How to read an assignment sheet and rubric

This post builds off of the Before You Begin blog post, which provided you with some ideas of where to find out what your teacher expects of your writing submissions. In this post, we will review how to read an assignment sheet and a grading rubric, using examples from my own teaching.

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To the right is an assignment I’ve given in my Introduction to Sociology classes. My primary purpose in giving this assignment is to get students to think about how to connect what they’ve been learning in class to the world around them; to use sociology. Often, encouraging students to make connections to other courses and to the real world is one of the stated goals or learning objectives for a course.

This particular course was also what is called a General Education course. It’s pretty common for Intro courses to be “GenEds.” When a course is a GenEd, it also has to answer to another set of learning objectives or goals, which are set by the University. Often, this list of goals includes improving students written and/or oral communication skills, which means – you guessed it – writing academic papers and giving presentations. So when your teacher assigns a paper, they aren’t just requiring you to write a “stupid paper” because that’s just what college teachers do. They are instead responding to a set of requirements set by the university and their department about specific skill and knowledge sets that students should be learning or improving in the class.

What information does an assignment sheet usually contain?

Usually, an assignment sheet can be broken down into a few parts:

  1. Mechanical and Style details: when the paper is due, how to submit it, page or word length expectations, font size, line spacing, etc
  2. Source and Citation details: if the paper requires sources and how many, what citation style you are expected to use (see Peer Reviewed, Academic, and Reputable Sources: What the Heck are They and How Do I Find Them? and Citing Sources: Why Do We Do It? to get started on sources and citations)
  3. Prompt details: the writing prompt, and perhaps more detail that the instructor believes you will find helpful in writing a successful (i.e. passing) paper. (See Writing Prompts: Understanding what the teacher wants (1/3) for help in breaking down a writing prompt.)

We will go through my sample assignment sheet below, but every teacher writes their assignment sheets differently. You’ll see later that my format changes between classes and over time. My assignment sheets now are very specific and detailed (especially when paired with the rubric), but not every teacher will include the same level of detail. If you are having problems finding what you need to know, check out the Before You Begin post for tips on where to find assignment information.

Here’s a closer look at the top section of my assignment. You’ll see that it contains both Mechanical and Style details as well as Source and Citation details.

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I think this is pretty straightforward, but let’s run through some of the common questions I’m asked, as well as some of the common problems that I’ve seen in my career as a teacher.

Length

When a student asks me how long a paper should be, the honest answer is “as long as it needs to be to fully answer the prompt.” Students hate that answer, and I understand why . . . but it’s also true. However, here are some hints. Note that the Mechanical and Style details are very specific: you must have at least 5 pages, use no larger than 12 point font, double-space, and have no wider than one inch margins. Sometimes, students try to manipulate font size, spacing, and margin width to make a paper appear longer than it is. Keep in mind that your teachers read and write a lot, and it’s very easy to spot when a student has done this. I once had a student turn in a paper with 2 1/2 inch margins, 18 point font, and triple-spaced. I was not amused, and the student did not get a good grade.

Generally speaking, I would rather have a paper that’s a little bit short but well written and insightful than a paper that meets or exceeds the page length but rambles to add more space/words. However, there may be consequences for a short paper. Keep in mind that 5 pages does NOT mean 4 1/2 pages, or even 4 3/4 pages.

Also, unless your teacher says otherwise, page length never includes the cover page or references. When a paper is supposed to be five pages, that’s five pages of actual writing.

See How long does my paper have to be? for step-by-step help on how to determine page length.

Citation Style

We will cover citation styles across several other blog posts (see Citing Sources: Why Do We Do It? to get started), but for those of you who are wondering what those two words mean, I’ll cover a bit of it here. In most academic papers, you will be asked to “cite” your sources. Sources include anything that you use to inform your paper, including your textbook, and other course you’ve taken, your teacher’s powerpoint notes, magazines, newspapers, or websites, and of course, anything you retrieve from the library or database searches (read Peer Reviewed, Academic, and Reputable Sources: What the Heck are They and How Do I Find Them? for more information). The point is that you credit the sources of your information–otherwise, it’s like you are claiming that knowledge/information as your own. When you cite your sources, you also make it possible for other scholars to access the same information you used, in case they are interested in learning more about your topic.

Think of it kind of like a gossip chain. When someone passes along a piece of gossip, they might say “Jo told me that . . . .” If you just tell the gossip, it sounds like it’s something that you found out for yourself. Get it? (I’m not advocating gossiping, here, but it seems like a good metaphor.)

A lot of fields and sometimes publishing houses have their own version of a citation style. Some of common ones are MLA (Modern Language Association, often used in English and the humanities), APA (American Psychological Association, often used in Psychology and some other sciences), and potentially the Chicago Manual of Style. Each style presents very similar information, but in a different format, and it’s your job to figure out how to use the format properly. If you are given a choice, MLA style tends to be a bit easier, and you are likely to find a lot of people who can help you. If you don’t know how to do citations, see if your University has a Writing Center, and make an appointment to go see them.

Please note that when a teacher tells you that you must cite your sources, that means they expect you to do so in-text (in your body paragraphs) and at the end of the paper. If you don’t do both, you will probably lose points–or worse.

Due Date

Most likely, your teacher has organized the class so that paper due dates fall at important points in the semester–right before the midterm or final exams, in many cases. They may have also strategized when different classes are turning in papers, so that they can grade most effectively. When you don’t meet the due date, you’re actually creating a problem for your teacher, and you may have to wait longer to get your paper back. Don’t expect to turn something in late and then get immediate feedback.

