Course and Assignment Design

Understanding the Learning Process

Effective course design begins with understanding the process of thinking and learning. These processes are commonly termed "metacognition."

Metacognition includes a critical awareness of one’s thinking and learning and oneself as a thinker and learner. The effectiveness of a metacognitive approach to instruction was one of three key findings in "How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School," the National Academy of Sciences’ synthesis of decades of research on the science of learning.

More reading on metacognition

Quick tips on metacognitive practices for the classroom

Metacognitive practices increase students’ abilities to transfer or adapt their learning to new contexts by asking them to engage in thinking about thinking: that is, thinking about their tasks and assignments as designed for learning, and thinking about their own practice as learners.

Thinking About Student Writing

One of the key steps in designing an effective writing assignment is understanding what good student writing looks like and why mastering academic writing is so difficult for students.

Read about the difficulty of student writing

Metacognition in Writing Assignments

While these metacognitive practices are effective for student learning, many of these precepts should be applied to the process of designing successful writing assignments in the first instance. Key to metacognitive assignment design is maintaining an awareness of what the assignment is trying to achieve and how it seeks to achieve it. In writing assignments, it is important to bear in mind:

The most effective teaching aligns assessments, learning objectives and instructional strategies. For example, assignments that call for factual recall are useless if the goal is to practice analytical skills. Likewise, not all writing assignments are created equal. The principles of backward design can help to ensure successful alignment.

read more on aligning goals and outcomes

Effective Writing Assignments

The more detailed a writing assignment is, the better the student papers are in response to that assignment. Students respond best to instructions that make explicit the process or steps necessary to complete the assignment. A checklist to bear in mind:

  1. Have you used explicit command words in your instructions (e.g., “compare and contrast” and “explain” are more explicit than “explore” or “consider”)? The more explicit the command words, the better chance the students will write the type of paper you wish.
  2. Does the assignment suggest a topic, thesis and format? Should it?
  3. Have you told students the kind of audience they are addressing — the level of knowledge they can assume the readers have and your particular preferences (e.g., avoid slang, use the first-person sparingly)? (Click here for information on effective writing formats.)
  4. If the assignment has several stages of completion, have you made the various deadlines clear? Is your policy on due dates clear? (Click here for guidance on sequencing your assignment.)
  5. Have you presented the assignment in a manageable form? For instance, a five-page assignment sheet for a one-page paper may overwhelm students. Similarly, a one-sentence assignment for a 25-page paper may offer insufficient guidance.

questions to consider as you design your writing assignment

Further reading on building effective writing assignments

See also: Davis Grant Project


According to the principles of Universal Design for Learning, writing can help to foster an inclusive learning environment by making classroom discussion accessible and by providing additional opportunities for participation.

learn more about the benefits of writing to accessibility

see best writing practices for students with disabilities

Contact Student Accessibility Support at brandeis

Feedback and Assessment

Like many instructors, many students have been trained by past educational experiences to think of all written comments on their papers as negative and evaluative. Comments on final drafts often serve to justify the grade; even if we do not intend them to, students will frequently read comments with this purpose in mind.

Students also have assumptions about the ways teachers respond to them. Even helpful questions can be read by students as being sarcastic or critical. Therefore, it is a good idea to discuss or demonstrate your responding strategies in class before students receive their first written responses.

Guidance on good responding strategies