Understanding Writing Assignments: The Information in Prompts
This resource provides student-writers with a toolkit to help them better understand writing assignments and writing prompts at the university level. It begins with a clear overview of strategies to help with writing assignments. It also includes a number of annotated assignment sheets.
Last Edited: 2014-12-12 10:29:10
Below are some parts commonly included in assignment prompts—however, not all of these parts appear in every prompt. Typically, assignment prompts include information that will help you to complete the assignment successfully, such as: the main task of the essay and directions or suggestions for completing it.
Description of How the Essay Relates to the Course
Sometimes, assignment prompts will begin with a few sentences about how the essay relates to the overall theme of the class, or how you can work towards the course goals. The information included could be:
• Reasons why this essay is important and what it is meant to accomplish.
• Connections between the assignment and the course goals stated on the syllabus.
• Definitions of important or useful terms.
• Readings discussed in class that could be helpful.
• Quotes from course readings or elsewhere that captures the meaning of the essay prompt.
Some instructors choose to provide a short, 2-3-sentence summary that discusses the goal of the essay. This can be helpful for reminding students of the main task of the essay in a short format.
This is likely the most important part of the assignment prompt, because it tells students their main goal in writing the essay. In other words it tells them what they must do. In some prompts the main task is easy to find, but in others, the task can be in a large body of text. Identifying the main task can help you understand how to complete the essay.
For instance, if the prompt asks you to “relate a personal experience and analyze its effects on your life today,” you could assume that this essay is a reflection or personal essay. Identifying this what kind of essay, or what genre the essay fits into, will help you to better understand the rhetorical situation of the assignment.
The phrase that explains the writing task will commonly contain an action verb, such as “discuss,” “analyze,” or “explore.” Sometimes, the task will be an obvious statement, such as, “Analyze the effects of the Industrial Revolution in mid-1800s England.” Or, it might be a question, like: “What were the results of the Industrial Revolution in mid-1800s England for working class women in urban centers?” It is important to understand that the main task is not always clear, so you must read the prompt carefully to find it.
Common tasks include:
• Defining a term or a concept in greater detail.
• Summarizing a larger body of work and explaining its importance.
• Picking a position on an issue and providing a reasoned argument and research for that position.
• Interpreting a book or film, through a particular set of criteria such as time period, author or director influence, or style.
At the core of each assignment is the requirement that the student understands the objective and the audience. Again, assignment prompts vary greatly between disciplines and instructors, so prompts can be in many forms. Be sure to talk to your instructor about what expectations they have for the assignment.
Discussion of Writing Process or Suggested Procedures
Sometimes, the directions are split into different stages of writing, or smaller assignments that lead into a bigger assignment. For example, an assignment prompt may list several, small assignments that are used to write the final paper. Perhaps an informal blog post, a formal proposal, and several rough drafts could all be part of the writing process.
Others could be less strict, instead offering suggestions to make the writing process easier. For example, a prompt may feature a numbered list of steps:
1. Go back through your notes from lectures and readings to find information about this topic.
2. Assemble different ideas from the class, and think about the connections that may exist between each.
3. Create an outline of your main thoughts and ideas, as well as the sources you want to include.
4. Finally, start writing your essay.
Questions for Brainstorming
Sometimes, there will be a list of questions on the prompt that could either be suggestions for brainstorming (coming up with ideas), or questions that you need to address in your essay. Be sure to look at the prompt closely to decide whether the questions are meant to help you brainstorm, or whether you are meant to answer each of them in the essay.
If the assignment itself is more open-ended in nature, instructors often include a list of topics you may write about. This may be a list of approved topics, or just a list of suggested places or spaces where you can look for topics that interest you and relate to the course material. On the other hand, if the assignment is more focused, there may be a limited list or no list at all. Be sure to ask your instructor if you have questions or want to suggest some topics.
Most assignment prompts contain directions about how to format the essay, including:
• Length (how many pages/words/minutes)
• Citation style or format (MLA, APA, Chicago Style, etc.)
• Font type and size
• Margin settings
• Headers, footers, or other structural tools
• Special instructions about appearance
Due Date(s) and Schedule
Assignment prompts contain the due date and sometimes even a more detailed schedule of class time leading up the due dates. Be sure to mark down the dates in your own planner or calendar, so that you don’t have to search for the prompt later if you cannot remember when something is due.
“Successful Papers Will Do…”
It is also possible for an assignment prompt to include a rubric, or a list of considerations for final grading of the essay. It is important to take note of these, and revisit them after you write your essay. Common topics include content, organization, focus, grammar, and structure, but these depend upon each assignment.
Things to Remember or Strategies for Success
Some instructors choose to also include a list of suggested (not required) information or tips on how to complete the assignment successfully. Though these are not required, the instructor has opted to place these on the prompt, making them important tools that can help you to succeed.
