Before You Begin

So you have a writing assignment for your class, and you’ve been given the assignment instructions. Is that all the information you need? In this post, we’re going to talk about the different places you can look to figure out what you need to do for the writing assignment.

The Assignment Sheet

Hopefully, you will have a separate assignment sheet that tells you what the writing prompt (the question) is, and that lays out requirements like page length, citation style, content, number of sources required, and etc. Depending on how your instructor has set up the course, you might be able to find this in your syllabus, or in a folder, module, or file area in the University’s learning management software (like Blackboard or Canvas).

The assignment sheet is the first, and most obvious place to look. Print it out early if you can, and read through all of it carefully. As you read, underline things that give you direction about what to do. This might include the due date, the page length, the citation style, the question to answer, etc. Circle things that you have questions about, or that you find confusing. That may include the question – not all questions are written clearly.

See How to read an assignment sheet and rubric for more detail.

The Rubric

Hopefully you will also have a rubric available to you–if you don’t see one in the course documents I list here, ask your teacher if they are using one, and ask to see it.  A rubric is a set of guidelines by which the instructor will grade your completed assignment. At minimum, a rubric will contain a set of qualities that will be graded, with criteria associated with a point value for that quality.

For example, for a paper assignment work 100 points, I generally assign 10 or 15 of those points to the student’s sources. Not using sources at all when it’s required amounts to a 10%-15% reduction in your points. By looking at the point distribution of my rubric, you can quickly see how much weight I will give each of the requirements from the assignment sheet, and you have a better idea of what to focus on.

Keep both the assignment sheet and rubric in front of you as you write, and refer to them often. Sometimes students get really into their writing, and write an enthusiastic paper . . . that doesn’t answer the assignment question or meet rubric expectations. Those otherwise well-written papers get points elsewhere, but not for content, and often fail. The rubric can thus be used as a checklist for your final paper, to make sure that you are doing everything the teacher intends to grade for.

See How to read an assignment sheet and rubric for more detail.

The Syllabus

It’s quite possible that your syllabus has an entry for your assigned paper. It may be a short entry, but it may still offer clues about what the instructor wants. At the very least, by putting the writing assignment into the context of the set of assignments for the class, you can get a sense of the weight, or importance, of that paper. Is the paper the only thing you are turning in for credit in the class? Then you’d better start early, enlist the help of the writing center, talk to your teacher about it, and so on, because the grade you get on that paper is going to be everything. Is the paper worth 50 points, and your exams worth 300? Then the paper grade is important, but less important than studying hard for quizzes and exams. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still do your best, but you can see that a poorer score does less harm. In my classes, a formal paper tends to be on the same par with the midterm and final exams, which means that the paper is worth roughly 1/3 of your final grade, so it’s still important, but not as critical as if that was the only assignment being graded.

Other Students

You should always be careful about what you learn from other students. If you visit Rate My Professor, for example, you’re going to be reading posts from students who are emboldened by the anonymous nature of the site and who were–more often than not–REALLY MAD at the person they were reviewing. More helpful to you are students who you actually know, personally, and that are also dedicated students. Don’t ask the student who hates writing papers what the paper was like – you aren’t going to get a helpful answer. Ask the students who like to write. Ask them questions about what they did that they felt helped them get a good grade, or what they would have done differently, after getting their grades back. Ask them what the instructor focuses on when they grade.

Do not, however, fall into the trap of asking to see their paper or even copy their paper. Instructors tend to have a good memory for text, and you do not want to turn in something that has already been turned in. I will cover cheating in a later blog post, but know that it’s just a bad idea, and it generally stands out.

The Teacher

I put the teacher last, instead of first, for a reason. Before you go to a teacher to ask questions about an assignment, make sure that you have exhausted all of the resources the instructor has made available to you: the assignment, the rubric, and the syllabus. If, after going through the rubric and syllabus, you still have things circled on the assignment sheet (or can’t find an assignment sheet), then by all means, email your teacher or visit them during office hours to get those questions answered. You will impress your teacher by going to them as an informed student, and a favorable impression is always a good thing. You will also have a much more efficient and effective conversation, because your teacher will know what things they do NOT need to tell you, because you’ve already looked at their documentation. It’s a win all around.

If your teacher has not provided you with a clear assignment sheet and/or rubric, then you will need to go straight to the teacher, and early in the semester, so that the teacher has plenty of time to address your concerns.  Remember that there is no such thing as a “stupid question” – I guarantee that if you have a question about something, so do many other students in your class!

What have been your most confusing writing prompts in past classes? How did you handle figuring them out? Check out Writing Prompts: Understanding what the teacher wants (1/3) for tips and examples.

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