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Mind the Gaps: Making Assignments Clearer


We’ve all had the experience of giving students an assignment and realizing too late that what we wanted students to do just wasn’t clear to them. The challenge, of course, is how to give clear directions and still leave room for students to be creative, figure out some things for themselves, and demonstrate that they can apply the course content in a new situation. Actually, completing any writing assignment requires that the writer be able to manage four overlapping and interconnected domains of knowledge.

First, writers need to have the subject matter or content knowledge – what to write about. Second, they must understand the features of the genre they need to produce – what form the content should take. Third, they need to understand who they are writing to, the purpose of their writing, and the ways that audience and purpose might impact the content and genre. The interaction of these elements is often referred to collectively as the “rhetorical situation.” Finally, writers need to have strategies for managing the writing process – how to get started, how to revise, and how to manage their time in order to produce an appropriate finished product. These knowledge domains always exist within a specific discourse community and so vary by disciplines and even sub-disciplines. No wonder it’s so difficult for students, especially undergraduates who are moving between different disciplines before settling into their major, to understand what we are expecting them to do when we do not provide detailed directions or fail to give them instruction in the areas where they lack appropriate knowledge.

Diagram of Knowledge Domains

Sharon Roberts, Associate Professor of Biology, has developed an assignment for students in her course on virology and infectious diseases that demonstrates how to provide support in all four of these domains. As we can see in the overview of the assignment Dr. Roberts provides, students are expected to use higher order thinking skills as they research a virus they have not studied in class and apply concepts from the course to that new virus. They are also asked to write for two different audiences: a public audience who needs to know this information and a scientific audience. In this way she gives students the opportunity to revise the content in two different genres for two different purposes. Dr. Roberts also establishes a structure for completing the project by assigning deadlines for specific parts of the assignment and providing instruction and suggestions on how to get that work done. Though carefully structured, Dr. Roberts doesn’t do much of this work in class. Rather, she provides a complete set of guidelines, including the evaluation rubric so students know the criteria in advance. Hear Dr. Roberts talk about the assignment:

See examples of the Public Service Announcement brochures her students have created. We use these examples with the students’ permission, but have added indicators to help readers see what they would look like as folded brochures:


Learn more about engaging writing assignments:

Check out other writing resources in the Teaching Writing Library!

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