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Tips for creating effective writing assignments

Tips for Creating Effective Writing Assignments
by Cynthia Cochran, Illinois College

Try the S. O. A. P. acronym to specify writing instructions to students:
Subject –Tell specific information regarding who or what the essay should address
. Compare the following:
Regarding Three Cups of Tea, discuss the obstacles Greg Mortenson faced in his attempts to fund the schools he was building in the mountains of Pakistan. Why did he succeed?

Regarding Three Cups of Tea, discuss at least three obstacles Greg Mortenson faced in attempting to fund the schools he was building in the mountains of Pakistan. Upon summarizing these obstacles, explain the main reason(s) he was able to overcome the obstacles. Defend your position.

Occasion – explain the writing situation. Example: We are facing poverty in many areas of the US. How can we apply some of the ideas Greg Mortenson used to help improve schooling in poverty-stricken areas of our country?

Audience – Specify the intended audience. Example: Write as if for CEO’s of major corporations.

Purpose – Tell whether the writer is to express, to inform, to persuade, or some combination.
Use specific terms to describe the genre (letter, paragraph, summary, poem, essay, dialogue, play).
Use specific words and phrases to instruct students about the organizational structure you expect:
  • Explain the effects of X
  • Analyze a problem
  • Define, using at least three examples
  • Compare AND contrast
  • Argue, defending your position
  • Argue, including a fair discussion of the opposition…
Other Rhetorical Issues to Consider...
Explain the writer’s role (student, parent, consumer, etc.). Is the writer acting as a non-expert, a generalist, or an expert? Is the writer writing as a reporter, a teacher, a consumer, or (more traditionally) as a student?
Note that as students advance to more upper-level courses in their majors, they tend to be writing more and more as experts. (You might also ask this about the audience: is it an audience of non-experts, generalists, or experts?)
Warning: It is most important to create a task that is neither too open-ended nor too structured. The appropriate amount of information will allow for a range of responses.
Design your standards when you design the task, and define the standards for the students when you assign the work.

copyright Cynthia Cochran, Jacksonville, IL 2009

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