Tips on Teaching

Framing Assignments for Clarity

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by Jerod Quinn, Instructional Developer

I have known for a long time that I like to ramble when I talk, but it has been a recent discovery of mine that I also like to ramble when I write. While that’s not inherently a bad thing, it has been adding some undesirable tension between me and my students because my rambling habit has leaked over into my assignment descriptions. But it came from good intentions, I swear! When you teach online (which I do), you don’t have the opportunity to correct misunderstandings and add clarity in the moment like you do in the classroom. In the classroom if your assignment instructions are unclear, the students can protest and seek clarity while you’re standing in front of them. While clear written instructions are important in any context, they are especially important for online classes because there is no “in the moment” to course correct. Knowing this, I decided to write all of my expectations and directions in my assignment descriptions, but I didn’t think about how to frame all that writing in a readable flow. My assignment descriptions had become a big, jumbly mess. In my attempt to be overly explicit with my expectations for assignments I added a lot of confusion with unnecessary instructions without any real structure.

I have been actively working to correct my rambling assignment instructions, and some recent reading has encouraged me that I’m pursuing good practice. In Stavredes and Herder’s book A Guide to Online Course Design they address assignment instructions by stating that clear and organized instructions, “will enable learners to focus on the intellectual work associated with assignments such as critiquing a piece of music or creating a marketing campaign rather than interpreting what they are supposed to do” (pg. 148). I want my learners engaged in the assignment, not burning their energy trying to figure out what I am asking them to do. With that in mind I thought I would share the simple assignment structure I have been using for this past year with positive results. It’s a three-part structure that offers a framework for clarity of expectations and encourages my affections for alliteration. The three components I use to define my assignments are Purpose, Process, and Product.


Most of my students are future teachers or future instructors of some nature. Offering a space to explain why I’m inflicting these assignments upon my learners helps them to “see how the sausage is made” (i.e., the thinking behind the choices I’ve made). I want them to understand that my assignments are not random, but that they are intentional opportunities for content mastery. They are connected directly to our learning objectives, which are expressions of the course goals, which are designed to help them navigate their time as students as well as serve them as professionals. We don’t do busy work in my classes, and I want to make sure my students realize that the purpose of these assignments is tied to their growth as professionals. They may not like my assignments, but at least they can articulate why I am assigning them.


This section gives me space to explain how I expect my students to approach their assignments. This could mean encouraging them to work in groups, or explaining how I expect them to approach collaborative work. For a few of my assignments, I have my students breaking free from their computer screens and go out into the “real world” to document our course content as it is expressed in the wild. Having a section in our assignments that offers me the opportunity to explain how I expect the process of completing the assignment helps to clarify the route my students should take to get to the end of the assignment. And with those assignments where the process is more organic or ambiguous, offering a little direction on a suggested process can offer a starting point the students to begin to route their own path through those more independent projects.


The product is the deliverable. This is where I tell my students what they actually need to submit for the assignment, where they need to turn it in, and the time and date that assignment is due. This the where I lay out my expectations about their papers, multimedia projects, interpretive dances, or whatever I am asking them to create.

Purpose, Process, and Product is the format I have been using for my assignments for this past year. I get fewer questions about clarification now, and I feel like my students have a better understanding of not only what I am asking of them, but why I create the assignments I do. While I have found this structure makes sense to me and my context, I don’t think it is the structure that has been the benefit to my students. The benefit comes from me taking time to make my assignment instructions more clear, more direct, and less rambly.