Assignment Prompts: A Tutor’s Perspective

writing better assignments

Nothing has informed my teaching practice as much as serving as a writing tutor for high school and college students. It has been sobering to see, through their eyes, how unclear our assignments can sometimes be. Believe me, I’m guilty too.

In fact, it’s the complaint I hear most often in my tutoring sessions: “I don’t get what this is asking.”

I wish I could claim that I am always able to swoop in and decipher the details, thereby delivering the student from confusion and moving toward crafting an outline together. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. I frequently find myself just as perplexed as the student I’m trying to help.

I do keep my mind open to other possibilities. Maybe the teacher gave crucial directions that explicate the prompt and the student missed them. Maybe the student skipped class or doesn’t have all the material handed out with the assignment. But I’m equally convinced that sometimes the prompts are just plain confusing. If the prompt is indecipherable to me, an experienced writing educator, I’m pretty sure most undergraduates are going to struggle to deliver what the teacher is after.

Examples of unclear writing prompts

Let me get specific. It’s a typical weekday afternoon and I’m sitting down with one of my students to begin brainstorming ideas for her essay. She pulls out a sheet from her creative writing class which gives her a choice between two prompts. We talk through each together:

  1. Write about a person you love. This apparently simple instruction may be more difficult than you think. What makes us love people? How do we avoid being sentimental when describing the attributes that make someone lovable? How can you describe the feeling of love? Why do you love this person? You will immediately be faced with the decision of writing about someone you love romantically or as a friend. Or perhaps you’ll choose a family member. Your greatest challenge will be to make your reader love this person, too.
  1. Write a first-person story in which you use the first-person pronoun (“I,” “me,” or “my”) only two times, but keep the “I” somehow important to the narrative you are constructing. The point of this exercise is to imagine a narrator who is less interested in himself/herself than in what he or she is observing. You can make your narrator someone who sees a very interesting event in which he/she is not necessarily a participant. Or you can make him/her self-effacing yet a major participant in the events related. The people we tend to like most are those who are much more interested in other people than in themselves—, selfless and caring, whose conversations are not a stream of self-involved remarks (like the guy who, after speaking about himself to a woman at a party for half an hour says, “Enough about me, what do you think of me?”). Another lesson you might learn from this exercise is how important it is to let things and events speak for themselves, beyond the ego of the narration. It is very important in this exercise to make sure your reader is not surprised, 40–50 words into the piece, to realize that this is a first-person narration. Show us quickly who is narrating the scene and be sure to establish the importance of the narrator.

Oh dear, where to start. Maybe with the positives. Both of these prompts have potential. There is clearly an imaginative teacher behind them. And I understand the goal. She or he wants to get students out of the mainstream telling-not-showing narrative story and into something more interesting.

However, there are some serious issues, illustrated perfectly by my student’s responses. For the first prompt, she thought that writing about someone you love and making the audience love that person were two different things; the former seemed descriptive to her, while the latter seemed persuasive. She also didn’t know whether she was supposed to literally answer “What makes us love people?” I think that the teacher was hoping for the piece to creatively describe a person in such a way that the reader comes away loving that person as a byproduct, but I can’t be certain.

As a teacher myself, I know that many of the questions that follow the opening statement are not part of the prompt per se, but are instead probing questions included to get the student thinking. That said, we can’t assume students understand this distinction. They’re used to teachers asking questions; generally when teachers ask questions they want students to provide answers. Having both types of questions present without any sort of differentiation is one contributing factor to unclear essay prompts.

On to the second essay option. With this one, I have a loose idea what the teacher is after in the assignment, admittedly less so than with the first option, but I still don’t feel confident enough to guide the student with a sense of authority. The long, stream-of-consciousness style of the prompt is not effective—that I know for sure. I’m also hung up on the relative importance of the narrator. Throughout the description, there is this tension between whether or not the narrator should be a part of the story in a significant way. Students gravitate toward quantifiable requirements, so in reading the second prompt, my student clung to the two maximum uses of the personal pronoun and the need to establish a clear sense of a first-person narration within the first 40–50 words. Beyond that, she had zero idea what she was supposed to do and could not articulate what kind of deliverable would be appropriate.

In a situation like this, the best-case scenario is that the student has started the essay early enough to email or meet with her teacher for clarification and that the exchange is helpful to the student. However, I can’t count the number of times students have come back two days later from a meeting with their teacher still puzzled, saying, “Umm…it helped a little, but I still don’t know.”

