The Core Elements of an Assignment Prompt: Context, Writing Tasks and Goals, Evaluative Criteria

An assignment prompt for an ECE English course should a) establish the context for student writing, b) define a goal or set of goals (as well as parameters) for the student’s writing, and c) provide explicit information about how the writing project will be evaluated. There are other things an assignment prompt might do, but we would like to emphasize these three: context, writing tasks and goals, and evaluative criteria.

  1. Context. Context includes the familiar statements of where the class conversation and writing has led or what questions or problems have been set up by the readings. Context might introduce key vocabulary or concepts, and it might remind students of materials that have been discussed in class that may be relevant to this assignment. But context can also include suggestions about what is at stake in addressing these questions and where the inquiry may lead.
  2. Writing tasks and goals. The assignment prompt should provide specific, feasible goals for the student’s project. In addition to spelling out a chief goal for the thinking required of students (“examine race as a factor of identity”), the prompt should make explicit mention of the specific writing tasks that will serve that goal (“introduce and defend a term that Appiah doesn’t use but that you think belongs in this conversation”). These writing tasks often involve some consideration of genre, audience, or other elements of rhetoric.
  3. Evaluative criteria. While we discourage you from using a rigid, scaled rubric, we ask that you provide a description of what you will be looking for in student writing and how you will be defining success. This might be a useful place to address the questions of why you’re asking for this work, who the intended audience is, and what components are required. In a recent review of assignment prompts, it was evaluative criteria that were most likely to be missing.

Finally, we’ve found that the best assignment prompts are often about one page in length. Some instructors provide more context or additional details about process, calendar, or options that take the assignment sheet onto additional pages. Nevertheless, do what you can to outline the gist of the project as succinctly and clearly as possible. (And, by the way, please remember to put your name on your assignment materials.)