How do they know what you want?

A key challenge for students, especially for students taking your courses for the first time, is figuring out what exactly you expect from your writing assignments.  What seems obvious or intuitive to us is often not to new students.  What we think “every sophomore at North Park should already know about writing” may not be what they actually know.

The question of the day is:  “How do you communicate to students what your expectations are in your writing assignments?”  Do you use published guides to the discipline, sample “A” papers from former students, detailed writing prompts for each assignment, or just hope that they pick it up from the readings and lectures?  Please share in the comments below any methods you have tried — successful or otherwise – to let them in on what we want.


5 thoughts on “How do they know what you want?

  1. I tend to use detailed writing prompts, which include a more general topic question followed by more specific questions to guide their thinking. To avoid confusion, for example that they simply write an essay by responding to each of the questions in turn, I take a lot of time to explain the assignment and what I am looking for in class. However, I do have this reservation. I do not like questions that guide them too much, because a big part of their role as a historian is to construct an argument based on critical thinking about the evidence relating to the question. The value of the more open-ended question is that it clearly indicates to me who understands the material and who does not, and at what level they understand the material. So I often struggle with what “clarity of question” actually means. I would love to hear how the rest of you are thinking about this. Thanks.

    1. Susan pinpoints a real problem: if you develop the topic with questions students sometimes think they have to answer each question and organize their papers as a set of discrete answers in sequence, or something very close to that. In comparative politics, I will sometimes elaborate on the importance of the topic (France’s dispatch of troops to help Mali comabt an insurgency) by giving some background or reflecting on the impact of any particular outcome when I ask them to discuss this event in the light of what they are learning from the textbook. More often I simply state the topic and, as Karl writes, hope they pick up on my expectations from the readings and the lectures. In my lectures I am continually doing the assignment, that is, making arguments about the significance of events or political phenomena. In Political Philosophy I ask them to write about a topic that is clearly a concern of the author whom they are reading (meaning of justice in Plato’s Republic, idea of natural law in Aquinas). In effect, recent years I have asked them to read a published scholarly paper or chapter on their chosen author and in their paper to reflect on the author’s thought in light of the secondary source.

  2. Hi, all. I haven’t yet designed the new Cornerstone class (are Cornerstone profs on this blog?), so I haven’t yet written the assignments. Sorry.

    And, yes, developing a series of questions can be both useful and problematic. Students in a WR class should, by the time they get to it, at least know that they shouldn’t be just following a series of questions, but old habits do die hard, and some of our students won’t have been through Cornerstone training. So I think you’re really smart not to take for granted that they’ll know not to just answer the questions.

    This might be a good place to advertise the usefulness of WA’s in helping to interpret assignments, if I may. There are a couple of ways this could happen. First, if you get the assignment written in advance, you can send it to me, and I can have some WA’s look at it and give feedback on it (including observations and questions about clarity). When we first started doing that, everyone who sent me their assignments (including myself) thought that our assignments were already pretty clear and sound . . . and every one of us got useful feedback from the WA’s who looked at them. Some of it was in the form of feedback, some was in the form of confirmation–they told me that I should consider suggesting to my students that interviews would be a great source of information for our topic, which pleased me since our next assignment was to conduct an interview! But it was also really useful to hear about places where students could interpret what I was hoping for in more than one way. If you prefer anonymity, I can take your identifying info off of the prompt when I circulate it; I will also take identifying info off of the WA’s responses. (They do get nervous about critiquing a professor, especially if they think they’re going to be taking a class with that professor in a semester or two.)

    The other way WA’s can be helpful would be to use assigned WA’s in your classes. Since they’re not automatically distributed across WR classes the way they were to NPD 2 classes, WR instructors need to ask for them, if they want them. (Hint, hint: If you are planning on working with WA’s, please let me know. It’s never too soon to put them on a list, and the process would need to be built into a syllabus, anyhow.) As for any Dialogue class, the more your WA’s understand what you’re asking, the more helpful they can be in passing that understanding along. Having some students available to explicate the prompt one-on-one, or at least to mediate and wave red flags, can be extraordinarily time-saving.

    I myself tend to want to elaborate and explicate too much in a prompt. When I don’t watch out, that tendency makes my prompts confusing, because students can’t tell what my main points are. I’ve resorted to generating a fairly simple, one-page max prompt, with a general explanation of the assignment and its fit into the rest of the class, the topic, the method of inquiry, and due-dates of the component pieces, and I use bolding to highlight basic info. When my prompts get longer, they tend to have to circle back to the main points, which makes them confusing. However, in order to give students the extra info I think they need to do a good job, I put together separate hand-outs to explain parts I think need more explanation–like pitfalls of comparison/contrast essays, or possible structures of the argument for comparison/contrast. Those I use in class instruction, too. It seems to work like an overlay–students see the main points first, then when I fill in details, they have a framework they can hang them on.

    I sometimes will use a sample topic to develop in class, or on a prompt, and forbid the use of that topic for their papers! When I do that, I need to generalize the questions I use to unpack it, so that they’re transferable to the students’ topics; if a student or two wants to volunteer their topic to work on in class, that works well, too–they get “free” advice that way. And working in small groups to help students strategize their investigations can be useful, too–I tell them that, at some points, we’re dealing with a team sport, rather than a competitive one. Working with the Librarian doing your library instruction, so that you and the Librarian can reinforce the same process, is a good idea, too. Sarah Thorngate is taking over the educational portfolio of library work that Laura used to carry; either Katie or Sarah would be glad, I think, to work with us: Katie Maier-O’Shea ( or Sarah Thorngate (

    Enough for today! Good questions–and thanks for getting in on the conversation. Carol

  3. OK, so I’m long-winded today. Sorry!

    So . . . yes, I do assign them to read a written guide to get them thinking and picking up some info first–then I pick up ideas from that assigned reading and start in working on examples, so that they can see how the info they’ve read about applies to their work.

    I do try to keep previous good papers on file to show to current students. Sometimes an intro is enough–they don’t need to see the whole argument (which cuts down on the possibility that someone will copy wholesale). I have found that providing more than one example is helpful in getting the point across that they should think about how their own argument needs to be structured . . . if they can see several possibilities, all of which work, they aren’t as likely to just transfer one pattern wholesale. And it makes sense to allow them to figure out what does work well . . . when they see it themselves, it registers at a different level than if I tell them. (I might confirm their realizations, or refine them, but their own insights work.) I guess there’s a theme developing here: Providing information in various forms seems to work, as long as I am explicit about how the new format picks up on things they already know. Otherwise, students get confused trying to figure out what’s new.

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