This guide was created by Kristen Brookes on March 13, 2020. Updated April 23, 2024. 

This guide is intended to offer advice for writing clear, effective prompts and designing assignments to help students succeed in the tasks you are setting for them. 

It is important to make your assignments clear to your students, to make your expectations explicit, and to suggest processes your students might use to produce what you are asking them to produce. Your students will be grateful if you make clear what you are asking your students to do, why, and how they might go about doing it. What follows is a set of suggestions and things to consider as you craft (or re-craft) assignments and activities for students.

Effective Prompts Often:

  • Frame or contextualize the question, problem, or task at hand.
  • Make clear both the purpose of the assignment and the purpose of the student’s paper. (What is the purpose of writing the paper, and what do you expect the paper to do?)
  • Offer a process. (Often the final product will build on earlier, lower-stakes assignments.)
  • Distinguish the main question or task from the sub-questions or smaller tasks that will help the student to answer the larger question or perform the larger task. 
  • Suggest (but do not dictate) a shape for the essay; if the student does the steps in order or answers the questions in order and does so coherently, the essay will develop well from beginning to middle to end. 
  • Have been revised (sometimes in response to feedback). 

Questions to Consider in Designing Assignments  

  • How does this particular assignment fit into the larger scheme of the course? What is its specific purpose, and how does that specific purpose fit into the larger aims of the course?
  • Why am I asking students to do this assignment? What do I hope they will gain from doing it? What do I want them to learn? 
  • What, specifically, am I asking students to do? Experiment with different verbs, such as explain, analyze, compare, evaluate, interpret, argue. (See Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy.)
  • How do I expect my students to go about producing what I am are asking them to produce? What steps will they take along the way?
  • How will I prepare them to perform the task I am asking them to do? 

Quick Strategies for Generating Ideas & Language for a Clear and Effective Prompt 

  • Fastwrite a letter to your students, explaining to them:
    • What you are asking them to do, and why.
    • How you suggest they go about producing what you are asking them to produce. 
  • Think through and jot notes on the steps you would have to take in order to do what you are asking them to do. 

Things to Consider While Polishing a Prompt

  • The order in which to present your ideas. 
  • How you present your ideas. Will headings be useful to distinguish between the functions of different parts of your prompt? Will headings, spacing, italics, or bullet points make it easier for students to understand what you are asking? Are you giving them so much information that it is difficult to take in?
  • Are you asking a series of questions without making clear the big question or purpose of the assignment?
  • In your efforts to be clear, are you guiding students to do a series of tasks or answer a series of questions without developing a sense of a coherent, purposeful whole? (Watch out for numbered lists, lists that might as well be numbered, words such as “first,” “then.”) 

Perform an Assignment Test Run

Try this with your own prompt, or exchange prompts with a colleague.

  1. Put yourself in the position of the reader/student, who will then have to actually do the assignment.
  2. Read the prompt carefully. Think about what it is asking you to do, how, and why. 
  3. Imagine (and jot some notes on) how you would approach the assignment if you had to do it. What steps would you take? How would you go about producing the desired end result?
  4. Take a stab at starting the assignment, even if you have no knowledge of the subject area. You might quickly draft an opening paragraph or scene; map out the sections of your imagined paper (thinking perhaps more about what each section would do than about what each might say); or just make up a bit of what you might say in the paper.  

Giving and Receiving Descriptive Feedback on a Partner’s Prompt

  1. Describe your understanding of the assignment writer is asking their student to do, why, and how.
  2. Assignment Writer Responds: Why yes, that’s exactly what I wanted them to do, why, and how! OR Well, what I actually want them to do is… OR Hmm. Maybe I should let them know what the purpose of the assignment is. 
  3. Share out loud and discuss how you responded to the assignment. What insight did you gain from imagining yourself responding to the assignment? From hearing your colleague’s response?
  4. Discuss additional questions the writer has about their assignment. 
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