Making Assignments Clear

All instructors at some point have watched a student fall short of his or her potential on an assignment.  Instructors can help students do their best work by ensuring that instructions on assignments are as clear as possible.  Instructions orient your students and guide their thinking in the proper context of the assignment.  You can follow some simple guidelines when writing instructions for your assignments to put your students in the right frame of mind, to help them remember what they have learned, or to get them to apply critical thinking skills related to your course.  Below are some points you should keep in mind to help you write clear instructions:

  • Describe the purpose of this assignment and relate it back to the learning objective(s).  Providing some context behind the assignment and how it fits in with the overall objectives for the course primes students on what to think about during the assignment.  Grounding the assignment in the larger context of the course helps students make connections they otherwise may not.
  • Break instructions into steps so that each step describes one action.  Breaking up the instructions divides the information into separate instances, making the information easier for students to read, remember, and understand.  Additionally, loading many actions into a single step invites students to make errors by unintentionally skipping over information:  separating the actions into one action per step prevents this error.
  • Provide need-to-know information rather than nice-to-know, so that your students focus their attention on what's required.  Again, it helps to relate the assignment back to the learning outcomes for your course to cut down on extra instructions that don't add much to your students' learning and may even confuse them.
  • Use a rubric so students know the criteria and standards of evaluation.  A rubric is a matrix that describes the criteria you will be assessing (e.g., introduction of topic, development of thought, empirical justification, writing style, etc.) and the standards or levels of mastery that students can achieve (e.g., exceptional, skilled, proficient, developing, inadequate).        

When students more clearly understand what they need to do and how their work fits in with the course, they are better equipped to excel.  Moreover, you will be delighted when you see your students rise to their maximum potential.

To get started writing your rubric, view this Sample Language for a Writing Rubric.

Additional Resource

Clear instructions, great expectations.  Creating good writing assignments.  PowerPoint slides from Roger Graves, University of Western Ontario