Attributes of Well-Written Assignment Instructions

Fork in Road with Conflicting Right Way Sign

When you are teaching a face-to-face course, you have some freedom to provide assignment instructions to your students that are somewhat imprecise. This is because you have the opportunity to provide further clarification or to answer any questions in person when your students are right in front of you. In an online course, however, assignment instructions should be maximally clear without any vagueness or ambiguity. Without your students sitting in front of you in real time, you won’t have as much of an opportunity to provide further clarification on assignment instructions that are less than precise.

When writing assignment instructions, the goal should be to provide as much precision, clarity, and specificity needed to ensure students have all the information they will need to be successful in their work on the assignment. The following are several attributes of well-written assignment instructions in an online course:

Pedagogical Requirements First and foremost, the instructions should specify all of the pedagogical requirements for the assignment. For example, if the assignment instructions are for an argumentative essay, then the instructions might specify that students should anticipate and respond to possible objections to their own arguments.
Length Requirements The instructions should clearly state any length requirements, usually in terms of an ideal page number range for written assignments (e.g., 8–10 pages), a time range for video assignments (e.g., 5–7 minutes), a slide number range for PowerPoint presentations (e.g., 10–12 slides), and so on.
Format and Style Requirements The instructions should specify any format and style requirements (e.g., page margins, font type and font size, whether to use APA style, whether references are required, and so on).
Tools and Access Instructions If external tools or resources are required for the assignment, the instructions should clearly indicate what those tools or are, ideally along with step-by-step instructions for finding and accessing them (e.g., how to register for an account at any required external websites, and so on).
Criteria for Grading The instructions should contain the specific criteria that will be used in grading the assignment. This can be as complex as a formal grading rubric in tabular form, or it can be as simple as a short bullet list of the grading criteria. Regardless, the goal is to reduce ambiguity and vagueness, so students know exactly what is expected of them to be successful.
Purpose of the Assignment It is important for students to know why they are being asked to do the things they are being asked to do, whether in the overall course or in a specific assignment. The instructions should explain the purpose of the assignment to students, so they know what benefits they will get from completing the assignment and why those benefits are important.

When writing instructions for online course materials, it can be helpful to imagine that you would never be able to provide further clarification on the assignment instructions or make any future edits. The kind of clarity you would provide if you knew you would never be able to provide further clarification is what you should strive for when writing assignment instructions for online course materials. Even if you end up teaching the course yourself, the reality is that the direct interaction with your students is likely to be asynchronous at best and nonexistent at worst. So you should aim to set students up for success with the quality and precision of the online course materials and assignment instructions that you author from the very beginning.

Have an idea for how to make assignment instructions as clear and precise as possible? Let us know about it in the comments section and join the conversation!

Zachary Fruhling is a senior instructional designer at HotChalk Inc. where he is responsible for the design and implementation of graduate-level online course materials. Zachary has over 15 years of experience in higher education, both in the classroom as a university-level philosophy instructor and in educational technology as a digital content author, instructional designer, and creator of interactive online course materials and media for a variety of disciplines.

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Attributes of Well-Written Assignment Instructions

by Zachary Fruhling