Providing Clear Expectations in Assignments

Studies have shown that explaining expectations clearly can help engage students more fully in the task at hand and produce results that more closely match your intentions (Anderson et al, 2016). According to students, the most important information to include in your assignments is the following:

  • Purpose – why are they doing this?
  • Task – what and how are they doing it? Break down the steps needed to complete the assignment
  • Audience – who are they writing to?
  • Persona – what is their relationship to the audience?
  • Genre – in what form are they writing?
  • Discourse Conventions – citation style, page formatting, etc.
  • Due Date – easy to find
  • Other Deadlines for interactive components
  • Clear Evaluation Criteria
  • Assignment Name – does it reflect the skills and genre; might it tap into unhelpful prior knowledge; how can you help students differentiate its meaning in your discipline/context (e.g., analysis)?

These criteria are explained more fully below.

Purpose of assignment:

  • Explain the purpose of the assignment. Why are you asking students to complete it?
  • Be transparent about why you are assigning the writing. What do you want students to learn? How does it relate to course goals?
  • Try to connect to what they’ve learned already or how it builds toward future assignments – give them the big picture.


  • What are you asking students to do?
  • Is this a disciplinary problem to research and address? A thesis to defend or attack? Data they need to make sense of and explain?
  • This is where you want to use words such as compare, contrast, analyze, synthesize, recommend, argue, persuade, inform


  • Who are they writing to?
    • The teacher, the class, a future class, a boss, concerned citizens, professionals? 
  • What is the reader’s initial stance to the topic?
    • Is the audience friendly, hostile, neutral, ambivalent, uninformed, knowledgeable?
  • What is the reader’s relationship to the writer?


  • Break down the steps to complete the assignment so that students know how to approach it. (develop a research question, search library databases, decide on position, draft, peer review, revise
  • Build in interactive processes


  • What persona should the writer adopt? 
  • Student, peer, professional, expert, public citizen, historical person


  • What is the form of the paper?
  • Academic essay, memo, editorial, research paper, abstract, proposal, letter, etc.

Discourse Conventions:

  • Formatting guidelines
  • Length
  • Citation style, etc.

Due Date and Other Deadlines

  • Include all date expectations and make sure they are easy to find. My students like to have the dates at the top of the assignment sheet.

Evaluation Criteria

  • Include a rubric or at least the categories you’ll be evaluating with explanations for a successful paper
  • Be specific – words like thorough, effective, etc. are vague unless you explain what you want and show good and bad examples