on interpreting and using assignment sheets

A friend wrote me recently with this request:

I’m developing a tutorial to walk students through deciphering essay assignments by breaking them down into task-oriented pieces. You came to mind as one of my friends who reads a great deal of student essays and likely has some strong opinions to share. Do you have a top 5 or 10 laundry list of items students should pay more attention to, misinterpret, or rarely do correctly?

I thought I’d go ahead and share my thoughts here:

1. My major suggestion for interpreting an assignment sheet is to find and clearly articulate in your own words what the purpose of your essay is. Good assignment sheets should be clear about the purpose students should write for, but some are vague, or the purpose is buried in a paragraph. You should read the assignment sheet, and be able to articulate the general purpose of your essay, something along the lines of: “The purpose of my essay is to ___ in order to ___.” For example, I often assign a critical literacy narrative assignment. Students reading the assignment sheet should be able to say “The purpose of my essay is to tell a narrative about one of my experiences with literacy in order to question or complicate a commonly held belief about literacy.”

2. The best assignment sheets have requirements clearly laid out, but others have them embedded throughout the assignment sheet. I suggest reading through the assignment sheet and making a list of all the requirements of the assignment. Some of them are straightforward: 4 double-spaced pages, for example. Others, a bit more complex or idiosyncratic: make a comparison to an interesting cultural phenomenon, for example. Either write on the assignment sheet and number or highlight the requirements, or make your own list, putting the requirements in your own words. Use this checklist as you write and revise, and before you turn in your essay.

3. Prioritize those requirements. For example, you might be assigned a “research paper,” and the title of the assignment might make you think the biggest priority is to report on research. However, the actual genre and requirement might be to “make an argument incorporating research,” in which case your top priority in terms of requirements is to make sure first that you are making an argument, and then that you are using research in order to support your argument (not just report on the research).

4. Be familiar with terms and what they mean (or what your teacher means by them). Assignment sheets often ask you to evaluate, analyze, research, and perform other intellectual tasks. Some of these terms seem straightforward, but others, especially for new college students, might not be. If terms seem unfamiliar, ask the teacher or refer to your textbook.

5. If a teacher provides examples of the assignment, read them and ask yourself how they fit into the assignment, as well as how they could be improved. Do not assume (unless you are told) that they are A-level examples of the assignment. Many teachers will give B or C level examples (as well as A-level examples) not only to help you see how the assignment can be executed, but also to possibly foster thought on what can go wrong with the assignment.

6. Do not confuse “pre-writing prompts” with the actual assignment. Many teachers try to prompt your thinking about the topic with some important or helpful questions or ideas to consider listed in the assignment sheet. These are often not meant as requirements for the assignment, but an attempt at helping you think through issues before and during writing. Be sure to separate “thinking prompts” from requirements of the assignment. If it’s not clear if something the assignment sheet asks should be included in the paper, talk to the teacher about it.

7. Pay attention to class discussion. Teachers often clarify anything that might be unintentionally vague in the assignment, or might clarify a hierarchy of important components of the assignment.

If any readers have further things to add, share them in comments!

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5 Responses to on interpreting and using assignment sheets

  1. Michael Baird says:

    Michael, you’re awesome, thanks so much for the thoughtful response!

    I really like the template for articulating the assignment purpose in #1. I also like #6, I see a lot of assignment sheets that pose questions to frame the assignment but students insist they must directly answer those questions.

    I have a few more ideas now and can tighten up a few existing points.

  2. Michael says:

    You’re welcome, Michael! Glad this was helpful :)

  3. Heather Branstetter says:

    Thanks for posting these. I’m going to make this into a handout for my students next semester (crediting you, of course). I especially think that your recommendation to be clear on the terms is important. After working at the writing center and realizing that many students don’t know what the teacher expects when he/she uses the term “analyze” or “synthesize,” I’ve begun making sure to clarify these sorts of terms when we discuss the assignment in class.

    Also, if others are interested, some more tips (courtesy of aforementioned writing center) are here, located in the “understanding assignments” part of the “getting started” tab: http://www.unc.edu/tlim/wc/ as well as a non digital demo version here: http://www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb/handouts/readassign.html

  4. Michael says:

    Thanks for the helpful links, Heather! Awesome, and glad this post was helpful.

  5. Michael Baird says:

    Thanks, Heather! I’ve seen the UNC materials before, which are rather fantastic. The non-flash version has a nice glossary of assignment sheet ‘action’ item terms.

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