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Contributors:Erin Brock.
Summary:

This resource provides student-writers with a toolkit to help them better understand writing assignments and writing prompts at the university level. It begins with a clear overview of strategies to help with writing assignments. It also includes a number of annotated assignment sheets. 

Understanding Writing Assignments: Introduction

Assignment prompts, also called writing prompts or assignment sheets, are documents that explain the goals of an essay. They typically give directions and specific details for writing the essay.

In a university or college setting, assignment prompts are often open-ended. This means that the prompt may suggest an overall task, but may not provide a specific topic. For example, you may be asked to write an argument essay about any public issue, rather than to write an essay defending the place of general education classes in the college. As a result, you will have to do a bit more work to understand the assignment and come up with an appropriate topic. 

Assignment prompts vary greatly between classes and individual instructors, which means that there is no single way to read them. A good way to approach each assignment is to consider the rhetorical situation (or audience, purpose, and potential difficulties) that the prompt is asking you to imagine. To learn more about rhetorical situations, click here. By thinking about the rhetorical situation, you can more clearly imagine the audience and the purpose of the assignment. By following a few guidelines and thinking about terms like audience, purpose, and genre, you can work towards writing a successful paper.

Contributors:Erin Brock.
Summary:

This resource provides student-writers with a toolkit to help them better understand writing assignments and writing prompts at the university level. It begins with a clear overview of strategies to help with writing assignments. It also includes a number of annotated assignment sheets. 

Understanding Writing Assignments: The Information in Prompts

Below are some parts commonly included in assignment prompts—however, not all of these parts appear in every prompt. Typically, assignment prompts include information that will help you to complete the assignment successfully, such as: the main task of the essay and directions or suggestions for completing it.

Description of How the Essay Relates to the Course

Sometimes, assignment prompts will begin with a few sentences about how the essay relates to the overall theme of the class, or how you can work towards the course goals. The information included could be:

• Reasons why this essay is important and what it is meant to accomplish.

• Connections between the assignment and the course goals stated on the syllabus.

• Definitions of important or useful terms.

• Readings discussed in class that could be helpful.

• Quotes from course readings or elsewhere that captures the meaning of the essay prompt.

Summary

Some instructors choose to provide a short, 2-3-sentence summary that discusses the goal of the essay. This can be helpful for reminding students of the main task of the essay in a short format.

Main Task 

This is likely the most important part of the assignment prompt, because it tells students their main goal in writing the essay. In other words it tells them what they must do. In some prompts the main task is easy to find, but in others, the task can be in a large body of text. Identifying the main task can help you understand how to complete the essay.

For instance, if the prompt asks you to “relate a personal experience and analyze its effects on your life today,” you could assume that this essay is a reflection or personal essay. Identifying this what kind of essay, or what genre the essay fits into, will help you to better understand the rhetorical situation of the assignment.

The phrase that explains the writing task will commonly contain an action verb, such as “discuss,” “analyze,” or “explore.” Sometimes, the task will be an obvious statement, such as, “Analyze the effects of the Industrial Revolution in mid-1800s England.” Or, it might be a question, like: “What were the results of the Industrial Revolution in mid-1800s England for working class women in urban centers?” It is important to understand that the main task is not always clear, so you must read the prompt carefully to find it.

Common tasks include:

• Defining a term or a concept in greater detail.

• Summarizing a larger body of work and explaining its importance.

• Picking a position on an issue and providing a reasoned argument and research for that position.

• Interpreting a book or film, through a particular set of criteria such as time period, author or director influence, or style.

At the core of each assignment is the requirement that the student understands the objective and the audience. Again, assignment prompts vary greatly between disciplines and instructors, so prompts can be in many forms. Be sure to talk to your instructor about what expectations they have for the assignment.

Discussion of Writing Process or Suggested Procedures

Sometimes, the directions are split into different stages of writing, or smaller assignments that lead into a bigger assignment. For example, an assignment prompt may list several, small assignments that are used to write the final paper. Perhaps an informal blog post, a formal proposal, and several rough drafts could all be part of the writing process. 

Others could be less strict, instead offering suggestions to make the writing process easier. For example, a prompt may feature a numbered list of steps:

1. Go back through your notes from lectures and readings to find information about this topic.

2. Assemble different ideas from the class, and think about the connections that may exist between each.

3. Create an outline of your main thoughts and ideas, as well as the sources you want to include.

4. Finally, start writing your essay.

Questions for Brainstorming 

Sometimes, there will be a list of questions on the prompt that could either be suggestions for brainstorming (coming up with ideas), or questions that you need to address in your essay. Be sure to look at the prompt closely to decide whether the questions are meant to help you brainstorm, or whether you are meant to answer each of them in the essay.

Suggested Topics

If the assignment itself is more open-ended in nature, instructors often include a list of topics you may write about. This may be a list of approved topics, or just a list of suggested places or spaces where you can look for topics that interest you and relate to the course material. On the other hand, if the assignment is more focused, there may be a limited list or no list at all. Be sure to ask your instructor if you have questions or want to suggest some topics.

Formatting Directions

Most assignment prompts contain directions about how to format the essay, including:

• Length (how many pages/words/minutes)

• Citation style or format (MLA, APA, Chicago Style, etc.)

• Font type and size

• Margin settings

• Headers, footers, or other structural tools

• Special instructions about appearance

Due Date(s) and Schedule

Assignment prompts contain the due date and sometimes even a more detailed schedule of class time leading up the due dates. Be sure to mark down the dates in your own planner or calendar, so that you don’t have to search for the prompt later if you cannot remember when something is due.

“Successful Papers Will Do…”

It is also possible for an assignment prompt to include a rubric, or a list of considerations for final grading of the essay. It is important to take note of these, and revisit them after you write your essay. Common topics include content, organization, focus, grammar, and structure, but these depend upon each assignment.

