Ensuring Students Understand an Essay Assignment


Presented by Susan Miller.

Susan Miller teaches at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida. Her podcast’s topic is the importance of spending time with your students as soon as you give them an assignment. One of the bigger mistakes that novice teachers make is assuming that students understand the assignments we have made. The other problem assumption here is that we assume that students will ask questions if they do not understand the assignment. The issue here is basic timidity of students in the classroom and their unwillingness to appear “stupid.”

She offers a personal example. Even early on, she says she was pretty anal retentive about details in her assignment sheets. She would give hints for thesis development, suggest methods of organization, point to text guidance, offer extended office hours, highlight the critical elements, and then send students off while she awaited the writing brilliant efforts that were sure to come. When the papers came in, however, she was disappointed to see a pile of drafts that showed moderate effort but were oddly off course. She would then spend time writing diagnostic and prescriptive comments, and then would spend time in class explaining what students needed to do to get back on course in their revisions. None of the extra time spent comparing what students did write to some imaginary Platonic ideal was pleasant or encouraging.

Academic writing does not start with the student sitting down to pen and paper or to a computer. The writing starts when instructors tell students what they have to write. She could have saved those wasted hours of extra time, she says, by assuming that how the students read the assignment, if they read at all, was not the way she intended them to be read. What she suggests is to invest time in that critical moment when you give the assignment. In her classroom, she generally gives students three minutes to read the assignment. Then, she asks them to visualize their writing process from creating a thesis to gather in personal or textual evidence to crafting a written and then revised draft. Then, while still in the classroom, she asks them to submit anonymous questions, thus saving students the embarrassment of asking “stupid” questions. She asks them to tell here where they anticipate the greatest area of confusion or frustration in the assignment. This allows her to get her class on track early in the process. It also has the potential to start useful discussions about the assignment among the students. When she teaches online, she still requires the same process.

The process can take as little as ten minutes in the classroom, but even this small amount of extra time at the moment the assignment is given is more valuable than all of the extra time she had been spending trying to correct students’ initial misunderstandings of the assignment.