Students can be remarkably good at following directions and structure when they are clear about what they’re being asked to do. But when things aren’t clear, their motivation dries up. The assignment becomes a one-dimensional chore underpinned by a constant anxiety of “I don’t know if this is what my teacher wants.”

Here are two other examples of ineffective writing prompts worth exploring.

  1. The student comes to see me without any assignment details, instead telling me that his liberal studies professor told him to write a “thesis-driven” persuasive essay around six pages that expands on something discussed in class. Yes, that’s it.
  1. Then, there is the student who produces a three-page packet of requirements for a four-page nutrition paper. The assignment description begins with a massive chunk of text that contains multiple probing questions. Next, there’s a bulleted list of formatting requirements, mostly standard, but there are some additional questions mixed in here, too. There is a rubric, a graphic organizer, and an instruction to use APA format and include a Works Cited.

In the first example, where the assignment was effectively devoid of requirements, the student was so anxious about producing what the professor wanted, he couldn’t focus. The student reported that this professor was a “specific” grader, which was fueling his anxiety. When teachers leave the assignment wide open but have specific things in mind, students become frustrated and the assignment feels more difficult than it actually is. If we keep an assignment open-ended, we cannot be overly critical of the deliverables; otherwise students feel like it’s a game they can’t win.

In the second example, the amount of assignment detail bordered on absurd. Indeed, if the length of the prompt and accompanying requirements nears the length of the paper, there is a problem. Despite all the details, it wasn’t totally clear to me what the “main” question was since there were so many, and, furthermore, I didn’t know how to instruct the student on APA if the paper lists a “Works Cited” as a requirement (APA does not utilize a Works Cited—MLA does, traditionally). The student wondered whether she should fashion the citations themselves in MLA or APA— as did I.

Anecdotally, I’ve also noticed that once the number of requirements and supplemental questions approaches the high single digits and beyond, students’ writing tends to become rigid and awkward. In an effort to touch on every last point, students struggle with organization and often produce work that is neither thoughtful nor smooth. Plus, with so many requirements, we have to ask ourselves: what is it that we are truly envisioning? Are we after perfection? Is that realistic?

Finding the right balance

It seems that there is a formula emerging à la Goldilocks: not too short, not too long, not too specific, and not too open-ended. The main question should be straightforward and unambiguous yet still require thoughtful analysis. Good assignment prompts aren’t easy to write, but they’re not impossible. Every so often, a student brings along a great prompt that falls into these parameters, allowing for a smooth writing (and tutoring) process.

To increase your chances of developing a solid essay prompt, consider these suggestions, derived from years of sitting alongside students as they decipher their assignments:

  • Reverse-engineer the assignment description. Instead of sitting at a Word doc thinking of a good question (or set of questions), envision what deliverable would demonstrate mastery of course material. What do you want students to hand in? From there, we can more easily conjure up a question that might produce such a result. And as a general rule, anything beyond three main questions is likely too much to treat in an effective, coherent essay, especially if you’re a beginning student or not a particularly strong writer.
  • Consider the formatting of the assignment sheet. If questions are all dumped into a thick paragraph and there’s no differentiation between the central question and additional details and descriptions, students feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start or focus. Instead, consider keeping the main charge or question in one section. You could even call it the “Main Question” section.
  • Keep the wording simple. There are plenty of challenging texts that students have to decipher and analyze; an essay prompt isn’t the best place for vocabulary building. For instance, students have asked me multiple times what “cogent” means on their essay prompts—why not just say “clear?” When it comes to assignments, students are easily confused and made anxious. When that happens, they are quick to conclude that they aren’t smart enough to understand or won’t be able to do what the assignment asks. I know, the vocabularies of college students can be woefully inadequate, but that’s a story for another day.
  • Consider reducing the requirements. We have to actively consider whether we are asking students to juggle too many balls at once and then question what the point is. Why do we need 10 questions? Why not two questions? There is a delicate balance between inquiry that makes them think, and questions they don’t understand and can’t answer.

And if there’s ever a doubt about whether the prompt is effective, consider asking a student to read it and offer feedback. How clear is that student’s understanding of what you’re after in the assignment? The further away we are from being in their shoes and at their cognitive maturity levels, the more difficult it is to accurately gauge whether we are being clear. If you’re anything like me, you want to avoid the mouth-dropping batch of essays that makes you want to cry while grading on Saturday morning. Better essay prompts make for happier students and educators as well as more accessible opportunities for learning.

Brett Murphy Hunt is a lecturer at Northeastern University, a professional tutor at Framingham State University, and the owner of her own tutoring and consulting company in Boston.


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