The effectiveness of a writing assignment hinges on what we think a writing assignment is. When I first started teaching business writing, I tried the very basic assignments included in many of the texts I had reviewed. These assignments were often totally bare-bones: “Write a fund-raising letter” or “Write a bad-news memo.” Totally bare-bones—and totally ineffective.
Neither of these prompts gives students the support and information they need to successfully complete the writing task. Such assignments are not limited to the business writing classroom of course. In a language arts or composition classroom, they take the form of prompts such as “Write a persuasive essay” or “Write an analysis of the novel.” When I presented students with such stripped-down assignments, they typically wrote extremely general responses with unclear purposes and audiences. Compare these generic prompts with the following assignment:
There has been a problem in Montgomery County Schools with discipline and violence. On the basis of the positive examples that they have seen at other Virginia schools, Families for Safe Schools, a local community group, is calling for the school board to adopt a school uniform policy in order to cut down on these problems. What is your position on this issue? Write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper or the school newspaper, stating your position on this issue and supporting it with convincing reasons. Turn in two copies of your letter and an envelope addressed to the newspaper (I’ll provide the stamp). I’ll grade one copy and send the other copy off to the newspaper.
When I used this assignment—one that offers considerable support and detail—students responded with stronger writing. I quickly learned that the more detail and attention I put into the writing assignments, the better students’ writing was.
An effective writing assignment isnt a simple prompt on a page or a directive to write in a particular mode or genre. Its much, much more, and it begins with a fully-developed writing scenario. It sets out an authentic audience and purpose for the writing activity. It focuses on critical thinking and allows students to make choices that suit their own knowledge and expertise. When an assignment fits all those characteristics, students have the raw materials to begin doing their best work.
[This entry is based on information taken from Chapter 1 of Designing Writing Assignments.]