Seemingly Insignificant Details You Might Overlook When Creating an Assignment

When we create assignments-a project, an essay, a quiz, a homework assignment,  we focus on the content we are teaching and which standards we are addressing or assessing…. Those are at the heart of the assignment, the most important parts…..

With that said, we often overlook the importance of seemingly little details…..how we write the assignment, what it looks like on paper…… In fact,  I wholeheartedly believe that the way an assignment is presented on paper can impact a student’s success on it. 

Whether it is a homework assignment, a project, or an assessment, our goal should be to create assignments that clearly tell/show students what we are looking for, what we expect. We should not expect them to be mind readers or keep the criteria for success a secret.  We should not assume that because a student is in an honors-level class that “they should know that.” All students need clear expectations. For example, if you want them to write a strong paper, tell them what should be in it. Don’t penalize them if they include only three direct quotes and you wanted six, or if they write only four pages but you really wanted seven. How do they know unless we tell them in clear terms?

Although assignments can vary a great deal,  I have found it helpful to do the following when creating one: 

Identify its weight on the actual assignment. 

  • Is it a homework or classwork assignment?
  • Is it a quiz or test?
  • Is it a project?
  • Is it an essay?
  • Is it part of their class participation grade?
  • Does it count once? Twice?

This is not only helpful for students but it  reminds you how much it counts toward their grade. This is especially helpful if you use it each year. You will not spend time wondering  how you weighted it the year before.

Identify the point value on the assignment sheet or the grading rubric.

  • How much is each question/section/task worth?
  • Does the point value reflect the importance of the material or skill? 
  • Is the point value fair?

If you can share this information with students when you go over the assignment it, it is helpful for students, especially before a quiz or test. It might help them determine how to prepare for it. 

  • For example, if there is a vocabulary matching section with 20 words and definitions and they are each only worth .5 points for a total of 10 points out of a 100 point quiz and it is someone who struggles with remembering vocabulary, they may choose to put their time and energy into prepping for the 5 short answer questions that are 10 points each  or prepping for the essay that is worth 25 points.
  •  This empowers students and helps them be in control of their learning. Also, it helps you remember it from year to year. 

Identify the Common Core Standards you are addressing with the assignment.

  • Doing this makes it clear to your students the purpose of the assignment.

Use an easy-to ready font.

  • Make sure it is not too small. 

Leave a lot of empty space on the page.  

  • Do not include too many words or too much clutter. Less clutter = less stress for students. 
  • Use physical space  to help students “see” the different parts of the assignment.
    • Indent like I am doing here using bullet points to show that you are providing clarifying information. 
  • Empty space allows students to mark up the assignment and use it to write notes/plan. 

Each page should be self-contained. 

  • Make sure the page breaks are logical. 
  • Do not start a question at the bottom of one page and continue it on the next page.
    • Reword the question, change the font– do something to make sure there are no awkward page splits. 

Help identify important words by using bold, italics, or underlining.

  • Sparingly use these features to draw attention to something

Make sure you go over the actual assignment with them rather than just hand it to them.

  • Yes, some assignment sheets are very basic and straightforward. However, especially if it is a weightier assignment, it is helpful to go over the directions for each section and the point value.
    • Students often do not look ahead. If the last part of a test includes a 25 point essay and they do not realize that, they may not budget in enough time to write a good essay and, as a result, rush through it or — worse– not even start it. 

Always include clear directions. 

  • Clear directions can be difficult  and time-consuming to write, especially for something that might seem obvious to us as teachers.   
    • Although seemingly insignificant, label your directions with the actual word “directions” in bold print. It helps the students actually “see” the part of the assignment that tells them what to do. 
    • This helps reduce the number of  questions students might ask while completing the assignment.

