Writing (Teaching) Tip: The Art of Giving Directions

I was talking yesterday with an MU class of graduate students preparing for careers as nurse-educators.  One spoke scornfully of “vague” and “wordy” assignments, pages of directions, when he felt that a few sentences would suffice.

It’s a tricky balance–providing enough but not too much direction.  Many of us lay so much groundwork because we’ve been burned in the past. Sometimes it feels as if we’re practicing defensive teaching: we lay out each and every margin, primary source, deadline, etc.  so that when a student comes complaining we can say, Look: I told you to do X and you did Y.  And sometimes it feels like hand-holding.

But there are many more positive reasons for explicit and detailed (and yet concise!) writing assignments.  Carolyn and I lay out some of the reasons behind our assignment checklist in the WI workshops, but one of the most important ones is Carolyn’s mantra, “They’re not all like us.”  For every competent and impatient graduate student there are many more undergrads at MU struggling to master college-level work.  Most are not like you as a college student; most are not destined to be academics.  Laying out your expectations, you are helping them think about audience, purpose, and rhetorical context for a writing assignment.  Thorough directions are the sort of accommodation for differing abilities that may help every student do better.  Able students can skim directions–and sometimes they find something they might otherwise have overlooked.

I’m always happy to be a sounding board for anyone working on a writing assignment.  There are also innumerable resources about assignment design on the Web, such as this Columbia College faculty development PowerPoint.

 

 

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