Getting the Work You Want

Giving Good Instructions

Imagine you’re a nineteen-year-old college student, and your course syllabus contains the following project description:

Write a paper on the reason(s) the U.S. invaded Granada and be sure to form conclusions on your own after synthesizing your sources. Was the invasion justified? Why or why not? How did the media treat the invasion? Seven-page minimum does not include the bibliography.

Let’s assume that you received no other written information about the project, and all clarifications were provided verbally in class in response to students’ questions about the requirements (e.g., font size, word count, number of sources, due date, etc.).

As a student in the class, how would you begin doing this assignment? Which of the intellectual tasks would you try to tackle first? Would you know what it means to synthesize sources, or to form your own conclusions? Would you know what kinds of sources to use or where to find them? Would you know why you were being asked to do this project, or what you were supposed to learn from doing it? Would you know how your work would be graded, or what a successful paper might look like? Would you assume you have any opportunities to improve your work in response to feedback, or would your first draft also be the final draft?

Of course, most of us provide much better guidance than this, but the further we get from being college students ourselves, the easier it is to forget that a project description that seems perfectly clear to us may seem mysterious or overwhelming to our students.

They need a brief guide to the project that they can refer to outside of class. Providing a separate assignment sheet, on Canvas or in hard copy, is preferable to squeezing detailed instructions into the syllabus. Organizing the information into sections with headings, and using language that students can readily understand, will help them to answer many of their own questions.

In our tip on transparent assignments, we shared strategies for clearly describing a project’s purpose, task, and evaluation criteria. Making assignments more transparent is also an opportunity to reflect on the value and relevance of the work we’re asking students to do. What will students learn by doing these tasks? Is that what you really want them to learn in the course, or is it just traditional to assign such a project? What kind of work makes the best use of their (and your) time and attention?

Finally, it’s important to consider the process through which students will complete that work, and to build in opportunities for them to improve through practice and feedback. Projects that promote (and help us assess) learning include interactive elements, such ascomponent activities, opportunities for brainstorming, feedback while in process, and opportunities for revision. Listing these components on the assignment sheet helps students to organize their time, and it reduces their stress.

If you’d like to work on creating new projects or on making existing ones more transparent, you can make an appointment or sign up for our upcoming workshop.


Assignment Design Workshop
Friday, February 21st | 10:00 – 12:00 | DIF 432 | Sign up to attend

For support in crafting assignments—projects, papers, exercises, experiences, etc.—that engage students in the kinds of thinking you’d like for them to do, and that help them to produce the kinds of work you’d like to see, please sign up for this hands-on workshop. We can help you revise existing assignments or devise new ones, and we will share resources for describing assignments in ways that are transparent for your students.