For Quizzes/Tests:

  • If you are giving a matching quiz/test:
    • Do you want them to write the LETTER of the correct answer or the whole word?
    • If there is a list of terms,  alphabetize them. 
    • If a student knows a word, it can save time and frustration by helping them easily locate it when words are listed alphabetically.
  • If part of your quiz/test includes true/false questions
    • Do you want them to write out the letter T or F, or do you want them to write out the whole word? 
      • You might not think it makes a difference but, if a student deliberately or  hurriedly writes an answer that could be a T or an F, you might find yourself struggling when you are grading it, trying to determine if it is a T or an F. 
      • By having them write out the whole word, their intention is clear. 
  • If  you provide them with a word  bank or something with answers from which they pick:
    • Indicate if  any of the words/choices  can be used more than once or are not used at all. 
    • If the questions in this section go on to a second page and if  the quiz/test is printed on both sides of the page, put the word bank on the second page too so students do not need to flip back and forth while answering questions. 
      • This can save them time, which may help some students who get anxious during assessments in which there is a limited time. 

For Essays: 

Do not write unnecessarily wordy directions/prompts. 

  • If possible, make sure the prompt is worded in the form of a question. For example, consider writing , “What is the relationship like between Scout and Atticus? “ instead of  “Describe the relationship between Scout and Atticus.”
    • By wording the prompt as a question, it gives students a direction.
    • Answering  a question can feel more accessible, less daunting to students than a verbose prompt filled with statements. 
    • Encourage — even require-  students to underline or number  the different parts/tasks of the prompt. 

Identify which rubric you will use to grade the essay. 

  • It is likely that you use a variety or rubrics for your different essay assignments, so be sure to indicate which rubric you will use to grade each assignment. 

Clearly identify the requirements. 

  • Do they need to brainstorm?
  • Do they need to  write a certain number of paragraphs?
  • Do they need  to include direct quotes? If so, how many?
  • Do they need to provide in-text citations?

State the requirements clearly upfront. If you don’t tell them what you are looking for, they will not know. 

Help students manage their time when writing in class. 

  • In each section, consider indicating a “Suggested time,”  how long you think it might take students to complete a task.
    • Obviously this is subjective, but at least students can see  that brainstorming might take only 5 minutes whereas organizing ideas might take 10 minutes.  
  • When possible, provide gentle  reminders about how much time remains. 
    • For example, you might say, “Keep an eye on the clock. You have 30 minutes” or  “10 more minutes” or “At this point, you should be wrapping up your brainstorming and starting to write the actual essay.” 
    • If you think saying this out loud might make students stressed, you might consider writing those reminders on the board. 

Try to read a finished copy of the assignment from a student’s perspective. 

  • As you review the final draft of an  assignment, imagine you are one of your students, perhaps a student who you know struggles in some way. 
    • Do you think that student would clearly understand what you are asking them to do? If not, consider adding a clarifying phrase, an example, or even using the physical space to clarify something. 

Make an answer key before you make student copies so you can identify what you are looking for in a response, identify any errors or typos, or change anything that needs to be clarified. 

  • If you are looking for specific content in a response, what are the “must haves?”
    • If it is missing from a response, how many points will you deduct? Thinking through this in advance can help ensure you are grading fairly. While you may need to adjust as you start to read student responses, it’s good to have a starting point in mind. 
    • This forces you to really think through what you are actually looking for in an answer. 
    • Early in my career, I did not do this and I would often sit down to grade a class set of an assignment and  only then realize that I had made errors, a question was confusing, or I wasn’t sure what I was looking for in a student’s response. Sometimes I would even have to throw out a question that I then realized was unfair that, had I thought it through more, I could have eliminated or clarified.  

At the end of the day, creating the content and the physical layout of the assignment is time consuming but it is extremely worthwhile.

Yes, it is likely you will need to make additional changes after you give the assignment the first time… and maybe even the second time.  However, the clearer we can be in creating our assignments and the more we consider these seemingly insignificant details, the more likely we are to help our students be successful in reaching our envisioned end goal. 

Food For Thought:

  • What are your strengths when creating an assignment?
  • What do you struggle with when creating an assignment?
  • After you create an assignment, do you have time to let it sit and then go back to review and, if needed, revise?
  • How do you use the physical layout of the assignment to help your students?
  • Which, if  any, ideas outlined in this post  will consider incorporating on a future assignment?

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