By Dr. Tim Laquintano
Faculty members sometimes worry that long and precise assignments will stifle student creativity and encourage formulaic papers. However, if you have precise expectations or want students to work in particular genres they might not be familiar with, carefully articulating your expectations on the assignment sheet will save future time and frustration. Students also read assignment sheets closely and multiple times (in an effort to determine “what the professor wants”) so it is possible to use it as a teachable space to articulate something of importance to the class. In addition to standard information (the task to be completed, due dates, scope), more exhaustive assignments might include genre expectations, expectations for sources consulted and citation system specifications, learning outcomes and how the assignment fits into the course, grading criteria, and potential pitfalls.
Terms like analyze, criticize, and discuss can mean different things to faculty across the disciplines. Some research suggests that faculty hope to produce “good writers” in a general sense, but then assess students according to how well they have mastered writing conventions that are considered good in a professor’s home discipline (e.g., is this student writing like an economist, a biologist, or an art historian?). If you have something specific in mind when you ask students to analyze a text, it might be helpful to explain, to the extent possible, what you mean by the term.
Unlike final exams, under certain circumstances, it is possible to manipulate the timing of due dates for a paper. If you don’t want to read a paper written when students are cramming for midterms for other classes, think about how you could avoid it.
It might be possible to include a “potential pitfalls” section on the assignment to warn students of issues they may encounter while writing. It won’t always help, but it will under certain circumstances. For example, know that if you assign them something of about three pages, the will default to producing a five paragraph paper, which may or may not be what you want.
Some professors balk at the notion of including grading criteria on assignment sheets. It can prevent student complaints and save time.