06 05 Written Assignment Format

Use your concept map or plan

Write your assignment using your map or plan to guide you.  As you write, you may well get new ideas or think about ideas in slightly different ways.  This is fine, but check back to your map or plan to evaluate whether that idea fits well into the plan or the paragraph that you are writing at the time. Consider:  In which paragraph does it best fit?  How does it link to the ideas you have already discussed?

Paragraph planning

For every paragraph, think about the main idea that you want to communicate in that paragraph and write a clear topic sentence which tells the reader what you are going to talk about. A main idea is more than a piece of content that you found while you were researching, it is often a point that you want to make about the information that you are discussing.  Consider how you are going to discuss that idea (what is the paragraph plan). For example, are you: listing a number of ideas, comparing and contrasting the views of different authors, describing problems and solutions, or describing causes and effects?

Use linking words throughout the paragraph. For example:

  • List paragraphs should include words like: similarly, additionally, next, another example, as well, furthermore, another, firstly, secondly, thirdly, finally, and so on.
  • Cause and effect paragraphs should include words like: consequently, as a result, therefore, outcomes included, results indicated, and so on.
  • Compare and contrast paragraphs should include words like: on the other hand, by contrast, similarly, in a similar way, conversely, alternatively, and so on.
  • Problem solution paragraphs should include words like: outcomes included, identified problems included, other concerns were overcome by, and so on.

Some paragraphs can include two plans, for example a list of problems and solutions.  While this is fine, it is often clearer to include one plan per paragraph.  

Linking paragraphs:

Look at your plan or map and decide on the key concepts that link the different sections of your work.  Is there an idea that keeps recurring in different sections?  This could be a theme that you can use to link ideas between paragraphs.  Try using linking words (outlined above) to signal to your reader whether you are talking about similar ideas, whether you are comparing and contrasting, and so on.  The direction that your thinking is taking in the essay should be very clear to your reader.  Linking words will help you to make this direction obvious.

Different parts of the essay:

While different types of essays have different requirements for different parts of the essay, it is probably worth thinking about some general principles for writing introductions, body paragraphs and conclusions.  Always check the type of assignment that you are being asked to produce and consider what would be the most appropriate way to structure that type of writing. 

Remember that in most (not all) writing tasks, especially short tasks (1,000 to 2,000 words), you will not write headings such as introduction and conclusion.  Never use the heading ‘body’.

Writing an introduction:

Introductions need to provide general information about the topic. Typically they include:

  • Background, context or a general orientation to the topic so that the reader has a general understanding of the area you are discussing.
  • An outline of issues that will and will not be discussed in the essay (this does not have to be a detailed list of the ideas that you will discuss).  An outline should be a general overview of the areas that you will explore.
  • A thesis or main idea which is your response to the question.  

Here is an example of an introduction:

It is often a good idea to use some of the words from the question in the introduction to indicate that you are on track with the topic.  Do not simply recount the question word for word. 

Writing the body:

  • Each paragraph should make a point which should be linked to your outline and thesis statement.
  • The most important consideration in the body paragraphs is the argument that you want to develop in response to the topic. This argument is developed by making and linking points in and between paragraphs.

Try structuring paragraphs like this:

  • Topic sentence: open the paragraph by making a point 
  • Supporting sentences: support the point with references and research
  • Conclusive sentence: close the paragraph by linking back to the point you made to open the paragraph and linking this to your thesis statement.

Here is an example of a body paragraph from the essay about education and globalisation:

As you write the body, make sure that you have strong links between the main ideas in each of the paragraphs.

Writing the conclusion:

This is usually structured as follows:

  • Describe in general terms the most important points made or the most important linkage of ideas
  • Do not include new information, therefore it does not usually contain references
  • End with a comment, a resolution, or a suggestion for issues that may be addressed in future research on the topic.

Here is an example conclusion from the essay on education:

This page provides two downloadable documents: a set of Low Stakes writing assignments, and guidelines for High Stakes writing assignments. The documents are available in .docx copies to allow for revision and customization. You’re welcome to take what you need, please keep the Augsburg logo intact (other downloadable logos are available here).

Click HERE to download a full set of sample Low Stakes assignment prompts.

Click HERE to download a set of sample High Stakes assignment guidelines.

