Communicating Assignment Instructions

Once you know what a particular assignment is assessing, you can focus on how to convey this information to your students. An assignment prompt can take many forms, including a narrative description, a checklist, and/or a rubric. 

Clear assignment instructions will help students understand the purpose of the assignment, the steps students will need to take to successfully complete it, and how the assignment will be graded. Lack of clarity in any of these components can lead to student confusion, which can result in them not knowing how to start, spending time on tasks that are not essential to the assignment, or a final product that does not meet your expectations and perhaps does not accurately represent their learning. Alternatively, when the assignment instructions are written with transparency and clarity in mind, students know what they are supposed to be learning and can better engage in intentional practice, study, and reflection that supports deep learning. This page draws on research into transparent assignment design to surface strategies for more clearly communicating assignment expectations. 

Just as the process of determining assignment-level learning goals is iterative, you may find yourself revising your assignment instructions every time you reuse them. When designing a new assignment, you may need to be a bit vaguer than you would like, since you still need to figure out exactly what you’re looking for. Some instructors find it helpful to create an internal fleshed out rubric they can use as they grade, and a briefer version of the assignment expectations for their students. Over time, as you have a better sense of how students perform on the assignment and what your expectations are, you can work towards having just one rubric that is both shared with students and used by you when you sit down to grade the final product.

Transparent Assignment Design

The research generated by the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) project has shown that increasing transparency of assignments can improve student learning, motivation, and persistence, particularly among traditionally underrepresented populations (Winkelmes et al 2016). Below are questions to reflect on as you design an assignment and consider how to convey this information to your students.

What is the purpose of the assignment?

Students may not immediately understand how an assignment connects to the content they have been studying or the learning goals of the course. Or, they may know the content an assignment is assessing but not how they are expected to engage with that content. 

For example, if a student is learning new formulas, knowing whether they need to memorize the formulas, identify which formula to use in which situation, and/or explain when each formula should be used and its limitations will change how they study the material. Or, if you ask students to write an essay, you may want to clarify the kinds of evidence they should incorporate, including whether or not connecting course content to personal experiences is appropriate.

Questions about assignment purpose:
  • In what way(s) do you want students to engage with the course content? Consider the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy to help you answer this question.
  • How is this assignment relevant to the larger goals of the course? Of the curriculum? Of your students? How can you motivate students by helping them recognize the alignment between the assignment and the relevant goals?

When deciding whether or not the purpose of the assignment is transparent, it is important to consider the title of the assignment, which can help convey what you are looking for. Calling an assignment a “book review” may prompt your students to provide a summary of a text, while calling it a “reading response” could encourage students to draw connections between a text and their own lives. Take a moment to check that the title of your assignment accurately communicates your expectations.

 What is the task the assignment demands of students?

Students may find it difficult to “unpack” an assignment into smaller components or know how to get started and the key steps towards completing an assignment successfully. Rather than just telling students to study for an exam or write a paper, a breakdown of the tasks can benefit even the students in an upper level course. The questions below ask you to unpack your assignment and use that information to help you discover potential challenging parts of an assignment and, therefore, moments when students might need some guidance  in order to do the work you most want them to engage through the assignment. 

Unpacking the task of the assignment gives you an opportunity to plan for students to have opportunities to practice and receive feedback on the task before they will have to do it in a high-stakes environment, like an exam or major paper. Having the assignment’s purpose in mind when articulating the task also gives you another chance to check for alignment. Do the tasks you are assigning to students correspond with the assignment’s purpose? 

Questions about the task of the assignment:
  • What are the steps you imagine most students would need to take in order to complete the assignment?
  • What steps are they likely to skip? What unnecessary detours might they take?
  • What elements of the task are important for students to figure out for themselves? Where would students’ benefit from explicit guidance (e.g. so they don’t waste their time/energy on less essential components)?
  • How will you scaffold the assignment, or break down the assignment into smaller component parts, to give students opportunities to practice necessary skills before submitting the assignment? (More information on scaffolding is available on our Providing Opportunities to Practice page.)

What criteria will you use to evaluate the assignment?

The same assignment can be graded in numerous ways. Thus, explicitly telling students how they will be evaluated will clarify your expectations and impact how they prepare and what they submit. Students find it most helpful to know these criteria as they are getting started, and they will better understand them if they can practice assessing an example assignment. Sometimes, seeing a less proficient example of an assignment can clarify what not to do, especially if there are common pitfalls you want students to avoid.

For example, when grading a word problem, how much weight will you give to having a correct answer and how much to students showing the steps they took to get that answer? How much will you take off for a minor miscalculation? When grading an essay, what components will you be looking at more closely? How important are correct grammar and citation style?

Questions about evaluation criteria
  • What evidence will you be looking for as you evaluate whether a student has successfully met the criteria?
  • How will you communicate those criteria to students (a checklist, a rubric)?
  • Will students be able to use those criteria to help them self-assess how well they’re meeting the assignment expectations? Could you build in opportunities for students to apply the criteria by providing feedback to their peers?
  • Can you provide students with examples of good work, or examples of what not to do?

For more resources related to Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT), see the TILT Website. Here is an assignment template you are welcome to adapt for your own purposes and a checklist for designing transparent assignments if it is useful to you.