Assignment Design

Assignment Design I: Designing Problem-based Assignments

What do we mean by “problem-based assignments” ?

We are indebted to John Bean, who in his book, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2001), says this about writing and thinking:

“A basic premise of [this] book, growing out of the educational philosophy of John Dewey, is that critical thinking–and indeed all significant learning–originates in the learner’s engagement with problems. Consequently, the design of interesting problems to think about is one of the teacher’s chief behind-the-scenes tasks” (xi).

We would concede that students do not need to write in order to think. Nevertheless, writing makes their thinking visible, and students need, first and foremost, good problems about which to write.

Some approaches to problem-based assignments:

Writing-to-Learn Assignments (Exploratory Writing)

  • Privileges discovery over organization or communication
  • May be thesis-seeking rather than thesis-supporting
  • May call for reflection or reader response
  • Sometimes used as “pre-writing” for more formal writing assignments


Presents a proposition (a focused thesis, not a topic) that students are supposed to defend or refute. Encourage students to use explicitly-stated criteria in coming to a measured conclusion.


Gives students a problem or question (not a topic) that demands a thesis answer and supporting evidence.


Presents students with a data set or graph and asks them to discover a thesis or general statement that gives meaning to it. For science courses, these essays offer practice in inductive reasoning.

Theory Application

Presents a theory, model, aesthetic movement, or philosophy (not a topic). Then ask students to use the defining features of the theory to analyze another text, work of fiction, or data set.


The principles of a given format are usually tied closely to the purpose and audience for the paper. One format might be prescribed or several formats might be prescribed. In the latter case, the formats may function as a heuristic for students to rethink a given problem through different lenses (different purposes, different audiences).

Assignment Design II: Communicating Expectations

  • Identifying general features of “good” writing
  • Identifying general features of most academic writing
  • Identifying the distinctive features of your assignment
  • Communicating the distinctive features of your assignment

Identifying general features of “good” writing

Not all of us will agree on what the “general features of good writing” might be, but, to the extent that we do agree, we probably agree on a level of great generality. Some of these generalities are identified here. We think most would agree that good writing:

  • Has a purpose
  • Is controlled by a theme that is significant or meaningful
  • Uses textual features effectively and in a manner suited to the purpose and audience
  • Uses supporting detail effectively for purpose
  • Is worth rereading (for information, for aesthetic value, etc.)

Identifying general features of most academic writing

Just as we probably would agree on the features of good writing at a very general level, we might also agree on at least some of those features that make for strong academic writing. We suggest that, in general, good academic writing:

  • Has a focused thesis
  • Is effectively organized in a predictable pattern
  • Has sufficient supporting detail or evidence suited to the purpose
  • Addresses a “distant” audience and is formal in its tone
  • Has appropriate diction (typically, this means it is written in standard edited English)
  • Is honest or accurate

Here’s the point: Most university students probably agree that the features above characterize academic writing. Even if you don’t articulate these features in your criteria for writing assignments, your students would probably assume that you expect them to include these features. What your students might not understand is what distinguishes your particular assignment might provide your students with a list of the criteria that distinguish your assignment from other possible writing assignments.

Identifying the Distinctive Features of Your Assignment

  1. What is the purpose?
  2. How does this purpose differ from the purpose of other assignments?
  3. Who is the (hypothetical) audience?
  4. How does this audience differ from a general audience?
  5. What kind of problem is asked and what methods are best suited to solving it?
  6. What methods might work against effective problem-solving or effective communication?

You might begin to specify the distinguishing features of your assignment–that is, specifying the rhetorical situation for the assignment–by talking about how those features fit the general aspects contained in the RAFT acronym:

You might be more comfortable specifying the role, audience, and theme than you are specifying the format. Following are some examples of the distinguishing “format” features of some different kinds of writing:

Classical Argument

  • Introduction
  • Background and preliminary material
  • Summary of opposing views
  • Discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing views
  • Presentation of arguments supporting your own position
  • Anticipation of possible objections that your audience might make to your position
  • Rebuttal of objections to your argument, including a concession to those weaknesses that seem insurmountable
  • Conclusion

Experimental Report

  • RAFT (consideration of Role, Audience, Format, and Theme)
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
    • Background info
    • Gap in info: justification
    • Problem (approach, summary)
  • Materials/Methods
  • Results – foreshadows discussion by summarizing patterns
  • Discussion – interprets significance of results; acknowledges limitations & constraints
  • Conclusion

Five Paragraph Theme

  • RAFT
  • Introduction ending with a thesis that foreshadows subparts
  • Subpart 1
  • Subpart 2
  • Subpart 3
  • Conclusion, possibly relating issue to larger web of issues

Note: Although this basic form is an ancestor of most academic writing, overuse of this form may blind students to formats more suited to their particular purposes and audiences.

