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.
Most essay prompts include key words. Learning to “decode” these key words can clarify your writing goals for any particular assignment. Key words can also suggest the details your essay should include and strategies for how you might organize your paper. It is helpful to read your assignment prompt carefully, underline key words, and refer back to the assignment prompt as you outline, draft, and finish your essay to keep yourself on track. Finally, before turning in your assignment, be sure to check that your assignment is fulfilling all of the prompt’s requirements. Note: After you have read your prompt carefully, underlining key words, if you still feel uncertain or have questions be sure to have a conversation with your professor to clarify.
|Keyword||Writing Goal||What does it mean?|
|Similarities, Differences||Compare and/or contrast||Look for similar and dissimilar ideas in your material. Why is each point important? What do these similarities and differences tell you about the subject’s ideas?|
|Evaluate||Rate or make a judgment||Use evidence and logic to prove whether your subject or material is strong or weak, valuable or invaluable, significant or insignificant. How does this evaluation change one’s understanding?|
|Summarize||Describe, Explain||Write about the most important aspects of the topic. Optional: give background information, content information, and analysis as necessary.|
|Discuss||Provide an extended description, explanation or analysis, including illustrations or details||Your prompt is asking you to observe, unpack, and talk about a certain topic or aspect of the topic. Begin by deciding how you will approach the topic, or what exactly you want to say about the topic. Once you have your "angle," focus your argument on validating this angle while still keeping other opinions in the mix as counterarguments.|
|Interpret||Decode, decipher, convey the meaning of||Translate what something means. What do you understand the material’s message to be? What details helped you come to that conclusion? Why is it important to understand it in that way?|
|Argue||Persuade, convince||Take a stance towards an issue and write to convince your audience of your viewpoint.|
*What you will need to do for analysis depends on the discipline
|Examine, Think critically||Critically consider the material by looking closely at all elements of the text you are writing about. Provide a detailed discussion of the material. This might be where a professional and logical critique comes into your writing.|
|Reflect||Connect to personal experience||Write about the material and connect it back to a personal experience so that a general audience can relate and understand.|
Example prompts and explanations
Reflect on Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
- What does the speech mean to you? What personal experiences have you had that connect you to the speech?
Analyze the characters of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the context of modern feminism.
- How do the characters represent the different ideals of modern feminism? How does that relate to the male characters? What evidence from the text leads you to these conclusions?
- What is photosynthesis? Why is it important? If necessary, describe how the process was discovered (and by whom).
Argue against the recent Supreme Court decision that reversed DC’s ban on handguns.
- Why was the Supreme Court wrong in their decision? What evidence – from texts, the Constitution, current events, and prior legal cases – prove that the Court should have made the opposite decision?
Contrast Freud’s views on dreams with Jung’s.
- How are Freud’s and Jung’s ideas different?
Interpret J.K. Rowling’s decision to end the Harry Potter series by writing about the characters 19 years into the future.
- Why do you think the author ended the series by writing into the future? If she had remained in the present, what effect would that have had on the series? What questions raised by the series are answered by the author’s decision?