Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

How do I design effective writing assignments?

A key challenge in helping students learn basic writing skills is doing so without overwhelming the students or overburdening yourself. Thus you must prioritize which skills you value and design assignments accordingly,

  1. prioritize which skills you value and design assignments accordingly,
  2. communicate those priorities (and your specific expectations) to students, and
  3. give them appropriate opportunities to practice and receive feedback.

Design assignments that isolate specific skills.

Many people find it helpful to “scaffold” writing assignments; that is, sequence assignments that break reading, analysis, and writing into component parts and give students practice developing mastery in each area, building gradually towards more complex, comprehensive writing tasks. For example, you might first ask students to summarize, in writing, the central argument of a reading and three pieces of evidence the author used to support it. At a second stage, you might ask students to write a critique of the argument in light of that evidence and alternative evidence. At a third stage, you might ask students to write an essay comparing two readings in terms of how compellingly the authors made their cases.

Use frequent, short assignments.

It is also helpful to assign more writing tasks of shorter length or smaller scope rather than fewer tasks of great length or large scope. This way, students get more opportunity to practice basic skills and can refine their approach from assignment to assignment based on feedback they receive. This strategy frees you to think beyond the term paper and be more creative in the type of writing you assign, e.g., a letter, program notes, or policy memo.

For more information on designing effective assignments, see the following materials from MIT and the University of Wisconsin: