Explaining Assignments

Taking time to explain the purpose, requirements, and expectations of assignments helps students complete them successfully.

Although Expos introduces freshmen to the general principle that academic disciplines have unique conventions in writing, students likely will still come to your class unfamiliar with the norms of your field. That means it is essential to clarify the purpose of the assignment, to detail the requirements of the assignments (such as evidence, structure, and what’s at stake), and to articulate the assignment’s role within the larger objectives of the course.






Techniques for Explaining Assignments

Unpacking Assignments

When you hand out the assignment, ask students to read it through from beginning to end. Then ask them to interpret the assignment through a series of questions, either in class or as homework.

Download the exercise as a Microsoft Word document

Identifying Keywords

In order for students to be successful at completing an assignment, they need to understand the basics of what’s expected. You can help them further unpack the assignment by asking them to highlight key terms in the prompt that signal the purpose of the assignment. You can also ask them to identify other “clues” about what is expected of the evidence they cite and the argument they make.

Download the exercise as a Microsoft Word document 

Finding Other Clues

Students can find other “clues” for success in course materials and lectures. The types of materials students are using in class likely hint at the types of materials they are expected to use for their assignment.

For instance, you can point out what the professor, you as a scholar, or even your field tends to use as evidence. Maybe your field uses evidence to provide information or to connect ideas, not just to argue a point.

It is also likely that the assignment asks students to rely on the same kind of evidence and only similar uses of evidence. In other words, your expertise in the values of your field can prompt students to look for clues for what is expected of them.

When we ask students to identify possible clues, we’re accomplishing two tasks: first, we are making sure we are not giving answers to students; and second, we are making sure students get to own their insights, revelations, and findings.

Want Help?

The Harvard Writing Project offers free workshops to all FAS faculty and teaching fellows, with proven strategies to help you work more efficiently and to help your students learn more effectively.  Contact us.