You can learn more about the benefits of differentiating between low and high stakes assignments in Peter Elbow’s (1997) essay, “High stakes and low stakes in assigning and responding to writing” from Writing to Learn: Strategies for Assigning and Responding to Writing across the Discipline: New Directions for Teaching and Learning.


 Low stakes writing is:

  • Free writing in response to a simple prompt
  • A simple, informal way to integrate writing in the classroom
  • “Low effort, high impact”
  • Easy to incorporate at the beginning or end of class
  • Low-stress, and typically involves little to no grading

Low stakes writing helps:

  • Describe, apply, and retain information
  • Explore and personalize ideas
  • Focus thoughts and questions
  • Demonstrate the value of writing as a part of the learning process
  • Informally engage each student in the classroom
  • Improve high-stakes writing
  • Efficiently assess student learning

A brief sample of low stakes prompts:

  • What do you already know about this topic that can guide your learning?
  • What have you learned from similar assignments that can help you succeed on this one?
  • Summarize today’s lecture in one sentence.
  • What do you feel like you learned today, and what lingering question do you have?
  • Write an email to a friend who has been absent for a week and explain what they’ve missed. Aim to be comprehensive rather than writing a list.

Click HERE to download a full set of sample Low Stakes assignment prompts.


High stakes writing assignments:

  • Correspond to writing conventions in the discipline/genre
  • Are typically formal and academic in style
  • Develop over time through drafting and sequencing/scaffolding
  • Require conducting effective research
  • Depend on effective, close reading
  • Synthesize complex information
  • Are more sophisticated in thought and prose

Basic Guidelines

  • Regard writing as a process rather than a product
  • Clearly connect the assignment to course learning objectives
  • Provide students with a clear assignment prompt detailing expectations
  • Provide students with a rationale for those expectations
  • Articulate the audience for the writer (Experts? A publication? You?)
  • Use assignment sequencing/scaffolding (suggestions below and here)
  • Include opportunities for feedback and related revision
  • Provide effective feedback on drafts (suggestions here and here)
  • Grade using a clear assessment strategy, like a custom rubric
    • Review suggested rubric options here
  • Weight the assignment accordingly, usually assigning significant value in the overall course grading system
  • Assign value (i.e. a grade or other form of credit) to reading assignments

High stakes writing helps to:

  • Familiarize students with disciplinarity and writing in a genre
  • Describe, apply, and retain complex disciplinary information
  • Develop more advanced writing, thinking, learning, and process skills
  • Develop self-assessment and revision skills
  • Focus on developing depth rather than breadth
  • Improve higher order learning/thinking
  • Thoroughly assess student learning and content mastery
  • Teach students to handle competing information and develop thesis

Quick Tips

  • Make use of in-class peer review activities to help crowd-source feedback
  • Provide examples of previous work from students (with their permission) along with the original assignment description
  • Focus on minimal comments in the margins and identify 1-3 strategies for improvement at the end of a draft
  • Identify common strengths/weaknesses of the class and discuss those with the class as a whole
  • Identify successful examples of student work in class for discussion
  • Cover common mistakes in the original assignment description or when discussing the assignment, use low-stakes writing to reiterate the points
  • If you don’t have time to teach a writing topic, such as citation style, link students to effective guides (many are available on the WAC website)

Key high stakes writing resources:

  • University of Minnesota Departmental Writing Plans
    • These departmental writing plans address disciplinary specific writing practices, learning goals, and expectations of students writing in the major. They are detailed documents from over 30 departments and range from 30-75 pages in length.
  • Harvard College Disciplinary Writing Guides
    • These writing guides are written for a student audience, they overview conventions of writing and conducting research in various academic disciplines across both the Sciences and Humanities.
  • Strategies for Scaffolding Assignments
    • This handout explains how to organize assignments on course material systematically, including time-saving tips and responses to common faculty concerns.
  • MIT’s Open CourseWare 
    • Search topically through hundreds of undergraduate and graduate courses by discipline or topic and access course syllabi, readings, and assignment documents.
  • Augsburg’s Suggested Link & Resources
    • This webpage provides guides to some of the best online resources for helping instructors incorporate writing curriculum into their classrooms. Links address topics such as developing learning objectives, designing assignments, approaches to assessment, writing instruction handouts, and tutorials on references and citation.

Click HERE to download a more detailed set of sample High Stakes assignment guidelines.

Contributors: Jacqueline Schiappa • Last Edited: June 2016

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