Good Questions for Better Essay Prompts (and Papers)

Blank notebook with idea lightbulb emerging from it

Most professors would admit that they’ve found themselves frustrated when grading papers. Yes, sometimes those frustrations might stem from students ignoring your clear, strategic, and explicit instructions, but more often, I’d argue, “bad” papers are a result of how and what we’re asking of students, and how well we really understand our goals for them. Further, we often struggle to strike a balance between providing too much information and too little, and placing ourselves in a novice’s shoes is difficult. In an effort to combat these challenges, I present a series of questions to ask yourself as you begin developing or revising prompts.

1. What do you want your students to learn or demonstrate through this writing assignment? Is an essay the best way reach these goals? If so, do they understand those learning goals?
Assigning an essay is, for many instructors, our go-to. But paper writing isn’t always the best assessment tool. Think hard about what it is you’re hoping for your students to take away from an assignment. Are there other, better forms the assignment might take? And if the answer is a resounding, “This paper is the right venue!” you should consider whether you are explicitly conveying to your students why you’re asking them to do certain work. Transparency benefits them tremendously. Transparent assignment design—being explicit about how and why you are facilitating their learning in the ways that you are—helps all students, but it particularly helps those students who may not have the experience, networks, or models in college that other students have, such as first-generation college students, minorities, or students with disabilities. Whether in class discussion or in the written prompt itself, strive to follow these transparent assignment design principles.      

2. Who is the audience (real or imagined) for the assignment, and what is the purpose of the text?For most writing assignments, the “audience” is, of course, the instructor, and students strive to meet that instructor’s expectations, even if they’re guessing about what this instructor knows, wants, and expects.Even assignments as specific as “Write a letter to the Editor on X topic” beg for more detail. (Is this for my hometown paper or the New York Times? Those letters will of course read very differently.) And when it comes to purpose or goals, while it might seem obvious to you what the purpose of this paper is, it might not be to your students. Work to be as explicit as possible as you can in what you’d like them to achieve in their paper. You might use language such as, “In this paper you are writing to an audience of scholars in X field, who are/are not familiar with your topic,” or “Your overarching purpose in this paper is to persuade your reader towards a specific, implementable solution to the problem at hand, and support your argument with scholarship in the field.”

3. Do you want to read their papers?
This question may seem silly, but it’s not. In every field, professors have the capacity to set students up for authentic, engaging assignments. If you don’t feel excited to read the paper, you can likely imagine how difficult it will be for students to engage in the much more substantial process of writing it. So, consider retooling the assignment into something you look forward to spending time reading. Might you consider new genres, audiences, or purposes for their writing? Develop a traditional essay into a problem-solving task?

4. What does good writing look like in your field? How can you convey this to students?
We all know what good writing looks like in our fields, but students sometimes don’t even understand that writing forms, expectations, and conventions vary from discipline to discipline. Whether we like it or not, and whether we think we have time for it or not, it is our job to teach students about texts in our specific disciplines. Maybe that includes offering them annotated sample papers. Maybe this happens over a series of beginning-of-class conversations as they’re drafting. Maybe it’s showing them some of your own work or looking closely at the writing in a flagship journal. Regardless of how you do it, be sure that a part of the writing process for your students includes exposure and at least an introductory understanding to what “good” writing is to you and your field.

5. Are your grading criteria clear—and thoughtful and reasonable?
We know that clear grading criteria—whether in the form of a rubric or a narrative—is key to student writer success, but it’s not as simple as assignment weights to columns such as “Grammar” and “Thesis.” In order to think deeply about how we’re grading, we also have to interrogate what assumptions we have about our student writers? What do we think they already know? Why do we think this? What do we prioritize in an essay, and more importantly, why is that the priority? Do our priorities align with our learning goals for students? These answers to these questions too should be transparent to students as they embark on your writing assignments.

6. What support and structure are you able to provide?
Traci Gardner’s Designing Writing Assignments illustrates that the kinds of prompts that allow students to write strong papers share certain characteristics, and among the most important is providing support, both materially and in their process (35). How are you going to facilitate the writing that you want to see your students develop and showcase it in your prompt? Can the assignment be broken down into smaller, scaffolded steps? Or, if you want the students to practice managing projects and figure this out themselves, how can you serve as a guide as they work through time and resource management in order to do so? As scholars, we are not expected to create excellent work without feedback, and we shouldn’t expect it of our students either. We’re not only teaching content and, as noted above, what writing looks like in our discipline, but we’re also working to instill a writing process. Before assigning a paper, be clear about how you’ll build in steps, support, and this process of feedback and revision into your assignment.

7. Does it make sense for this particular assignment and your particular class to include a reflective element?
Research shows that metacognition and reflection aid in the transfer of knowledge and skills, so building in some way for students to reflect on the writing and learning they’ve done through your assignment is a valuable way to help them take that knowledge forward, into other classrooms and, later, the workplace.

8. How can you go through the writing process yourself to create the most productive possible prompt?
Ask for feedback from colleagues—or your students! There’s no shame in showing students a prompt and revising it based on their questions, perceptions, and, after the semester ends to benefit your next class, their writing.

Bio: Jessica McCaughey is an assistant professor in the University Writing Program at George Washington University, where she teaches academic and professional writing. In this role, Professor McCaughey has developed a growing professional writing program consisting of workshops, assessment, and coaching that helps organizations improve the quality of their employees’ professional and technical writing. In 2016, she was nominated for the Columbian College’s Robert W. Kenny Prize for Innovation in Teaching of Introductory Courses, and in 2017, she won the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s Emergent Researcher Award.


Elon Statement on Writing Transfer. (29 July 2013). Retrieved from e-web/academics/teaching/ers/writing_transfer/statement.xhtml  

Gardner, Traci. (2008). Designing Writing Assignments. National Council of Teachers of English.