Before you submit a late paper, make sure you know what the teacher’s policies on late work are. These may range from no penalty to a zero. It’s pretty common to drop a letter grade per day late.

ALWAYS send your teacher an email, unless they say otherwise in the syllabus, requesting that extension. Not only is this polite, but your teacher will also be more likely to cut you some slack if you have been in communication with them. Be prepared to gracefully accept consequences if it’s late. Being nasty to your teacher won’t get you anywhere.

Prompt details

Below are the portions of the assignment that focus on Prompt details:

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Writing Prompts: Understanding what the teacher wants (1/3) is the first in a series of posts that gives concrete examples of how to read and respond to writing prompts. For now, however, note that the above prompt has multiple parts (choose an issue, make a claim, support your claim, and use course materials) and that you must do all of these parts if you want to get a good grade on your paper.

This prompt also gives some examples for what you could do, but don’t take this as a comprehensive list of what you should do. Now, some teachers will give you a list of potential topics to choose from, and others will want you to find something on your own. If you’ve been given a list and something sparks your interest, talk to the teacher early – they may limit how many people can write on the same thing.

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The “contents” paragraph, in the bloc above, gives you some pretty specific directions about what a good paper should contain if it’s going to get a passing/good grade. Whether or not you have hints about how to figure out your topic, do research, or write your paper depends on the teacher. Some assignment sheets will be very short; others very long.

If you can learn how to break the assignment sheet down into component parts, so that you know exactly what you’re looking at, then you’ll have a much better chance of writing what the teacher hopes to see from you. I strongly recommend making a checklist of required items from the assignment sheet. When you are done with your paper, read through it with your checklist next to you. That will show you very quickly if you have done everything required.

The Grading Rubric

You may or may not be given a grading rubric for your writing assignment. They are becoming much more common, and if your University uses a Learning Management System (LMS, like Canvas, Blackboard, or Desire2Learn), then the rubric may be embedded in the online assignment. If you can’t find one, ask your teacher if they are using one and how to access it.

The purpose of a rubric is to help your teacher grade more effectively and efficiently. Using a rubric reminds the teacher of the amount of weight they are giving different aspects of your writing, and helps them to be able to explain to you, later, why you earned the grade you were assigned. In some ways, then, the rubric is really for your teacher.

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But the rubric also gives you insight into what the teacher is looking for when they grade your paper, as well as how much emphasis they are putting on different elements. For example, for this assignment, the primary expectation was that students would take a sociological viewpoint in their analysis. Therefore, that sociological viewpoint is worth 40% of the grade, and the analysis is worth 20%. Write a beautiful, well-sourced paper that does neither of those things? Then you only have the opportunity to earn 40% of the points. Write a not-so-great paper that DOES do those things? Then you have the opportunity to earn 60% just from that, and improve from there in other categories.

Not every grading rubric will be as detailed as the one above (I’ll show you a less detailed one of mine, below). Let’s look at the “A” column a bit more closely:

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I’ve found that students sometimes think that just meeting the basic expectations is enough to get an “A” on a paper. This is not the case. Meeting the minimum expectations usually corresponds to a “C,” or just an average grade.

Getting an “A” on this paper, for me, means exceeding the minimum expectations; doing more.

Look closely at the category that is worth the most points: the Sociological category. What do you need to do to hit the A level for this category? Well, all of the things that are listed (not just one or two). If you aren’t sure how to do this, then I recommend your University’s Writing Center, if you have one.

When you have a rubric, I recommend making a checklist from the items your teacher includes, and merge that with the checklist you make from the assignment sheet. When you read through your paper before you turn it in, do so with the checklist next to you, so that you can see if you have met all of the important requirements for the grade you are attempting to earn.

Here’s a portion of a rubric I designed for a different paper, in a more advanced class (Sociological Theory). You’ll see that I used a different format, but you can still go through the rubric and create a checklist for the necessary criteria at different grade levels.

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The assignment is worth 100 points, which means that how the student uses terms and discusses theory is worth nearly 1/3 of the total grade, so this is a very important category. Note that what I expect a student to be able to do is pretty sophisticated: this is a class usually taken by Juniors and Seniors and is required for the major, so it’s reasonable to expect that a student’s writing ability has developed over time.

Unfortunately, fewer teachers are assigning papers in their classes, so students are getting less practice. Notice that with both of these rubrics, even if you writing doesn’t come easily to you–perhaps you are not likely to avoid awkwardness–that’s ok. It’s still possible to pass the paper. Other categories, like using reliable sources, rely more on the amount of time you are willing to invest in your paper and less on your writing skills. We will touch on how to research in a later blog post, but in the meantime, you can’t go wrong in contacting your University librarian. That’s what they are there for!

Whether you start early and leave yourself weeks or even months to write your paper, or you waited until the last minute and it’s due tomorrow (!), your starting point is always with a careful reading of the assignment sheet and rubric. (By the way, I don’t recommend waiting until the last minute, but I get it, and I’ve been there!)

Taking the time to read them carefully and create a checklist is never a waste of time. Imagine beginning a paper knowing exactly what you need to do. If you are anxious about writing your paper, you can lower your anxiety considerably just by being well-informed. So take a deep breath and start that list!

Check out Cringeworthy: Bad Writing Habits that Hurt your College Writing (Part 1) for advice on how to avoid common style mistakes. 

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