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How do I design effective writing assignments?

A key challenge in helping students learn basic writing skills is doing so without overwhelming the students or overburdening yourself. Thus you must prioritize which skills you value and design assignments accordingly,

  1. prioritize which skills you value and design assignments accordingly,
  2. communicate those priorities (and your specific expectations) to students, and
  3. give them appropriate opportunities to practice and receive feedback.

Design assignments that isolate specific skills.

Many people find it helpful to “scaffold” writing assignments; that is, sequence assignments that break reading, analysis, and writing into component parts and give students practice developing mastery in each area, building gradually towards more complex, comprehensive writing tasks. For example, you might first ask students to summarize, in writing, the central argument of a reading and three pieces of evidence the author used to support it. At a second stage, you might ask students to write a critique of the argument in light of that evidence and alternative evidence. At a third stage, you might ask students to write an essay comparing two readings in terms of how compellingly the authors made their cases.

Use frequent, short assignments.

It is also helpful to assign more writing tasks of shorter length or smaller scope rather than fewer tasks of great length or large scope. This way, students get more opportunity to practice basic skills and can refine their approach from assignment to assignment based on feedback they receive. This strategy frees you to think beyond the term paper and be more creative in the type of writing you assign, e.g., a letter, program notes, or policy memo.

For more information on designing effective assignments, see the following materials from MIT and the University of Wisconsin:

Why integrate writing assignments?
How can you help students improve their writing?
Responding to low-stakes writing
How can you design an effective writing assignment?
How can you provide effective feedback on student writing?
What are some considerations when integrating writing assignments into your course?

Why integrate writing assignments?

Writing assignments can:

  • Introduce and train students in the writing conventions of a field.
  • Encourage students to process course material more deeply.
  • Allow you to assess students’ comprehension of course topics.
  • Provide an opportunity for students to develop writing and research skills.

How can you help students improve their writing?

  • Break up larger writing assignments into smaller pieces (annotated bibliography, paper outline, first draft, second draft, etc.) and provide opportunities for feedback at each step. Consider grading students at each step, thereby drawing focus to the writing process in addition to the final product.
  • Integrate self-assessment and peer-assessment into your class. To help students develop these skills, allow them to practice assessing each other’s writing and provide feedback on their comments.
  • Display a piece of writing (or multiple pieces of varying quality) on an overhead or on handouts.
  • Ask students to assess the writing (use a rubric, or have students rate the quality from 1-5).
  • Give students a few minutes to discuss and explain their assessment with a partner.
  • Call on a few students to share their assessments with the class.
  • Provide your own assessment and the reasoning behind it.
  • Address any questions students have.
  • Start small at the beginning of the semester with low-stakes writing activities that contribute little, if at all, to final course grades. These types of activities allow you to gauge students' writing levels and give students opportunities for practice and feedback.

Some low-stakes writing activities:


  • Give students two minutes to write down their response to a question, or reflect on material.
  • Have students turn to a partner and share their thoughts.
  • After an announced time limit, call on a few students to share their ideas with the class.

Free writing

To help students generate ideas and develop writing fluency, provide some time in class for them to complete impromptu writing.

  • Have students write out the process for solving a problem.
  • Give a sample exam essay question.
  • Ask students to apply a theory to a real world situation.
  • Have students explain a concept and make connections to their personal experiences.

One-minute-paper (Angelo & Cross, 1993, p. 148-153)

  • Ask students to briefly summarize the major points of the last lecture, or recap the lecture or mini-lecture you have just completed. Students can also summarize what they learned from homework or readings.

Journaling/ Reflective writing

  • Have students respond to a reading in writing. Have students provide a summary of main points and list any questions that remain.
  • Ask students to reflect on their own learning by listing the main points they understood from a previous lecture or homework assignment and listing other points that were less clear.
  • Before introducing a new topic, have students start a K-W-L chart. Students first reflect on what they know (K) and what they want to know (W). Afterwards, students reflect on what they have learned (L).
  • Consider asking students to post their responses on a class website, or establish email writing partners so pairs of students send can their reflections to one another.

One-sentence summary (Angelo & Cross, 1993, p. 183-187)

  • Have students answer these questions about any given topic: Who does what to whom, when, where, how and why?
  • Ask students to condense the answers to those questions into a single sentence.

Responding to low-stakes writing:

  • For general class feedback, ask students to pass in their writing anonymously; review all the responses (or a smaller sample size for larger classes); choose a few well-written responses to share with the class (characteristics of the writing quality can be discussed); and provide feedback on general issues you noticed in other responses.
  • For individualized feedback, ask students to write their names on their responses, review them, and write your feedback directly on their work. For larger classes, provide feedback to smaller samples (e.g. 25 students each time you complete a low-stakes writing assignment until all students have received feedback.)
  • Ask students to complete peer reviews. Provide guiding questions for reviewers to answer.

How can you design an effective writing assignment?

  • Consider how students in your course should be able to write in their academic and/or professional career:
  • With what purpose?
  • For what audience?
  • In what manner?
  • Following which conventions?
  • Design your writing assignments based on the skills students need to develop or acquire (e.g. proposal, abstract, poster session, book review, report, research paper, etc.).
  • Make sure the description of the writing assignment task is clear and precise.
  • Consider creating and providing a list of guidelines or a rubric.

How can you provide effective feedback on student writing?

  • Elbow & Sorcinelli (2011, pg. 222-223) suggest the following:
  • Approach responding to student writing as a dialogue. Consider having students produce a cover page for their writing assignment reflecting on the following questions: What are the main points? How did this writing assignment go? For drafts: What questions do you have for me, as a reader? For a revised draft: What changes have you made? This dialogue can continue if you require students to respond to your feedback by summarizing what they understood.
  • Review the whole writing assignment before making any comments. Students can absorb a few suggestions, so consider what your most important suggestions will be.
  • Consider writing comments on a separate piece of paper rather than in the margins.
  • Use plain language rather than technical or grammatical terms. For example, comment on the tone of writing (perhaps distant or too formal) instead of commenting on using too many passive grammatical structures.
  • When critiquing writing, comment also on positive aspects the student can build upon, rather than merely pointing out what the student is doing wrong.
  • Describe your experiences as a reader (e.g. "This is what I see as your main points," "This is what I notice about the organization, style, etc.").
  • Consider using a rubric.

What are some considerations when integrating writing assignments into your course?

  • Writing assignments can range from one-minute reflection pieces to exam essays to more involved research papers. The more writing practice and feedback students receive, the more likely they are to develop stronger writing skills.
  • Students vary in their research skills. For research assignments, arrange for a library session, or work with a Cornell librarian to establish activities that help develop information competency.
  • Peer-assessment opportunities are beneficial for students as they allow opportunities for students to receive additional feedback and to practice critically assessing the writing of others.
  • Providing feedback on writing assignments is an involved task. Plan ahead how you will provide feedback. Timesaving tactics include using a rubric, staggering due dates for written assignments, and integrating peer review throughout the revision process.


Angelo, T.A. & Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. (2nd ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Elbow, P & Sorcinelli, M.D. (2011). Using high-stakes and low-stakes writing to enhance learning. in M. Svinicki & W. McKeachie's McKeachie's teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (13th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Nilson, L.B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (2nd ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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