Remember, if the above topics are not addressed or you have any questions about the assignment, be sure to ask your instructor about the assignment.
Types of reflective writing assignments
Journal: requires you to write weekly entries throughout a semester. May require you to base your reflection on course content.
Learning diary: similar to a journal, but may require group participation. The diary then becomes a place for you to communicate in writing with other group members.
Log book: often used in disciplines based on experimental work, such as science. You note down or 'log' what you have done. A log gives you an accurate record of a process and helps you reflect on past actions and make better decisions for future actions.
Reflective note: often used in law. A reflective note encourages you to think about your personal reaction to a legal issue raised in a course.
Essay diary: can take the form of an annotated bibliography (where you examine sources of evidence you might include in your essay) and a critique (where you reflect on your own writing and research processes).
Peer review: usually involves students showing their work to their peers for feedback.
Self-assessment: requires you to to comment on your own work.
Some examples of reflective writing
Social Science fieldwork report (methods section)
The field notes were written by hand on lined paper. They consisted of jotted notes and mental triggers (personal notes that would remind me of specific things when it came to writing the notes up). I took some direct observational notes recording what I saw where this was relevant to the research questions and, as I was aiming to get a sense of the culture and working environment, I also made researcher inference notes   .
 I found the notetaking process itself helpful, as it ensured that I listened carefully and decoded information. Not all the information I recorded was relevant, but noting what I found informative contributed to my ability to form an overview on re-reading. However, the reliability of jotted notes alone can be questionable. For example, the notes were not a direct transcription of what the subjects said but consisted of pertinent or interesting information.
Rarely did I have time to transcribe a direct quotation, so relied on my own fairly rapid paraphrasing, which risks changing the meaning. Some technical information was difficult to note down accurately  . A tape recorder would have been a better, more accurate method. However, one student brought a tape recorder and was asked to switch it off by a participant who was uneasy about her comments being directly recorded. It seems that subjects feel differently about being recorded or photographed (as opposed to observers taking notes), so specific consent should be sought before using these technologies  .
1. Description/ explanation of method.
2. Includes discipline-specific language
3. Critical evaluation of method
4. Conclusion and recommendation based on the writer's experience
Engineering Design Report
Question: Discuss at least two things you learnt or discovered – for example about design, or working in groups or the physical world – through participating in the Impromptu Design activities.
Firstly, the most obvious thing that I discovered was the advantage of working as part of a group  . I learned that good teamwork is the key to success in design activities when time and resources are limited. As everyone had their own point of view, many different ideas could be produced and I found the energy of group participation made me feel more energetic about contributing something  .
Secondly I discovered that even the simplest things on earth could be turned into something amazing if we put enough creativity and effort into working on them  . With the Impromptu Design activities  we used some simple materials such as straws, string, and balloons, but were still able to create some 'cool stuff'  . I learned that every design has its weaknesses and strengths and working with a group can help discover what they are. We challenged each other's preconceptions about what would and would not work. We could also see the reality of the way changing a design actually affected its performance.
1. Addresses the assignment question
2. Reflects on direct experiences
3. Direct reference to the course activity
4. The style is relatively informal, yet still uses full sentences.
5. Relating what was learnt.
Learning Journal (weekly reflection)
Last week's lecture presented the idea that science is the most powerful form of evidence  . My position as a student studying both physics and law makes this an important issue for me  and one I was thinking about while watching the 'The New Inventors' television program last Tuesday  . The two 'inventors' (an odd name considering that, as Smith (2002) says, nobody thinks of things in a vacuum) were accompanied by their marketing people. The conversations were quite contrived, but also funny and enlightening. I realised that the marketing people used a certain form of evidence to persuade the viewers (us?) of the value of the inventions  . To them, this value was determined solely by whether something could be bought or sold—in other words, whether something was 'marketable'. In contrast, the inventors seemed quite shy and reluctant to use anything more than technical language, almost as if this was the only evidence required – as if no further explanation was needed.
This difference forced me to reflect on the aims of this course—how communication skills are not generic, but differ according to time and place. Like in the 'Research Methodology' textbook discussed in the first lecture, these communication skills are the result of a form of triangulation,  which I have made into the following diagram:
1. Description of topic encountered in the course
2. The author's voice is clear
3. Introduces 'everyday' life experience
4. The style is relatively informal, yet still uses full sentences
5. Makes an explicit link between 'everyday' life and the topic
Brookfield, S 1987, Developing critical thinkers: challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting, Open University Press, Milton Keynes.
Mezirow, J 1990, Fostering critical reflection in adulthood: a guide to transformative and emancipatory learning, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
Schön, DA 1987, Educating the reflective practitioner, Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.
The Learning Centre thanks the students who permitted us to feature examples of their writing.
Prepared by The Learning Centre, The University of New South Wales © 2008. This guide may be distributed or adapted for educational purposes. Full and proper acknowledgement is required. Email: email@example.com
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