent distractions—an unfamiliar genre, complicated technology, or logistical hurdle has interposed itself between the student’s attention and the assignment’s intended focus. These distractions sometimes originate in an instructor’s desire to help their students by making an assignment more "interesting," whether that means more creative or more directly related to an authentic, "real world" task. By rewriting an essay prompt as an op-ed assignment, for example, an instructor might inadvertently refocus their students' attention on the accidental qualities of op-eds—how can I mimic David Brooks’ prose? What font should I use for the masthead?—and thus divert time and energy away from the conceptual understanding the instructor was hoping to test.

The Key Components of an Effective Assignment Prompt

All assignments, from ungraded formative response papers all the way up to a capstone assignment, should include the following components to ensure that students and teachers understand not only the learning objective of the assignment, but also the discrete steps which they will need to follow in order to complete it successfully:

  1. Preamble. This situates the assignment within the context of the course, reminding students of what they have been working on in anticipation of the assignment and how that work has prepared them to succeed at it. 
  2. Justification and Purpose. This explains why the particular type or genre of assignment you’ve chosen (e.g., lab report, policy memo, problem set, or personal reflection) is the best way for you and your students to measure how well they’ve met the learning objectives associated with this segment of the course.
  3. Mission. This explains the assignment in broad brush strokes, giving students a general sense of the project you are setting before them. It often gives students guidance on the evidence or data they should be working with, as well as helping them imagine the audience their work should be aimed at.  
  4. Tasks. This outlines what students are supposed to do at a more granular level: for example, how to start, where to look, how to ask for help, etc. If written well, this part of the assignment prompt ought to function as a kind of "process" rubric for students, helping them to decide for themselves whether they are completing the assignment successfully.
  5. Submission format. This tells students, in appropriate detail, which stylistic conventions they should observe and how to submit their work. For example, should the assignment be a five-page paper written in APA format and saved as a .docx file? Should it be uploaded to the course website? Is it due by Tuesday at 5:00pm?

For illustrations of these five components in action, visit our gallery of annotated assignment prompts. For specific advice on different genres of assignment, click below: