As many instructors know, it can be difficult to know how well-developed a writing assignment is, how clearly the prompt is written, and how students will respond to the project, especially when the assignment is brand new. Soliciting feedback from colleagues, writing specialists, or students can be an effective method of developing prompts, but instructors aren’t always able to take advantage of that opportunity.
In an effort to accommodate busy schedules, Muriel Harris (2010) shares some of her thoughts about assignment designs that she has witnessed in her years as a writing researcher and writing center administrator. While she recognizes that poor student writing can be the result of many factors, here she focuses on the idea that college writers can struggle to perform well when assignments aren’t “well constructed.” Some of the characteristics of assignments that Harris has seen confound students include complicating writing tasks by asking too many questions in the prompt, assuming student knowledge that hasn’t been discussed in the classroom, and emphasizing formatting and grammar over substance in writing. These and other characteristics are discussed using “the power of the bad example” as she describes sample assignment prompts gone awry. Harris finishes the chapter with a series of questions that she suggests will help instructors focus their assignments and avoid some of the assignment designs that might lead to inappropriate or poor writing responses from students.
Harris’ “Assignments from Hell: The View from the Writing Center” is part of the edited collection What Is “College-Level” Writing? Volume 2: Assignments, Readings, and Student Writing Samples.