Analyzing Assignments

The College Writing Program recommends John Bean’s book Engaging Ideas for instructors (you’ll find copies in Skillman libary as well as P319). Here is some advice for WAs, adapted from Bean’s chapter on Formal Writing Assignments.

Situate the Assignment within the Course Goals

  • What are the main units or modules in the course, and how does this assignment fit into those units?
  • What are my main learning objectives for each of these modules, and for the course as a whole? What are the chief concepts and principles students are expected to learn in each unit or module?
  • What thinking skills is the instructor trying to develop within each unit or module and throughout the whole course (e.g., ways of observing, habits of mind, questioning strategies, etc.)?
  • Based on previous students’ experiences, what are the most difficult aspects of the course? Of this assignment?

Be clear on all the major elements of the assignment

  • Task. What is the student is supposed to write about? The instructor often presents the task as a problem or a question for the student to address, a thesis to support, or a rhetorical mode or form to follow.
  • Role and audience. Instructors typically—but not always—ask students to write from a position of power to audiences who know less about the topic than the writer, or whose views on the topic differ from the writer’s (for example, “Address your paper to students who missed last week’s classes,” or “In your argument on old-growth forests, address your essay to the group that opposes your position—either the logging industry or Earth First,” or “Address your essay to peer-scholars in this discipline who are interested in your proposed question and will look forward to reading your findings and analysis”).

    NOTE: Professors generally have an audience in mind, but do not always specify one in the assignment.

  • Format. Students need to know the expected length, manuscript form, and similar details for the assignment. Sometimes an assignment also specifies a certain organizational pattern: “Place your thesis statement prominently near the end of your introduction,” or, “Use the standard scientific format.”
  • Expectations about the process to be followed. Instructors may specify a time schedule for completion of first drafts, peer review workshops, revisions, and so forth. Find out what kinds of materials might be helpful to have students bring with them to WA conferences (e.g., copies of articles, notes, outlines, etc.).
  • Criteria for evaluation. How will the final product will be graded? Will the instructor grade essays holistically with a single letter grade? If so, what are the criteria for an A? Or will she grade analytically, weighing different features separately? If so, how much weight will be given to ideas? To organization and development? To sentence style and readability? To mechanics, appearance, and manuscript form?

WA-ing the Assignment

Professors may ask for your feedback on an assignment. If they do, your comments should be constructive, but deferential. Try to address the following:

  • How clear is the assignment? How might a student misread the assignment and produce something not anticipated? Is its purpose clear? Will a student see how it fits into course goals?
  • As a student, how difficult does this assignment seem to you? How much time would you expect it to take?

    Tip: Pay close attention to the verbs the professor uses in the assignment handout. Where would these verbs fit into Bloom’s Taxonomy?

  • What kinds of students would this assignment particularly appeal to? What kinds of students might not like this assignment?
  • How clearly does the assignment specify (or imply) an audience?
  • How clear are the grading criteria clear?
  • Are the mechanics of the assignment clear (due dates, expected length, manuscript form, other particulars)?
  • Do you understand the process the professor want students to follow? Are there any benchmarks they should try to meet along the way?
  • How easy or difficult will this assignment be to WA?

And, perhaps the most important thing of all . . .

Do you understand your role as the WA in supporting this assignment?