The Elements of Writing Prompts


All of the elements listed in the sidebar here to the left tend to be present in writing prompts. Where one sees a lot of variability is in (1) how explicitly each element appears and (2) whether the way they’re presented in the prompt accurately reflects the instructor’s priorities. If deployed well, these elements offer instructors a stable vocabulary with which to articulate the building blocks of an assignment, clearly communicating:

  • what they imagine students will be doing at each stage of the assignment, and
  • how the assignment relates to other assignments and the broader goals of the course.  

A case study: the no-frills prompt

Let's take a prompt that's on the minimalist side of things:

Write a focused, clear 4–6 page essay using at least one novel or documentary film from our course along with other assigned secondary readings. Due Thursday, November 4 at 6 pm. 

Now let's look at how this prompt is framing the assignment for your teaching team and your students: 

Unpacking the elements of the prompt

In terms of the elements of a prompt, there is—and isn’t—a lot going on here, all at the same time. If we apply the steps of the assignment prompt decoder exercise to this prompt, we see that the 

  • purpose isn't really stated, though we can imagine that the goals include making sure students keep up with readings, giving students the chance to apply lectures and/our class discussions to their own arguments, putting primary and secondary sources into conversation with one another, and/or highlighting differences between novels and documentary films
  • genre is somewhat stated—it's an essay—but it's unclear whether it's supposed to be an argument, and, if so, what kind of argument. Is it a "lens/test a theory" kind of argument using the secondary readings, or would it become a comparative analysis of several primary sources if the student goes beyond "at least one" novel or film? 
  • evidence and analysis are also somewhat addressed, at least in so far as we have a sense of the parameters of evidence students should be working with. But is it better to use more than one novel or film? And how many secondary readings does "other" mean? And what kind of analysis would result in the student working with more/fewer sources? And what does it mean to "use" a novel or documentary film along with secondary readings? 
  • audience isn't stated, though presumably it's the students' TFs? 
  • style isn't addressed beyond "focused" and "clear" (which are themselves on the vague side of things)  
  • specific guidelines are relatively concrete (students know the length and when to submit things)
  • process isn't addressed at all. 

Inferring a rubric for feedback

Based solely on what's in this prompt, the implied rubric would mean giving students feedback on:

  • how clear and focused their writing is
  • that what they have written is "an essay" 
  • whether it is 4–6 pages long 
  • whether it uses at least one novel or documentary film from the course along with other assigned secondary readings, and
  • whether it was submitted by 6pm on November 4. 

As far as rubrics go, that's a difficult feedback scenario for students and teachers alike, because the first two bullets of the rubric are awfully hard to apply objectively—based on the prompt—and the last three bullets are merely objective. What we can see here is this: if meaningful feedback is a means for talking to students about their learning, we need a rubric that helps us to do so transparently and consistently; and for the rubric to serve as a common touchstone for everyone involved in the assignment, prompts need to err on the more explicit side of things with as many of their elements as possible.

Case study: final thoughts

What we see from this case study is that prompts that are less explicit typically require a lot of "insider intuitions" and guesswork from students. That's never ideal, but in Ged Ed courses it's even more likely to create breakdowns in communication between instructors and students. Making things more explicit in the prompt helps everyone involved engage more fully with an assignment by ensuring that the work students do and the feedback you give them reflect the learning experience you set out to design for them.