Assignment Design Planning Guide

This resource walks you through the creation of an effective, scaffolded writing assignment that's designed to meet your course goals. You might want to use it in conjunction with our Designing Writing Assignments for Deep Learning resource that provides additional learning theory and context.

Begin with the end in mind: identify your course goals. 

For your course, consider the following:
  • What do you want students to know by the end of the class, i.e., content, concepts, principles (that is, declarative knowledge)?
  • What do you want students to be able to do by the end of the class, i.e., explain, analyze, apply (that is procedural knowledge)?
  • Which thinking skills do you want students to develop, i.e., ways of observing, habits of mind, types and use of evidence, questioning strategies? What ways of thinking characterize someone in your discipline?
  • What are some “target texts” (genres) students need to be able to read and write?
  • Are you preparing students for another course or type of work? If so, what knowledge and skills must they have for the future?
  • What will students already know/have done related to these goals (that is, prior knowledge)?

Given what students know and don’t know when they arrive in your course, and what they will need to demonstrate/do afterward, what are your learning goals for this course in terms of knowledge (know) and skills (do)? In other words, complete the following sentence: In this class, students need to learn about... and/or learn how to....

Identify your assessment tool.

That is, how will you know and/or assess that students have achieved your goals? Not all goals are best assessed with writing. For declarative knowledge, a quiz or test might be more apt and quicker. To assess goals related to critical thinking or procedural knowledge, a well-designed writing assignment could be more appropriate.

But think beyond the traditional research paper, which does little to teach disciplinary ways of thinking and often results in a data dump of information. Research shows that meaning-making tasks, such as the following, engage students in their learning and can create more authentic writing (Anderson et al, 2016):

  • problem-focused activities
  • critical thinking skills
  • case studies
  • synthesized reviews of literature
  • assigned positions of an issue
  • real world applications

To explore what meaning-making tasks students could research, solve and write about, for the assessment, think of how meaning is constructed in your own discipline. Answer the following questions to get started:

  • What types of questions or problems does your field address? 
  • What activities does writing mediate in your discipline, related professions, knowledge- making practices? In other words, why do you write? For what purposes?
  • What forms (i.e., genres) does writing take when doing this work? What kinds of documents are produced? What are its conventions?
  • To whom do you write?
  • What counts as evidence and how it is used and/or interpreted?

Now, considering your list of meaning-making writing activities and your goals for the course, brainstorm some possible scenarios that answer the following questions:

  • What kind of problem (that is, what kind of activity), could students solve in your course related to your course goals?
  • Who would they write to about it?
  • What form (genre) would that writing take?

Identify all the knowledge and skills students need to achieve your learning goals.

As experts, we have tacit knowledge that students don’t (Ambrose et al, 2010). This can result in vague assignment descriptions with missing steps and necessary information that make it difficult for students to complete successfully. A good way to bring this tacit knowledge to consciousness is to write down all the things you’d need to know and all the steps you’d have to take to complete the assessment task successfully. Then review your list and see if you can further break down each step. 

  • What are all the components (knowledge and skills) students will need in order to complete this assignment successfully?
  • From this list, consider:
    • What do students already know?
    • What will you need to teach them? 
    • What skills or content have students had difficulty with in the past?
    • Are there additional critical thinking skills, habits of mind, etc that students will need to develop in order to be successful?

Identify scaffolded activities to help students learn content and practice the skills needed to achieve the learning goals.

According to Ambrose et al, in order to learn and “develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned” (emphasis added, 2010).

  • How can you provide opportunities for students to learn the content and practice the skills you identified above?
  • How can students receive feedback from their peers, you, other audiences? At what points in the project would feedback be helpful?
  • What other interactive components can you build into the assignment to help students complete it successfully (e.g., low-to medium-stakes scaffolding activities for writing to learn content, grapple with content and problems, and learning to write in disciplinary ways)?
  • How can you help students identify and activate prior knowledge in useful ways? How can you help students understand the ways of knowing and writing in your discipline and how they might differ from what they’ve encountered before or in other contexts?
  • Also, consider your previous experience: what are the hardest aspects for students in this class? Where have students struggled with the material or the assignments? Where have you been disappointed with student performance? How can you increase opportunities for students to develop these skills and knowledge?

Explain expectations clearly.

Research shows that providing clear expectations can improve student engagement and the quality of their final product (Anderson et al 2016). See “Providing Clear Expectations in Assignments” for the information students find most helpful. Try to include these in every assignment for improved clarity and to help students meet your expectations.

Name your assignments appropriately.

Research has also indicated that giving your assignments relevant, descriptive names (rather than “Paper 1”) can improve students’ disciplinary knowledge and general learning. For more on this research and the simple steps for naming your assignments to improve learning, see “Using Writing Assignment Names to Integrate Learning.” 


Sources Referenced:

  • Ambrose, Susan. A., Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman. 2010. How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Anderson, Paul , Chris M. Anson, Robert M. Gonyea, & Charles Paine. 2016. “How to Create High-Impact Writing Assignments That Enhance Learning and Development and Reinvigorate WAC/WID Programs: What Almost 72,000 Undergraduates Taught Us.” Across the Disciplines, 13(4).