Professor Expectations of Writing Assignments: A Student Perspective

professor

By Mikal Cardine

Mikal is a senior studying English at George Mason. She previously worked with WAC to create disciplinary writing guides for student use. To reach her, please contact wac@gmu.edu.

In the subjective world of writing, there doesn’t seem to be any rules – just lots of different guidelines as we students move from class to class. However, effective communication is what writing is all about, and professors can best teach their students this skill by practicing it themselves, especially regarding their expectations of writing assignments. Before assuming that we know what is expected of us, professors need to consider our circumstances and differences: Some of us have not been in a focused writing class in years. Some of us have not taken 302 before taking the WI course. Some of us placed out of first year writing, or have transferred to Mason and are still adjusting to new professors and new expectations. And of course, most of us have probably received terrible writing instruction at some point.           

The writing that undergraduates are asked to undertake is extremely specialized, and it’s new to many of us. As a result, we often don’t know what goes into a scientific paper, history paper, or funding proposal off the top of our heads, as many of us have never been asked to compose the sort of writing that is common in our fields or disciplinary communities. During high school and our first few college years, our course readings are mainly textbooks, journalistic essays, and popular fiction. The primary writing assignments we’ve completed have consisted of short, highly structured test “essays” that asked us to spit back information correctly. Even at the junior level, we often lack a foundational understanding of the complex, discipline-specific texts college throws at us – texts our professors deal with every day. For them, the discourses of their disciplines are second nature; for us, they are almost a foreign language.

What, then, does it look like when professors offer clear expectations for their students’ writing? Alternatively, what does it look like when those expectations aren’t communicated well? And, most importantly, what can professors do to help students more thoroughly understand what is expected of them?

In an attempt to answer these questions and to better understand the student experience of professor expectations, I interviewed four students – two English majors, a Business Management major, and a Biology major – to see what they had to say about their understanding of faculty expectations, both good and bad. The students were quite invested in the topic, offering valuable insight as they discussed their best and worst encounters with professor expectations.

First, I asked each student to tell me about a time when a professor clearly expressed their expectations concerning a writing assignment, and the answers were very similar: each student recollected a past assignment that had had specific instructions and a focused context. Interestingly, in three out of the four cases, those assignments were also highly regulated and strictly graded. “The requirements were very strict,” Sam, an English major, said of one paper. “[The professor] wanted a thesis statement that listed each of the subtopics discussed, paragraphs to meet specific word counts… He was a pretty tough grader” (Ouellete). Margaret, who is studying Biology, said,“[My professor’s] requirements were very strict, but he was also very transparent on how to fulfill these requirements” (Araneo). Leah, a Business Management major, had a similar story: “My professor… gave us exactly what she wanted to see in the rubric” (Papadopoulos). The students distinctly associated clear professor expectations with a set of rules, such as a detailed rubric, a word count, or a specified structure.

The students had also dealt with confusing and poorly communicated expectations concerning writing assignments. Leah’s worst experience came with some unhelpful advice: “The only input [our professor] gave us was, ‘You should know what to do. You’re in college now. I will not explain what you need to do’” (Papadopoulos). Margaret said the following of one experience, “Everyone was always unsure of what to do because the assignment was only described as a ‘reflection’” (Araneo). Michelle, an English major with a minor in Psychology, had some trouble when a paper’s requirements were simply unrealistic: “We had to write a paper that used [film] documentary analysis…to comment on an issue in our discipline…. but I was an English major. You don’t see documentaries about the oxford comma or the issues of genre classification” (Webber). With these negative experiences, the students were confused when given vague assignment descriptions, or asked to figure things out for themselves, and associated this behavior with unclear professor expectations.

Before I go on, I think it’s worth pointing out that all four students had primarily positive experiences with professor expectations throughout college. “I do believe that my professors have always been clear in their expectations of my writing,” shared Margaret (Araneo), while Sam, Leah and Michelle all agreed that their educators “usually do a pretty good job with communication” (Ouellete).

My interviews highlighted a noteworthy truth: college students like being told what to do. In this case, the students looked fondly on their most difficult writing tasks because they were given explicit instructions for completing the assignment. Does this mean that professors must offer students a step-by-step guide in order to express clear expectations? Not necessarily. Many professors avoid giving instruction manuals for each writing assignment; instead, they want to teach their students independence and steer clear of over-simplification. When professors are vague, it is often their attempt to prepare us for the real world rather than hold our hands.

Then what does it really mean for professors to offer clear expectations of their students’ writing? I asked Caitlin Dungan, Writing Across the Curriculum’s graduate research assistant, for her thoughts: “Before you get the assignment, [your professors] should let you know what the purpose of the assignment is – what they would like you to learn, the skills that are to come out of the assignment, and how you can apply these skills in the future” (Dungan). She added that it is important for a professor to make students aware of his or her individual approach at the outset: “It’s the professor’s job to say, ‘Am I using a rubric? Here it is. What will I be looking for in this particular draft? Here are my expectations’. Then some professors [say], ‘This is your topic, you find the sources, I’ll see what you come up with’. They don’t want to hold your hand. It varies by level” (Dungan).

Finally, I interviewed Dr. Michelle LaFrance, the Director of Writing Across the Curriculum. She has extensive experience consulting with professors about these very issues, and she offered her thoughts on how to help students better understand what is expected of them:

Students will benefit from having models or examples, rubrics with clear criteria aligned with the scoring system for the class, lists of what to include, and directions for any elements of the writing assignment that may prove difficult or constraining for students. Students especially benefit from having opportunities to revise their work following receiving feedback from professors. And, finally, when faculty have questions about an assignment, I often recommend that they sit down and do the assignment themselves to trouble-shoot any issues. (LaFrance)

            Ultimately, professors’ expectations are directly tied to the purpose of each assignment. Some writing is meant to fulfill a firm set of requirements, and some is meant to take students on a journey of discovery. There is merit in both approaches, as long as the approach is specified early on. Expressing the purpose of an assignment is also a way of expressing expectations about that assignment: what skills is it meant to teach, and what goals is it meant to achieve? Of course, the professor-student relationship is a give and take, and we must do our part by regularly asking for clarification, guidance, or a little more feedback. With effort and open communication between professors and students, we will all achieve greater success and satisfaction with writing assignments.

5 thoughts on “Professor Expectations of Writing Assignments: A Student Perspective

  1. Well written and informative, Mikal. I particularly like the attitude that the closing takes, not pointing fingers in any way but encouraging students and teachers to work together toward greater learning.

  2. Thank you for this mini-research report, Mikal. Your student respondents confirm what my colleague Chris Thaiss and I found a number of years ago in student focus groups we conducted for Engaged Writers and Dynamic Disciplines: Research on the Academic Writing Life. We need these student voices, and on teachers’ response practices as another area of questioning. Well done!

  3. I’m all about the rubric, so I was happy to hear that students from this course reported their favor of it. I also have a personal rule that I tell students (and have to remind myself when grading): I can only grade what I teach them, meaning, I cannot grade on writing “issues” that fall outside of my rubric and learning outcomes. It doesn’t mean I won’t mention additional issues to the student, just that they won’t effect their grade in my course. Thanks for sharing these student comments!

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