Dramatic Monologue

  • Written as a monologue–that is, in the “voice” of one character (not the author’s own “voice”).
  • Written as with a fictitious audience rather than the actual target reading audience in mind. This gives the work the effect of the reader eavesdropping on the monologue.
  • Written in the diction and syntax of a particular speaker (therefore, the chief “organization” might appear to ramble, as in speech).
  • Refrains from explicitly stating a thesis.
  • Suggests something important about the character (and possibly about a larger life context).
  • May make use of irony (possibly distance between listener and speaker).
  • May make use of concrete imagery.
  • May make use of poetic devices (alliteration, assonance).
  • Detail is selective, but sufficient to develop the character or problem.


  • Purpose may be simply to entertain, or may be to offer some form of critique (social, cultural, etc.).
  • A theme (however general) is illustrated through a specific situation.
  • May possess narrative elements, such as character, setting, and conflict.
  • May refrain from explicitly stating a thesis.
  • May make use of concrete images.
  • May use hyperbole, understatement, irony, and/or figurative language (simile, metonymy, metaphor, etc.) .
  • May violate our expectations or surprise us in its content, characterization, imagery, or form.

Proposal Argument

  • RAFT
  • Presentation of issue including background
  • Brief summary of opposing view(s)
  • Presentation of writer’s proposal
  • Justification
    • Reason 1: Proposal addresses a serious problem / issue
    • Reason 2: Proposal solves the problem
    • Reason 3: Additional reasons for enacting proposal


  • RAFT

Note: A review may address the following questions:

  • What is the QUESTION or hypothesis that the article attempts to answer?
  • How significant is this question?
  • What is the CLAIM or the thesis of the article?
  • What is the RELATIONSHIP between author and reader?
  • What is the METHOD by which the author attempts to answer the question?
  • What are some ASSUMPTIONS underlying the article?
  • How respectable is the EVIDENCE?
  • How does the article make use of REFERENCES?
  • How consistent are the CONVENTIONS of this text with the currently accepted conventions of the discipline?
  • What are some of the IMPLICATIONS of the article?

Rogerian Argument

  • Introduction (presents issues but not the student writer’s position)
  • Sympathetic summary of opposing viewpoint(s)
  • Recognition of common ground between opposing view(s) and the writer’s initial position
  • Recognition of minor differences
  • Modification of argument demonstrating some compromise or synthesis of positions

Scientific Letter (not an experimental report)

  • Summarizes some noteworthy research
  • Identifies a problem
  • Acknowledges competing hypotheses
  • Critiques each competing hypothesis (and provides reasons why each is limited)
  • Presents an argument for the student’s hypothesis (and provides reasons why this hypothesis is superior)
  • Summarizes the evidence supporting this hypothesis (though does not explain methods or materials, nor does it report any raw data)
  • Provides figures (though usually not tables)
  • Concludes with a major claim


  • RAFT

Note: Students may need to be cautioned about distinguishing a summary from an argument. With a summary, the writer is briefly presenting someone else’s claim, not his or her own. It may also be helpful to students to note the importance of condensing argument in proportion to the original argument.

Communicating the Distinctive Features of Your Assignment

While we advocate communicating your expectations, we believe that the most important element of assignment design is identifying a good problem rather than just a topic. The following framework for communicating assignment features is premised on the assumption that you have first posed an important problem or have guided your students in discovering their own good problems.

We think that it can be beneficial to students to give them explicit direction and to discuss assignment features and expectations frequently and in multiple ways. Here are just some ideas for different situations and methods for communicating assignment features to students. It can even be beneficial for students to be reminded of assignment expectations or features after they have already done it. Reminding students of these important aspects in written feedback can be a way of reinforcing their importance for the student, and they can also serve as part of the “justification” for your comments and grading practices.

We would recommend discussing assignment features with students at any of the following points:

  • Before the assignment
  • In the assignment handout
  • After the assignment is given
  • In peer review guides
  • In five-minute workshops
  • In scoring guides
  • In written comments