Things to Remember or Strategies for Success

Some instructors choose to also include a list of suggested (not required) information or tips on how to complete the assignment successfully. Though these are not required, the instructor has opted to place these on the prompt, making them important tools that can help you to succeed.

Remember, if the above topics are not addressed or you have any questions about the assignment, be sure to ask your instructor about the assignment.

Contributors:Erin Brock.
Summary:

This resource provides student-writers with a toolkit to help them better understand writing assignments and writing prompts at the university level. It begins with a clear overview of strategies to help with writing assignments. It also includes a number of annotated assignment sheets. 

Understanding Writing Assignments: Reading Practices

Part of understanding what the assignment asks is to practice careful reading skills to ensure that you know what each part of the prompt says. Below are some suggestions for careful reading that should help you to understand assignment prompts from any course.

Read the Prompt More Than Once

Read through the assignment prompt at least twice. The first time, mark any words or phrases that you don’t understand, then attempt to use context clues or use other resources to figure out what they mean. Once you figure out those missing pieces, read the prompt again. This time, mark the key ideas with a different color of pen. This will allow you to make sure that you understand all of the parts of the assignment, and that you focus on the important aspects of the prompt.

Notice the Important or Key Phrases

Finding the key goal for an assignment is often the first and most difficult step when reading an assignment prompt. One way to begin is to find all of the verbs in the prompt, because the verbs will give you directions.

Some commonly used verbs used or tasks in assignment prompts are:

Genre of Assignment

Task

Definition

General

These terms can be used for any genre.

Write

Produce

Compose

Craft

Create

Respond

 

Write.

Write.

Write.

Write, with attention to detail.

Produce something original or new.

With a text or idea in mind, write.

Critical

These terms ask you to examine and analyze the topic, using your own words.

Analyze

Compare

Contrast

Consider

Reflect

Evaluate

Assess

Examine

 

Examine topic methodically.

Write about the similarities of two ideas.

Write about the differences of two ideas.

Deeply think about a topic.

Think about the topic and your own experiences.

Decide and discuss the value of the topic.

Estimate the nature or quality of topic.

Inspect in great detail.

 

Argument

These words ask you to take a stance on a topic, and then explain why.

Justify

Argue

Persuade

Prove

Show

Support

 

Take a stance and explain why you are right.

Pick a side and offer evidence for it.

Try to convince the audience your side is right.

Provide evidence to convince the audience.

Give details to illustrate your argument.

Write with specific facts to prove your claim.

 

Expository

These words ask you to explain a topic or idea further, with many details.

Discuss

Describe

Narrate

Explore

Review

Illustrate

Relate

Summarize

Interpret

Talk about topic and different opinions in detail.

Provide lots of details about the topic.

Tell the story of the topic.

Consider different ideas about the topic.

Write about the important parts of the topic.

Explain or make clear by using examples.

Discuss the topic alongside another experience.

Provide the important parts of the topic.

Explain the meaning of topic.

 

*Genres adapted from Genre, Style and Writing (Purdue OWL). 

Each of these terms can mean something slightly different, depending on the context of the course and the assignment. Again, ask your instructor if you are not sure what the assignment asks you to do.

Questions to Ask Yourself 

As you read (or re-read) the prompt, it is always good to write down questions, concerns, or thoughts that you have about the assignment so that you don’t forget them later.

There are also some questions that you should ask after you have finished reading the prompt, to check for comprehension.

• What am I being asked to do?

• Who is my audience?

• What sources or ideas do I need to include?

• How can I schedule my writing time (including research time, if applicable) around my own schedule?

• What concepts do I need to hone in on to understand?

 

 For more information on this topic, click here 

After You Read the Prompt

Sometimes, after you read an assignment prompt, you have a lot of ideas in your head—and sometimes, not very many at all. So, it can be beneficial to engage in some pre-writing activities that can help you come up with some initial ideas about your essay.

You could…

• Write a list of everything you know about the topic

• Compose as many questions as you can about the topic and begin to try and answer them

• Search online for information about the topic

More suggestions can be found by clicking here: [LINK TO PREWRITING RESOURCE ON OWL]

Contributors:Erin Brock.
Summary:

This resource provides student-writers with a toolkit to help them better understand writing assignments and writing prompts at the university level. It begins with a clear overview of strategies to help with writing assignments. It also includes a number of annotated assignment sheets. 

Understanding Writing Assignments: Conclusion

Things to Remember 

Overall, remember the following steps when you start to read assignment prompts for your courses.

1. Identify the key aspects of the assignment, including the main goal and required parts of the essay.

 

2. Consider the rhetorical situation of the prompt—that is, consider the text, the author (that’s you!), the audience, the purposes, and the setting of your assignment, in order to gain more information about expectations. Using this knowledge can help you to figure out a specific genre to write in, which can contribute even more to your understanding of the prompt.

3. Ask questions of the prompt, and of your instructor.

Ultimately, if you find any part of the prompt confusing, talk to your instructor. He or she wrote the prompt, and will be able to explain their expectations for the assignment. Also, see the “Understanding Writing Assignments” page on this site, which features more in-depth examples of different types of essays you may be asked to write in your classes. To access this supplemental resource, click here.

Contributors:Erin Brock.
Summary:

This resource provides student-writers with a toolkit to help them better understand writing assignments and writing prompts at the university level. It begins with a clear overview of strategies to help with writing assignments. It also includes a number of annotated assignment sheets. 

Annotated Example Assignment Prompts

The PDF file attached to this resource provides three examples of assignment sheets that have been used in a variety of composition classrooms. These examples are of varying detail and complexity, and they have been annotated to help student-writers to better understand how to make sense of assignment prompts. For more detailed information on understanding assignment prompts, click here