How to write task questions that don’t confuse students (or writing tutors)

One of the most common things that lecturers seem to complain about with regard to student writing is students’ seeming inability to answer task questions properly, fully, or in the desired way. One of the most common things we assist students with in our writing centre is what we call ‘task analysis’. In essence this means that we work with students to unpack and understand their task questions and then use this as a starting point for talking about what they have written in their drafts and where they can see gaps and areas for improvement and revision. One of the things that often frustrates us as writing tutors standing outside the disciplines is confusing questions, or questions with so much information packed into them that we are not sure what is more or less important or where to help students start with their thinking and writing. So, these are some of the things we think are worth thinking about when writing assignment questions that don’t confuse students (or writing tutors).

The first thing to consider when writing a question is one of the things we teach students to do when reading a question: think about the CONTENT words, the DIRECTION words and the PARAMETERS or boundaries. The content words are the stuff of the question and tell you what the essay/report/assignment needs to be about. For example, the ways in which power was exercised during the Marikana strikes, or the effects of climate change on animal habitats in the Arctic Circle and in sub-Saharan Africa. The direction words tell you what to with that content or research, for example critically discuss the exercises of power or compare the effects of climate change in these two kinds of habitats. The parameters or boundaries limit the topic so that you are focused and cannot simply write about anything and everything. So you might critically discuss the exercises of power at Marikana with particular reference to the behaviour of the army and the police force, or you might compare the effects of climate change in these two kinds of habitats over the last ten years. Thus you are limited from writing about the behaviour of the strikers or the mine owners as well as the police and army, or the effects of climate change in general over the last twenty or more years, such that your essay does not focus on what you have been asked to focus on. If students need to use these tools to unpack and understand questions, then it may help lecturers writing questions and tasks to be aware of them, and use them carefully.

The second thing to consider is avoiding the use of ambiguous direction words. The most often-used direction word is ‘discuss’. This is not in itself a problematic word, but it becomes confusing for students who see it used in different disciplines where it means different things, yet the exact meaning is often unclear. Discuss is therefore often experienced by students (and writing tutors) as being a rather vague direction word on the whole. Rather ask yourself, as the question-writer and assessor what you really need students to show you or do with the research and content and use direct, clear words, like ‘compare and contrast’; ‘analyse and explain’; describe’; critique’ etc to guide them.

The third thing to consider is to talk your students through the tasks you set carefully, making time for questions and answers. This could prevent at least some of the confusion around what reading and research to do and can help your students to understand exactly what you are looking for in their essays or assignments. Take time to explain to students exactly what your direction words mean in relation to the content and the parameters, and try to give them a set of assessment criteria – what are you looking for, what are you awarding marks for and what do they need to focus on. All the better if you can write these criteria down clearly and give them to students or have them accessible online via Google Drive or your university’s e-teaching platform.

The final thing to consider is that simpler is almost always better when it comes to questions. The more you pack in there the more likely students are to get dazed and confused and write off-topic. Even if you are assessing students at senior undergraduate or postgraduate level where they should be ready and able to unpack, understand and answer complex or layered questions, the more direct, clear, focused and simple your approach to writing the question, the more likely students will be to grasp what you want from them and meet the required standard in their responses. Complex questions don’t have to be written in complex and obscure language. In fact they absolutely should not be. We want students to learn, succeed and grow, and we need to give them opportunities to do this. Writing obscure, difficult, or confusing assignment questions is unlikely to help students achieve this learning, growth and success.

It takes time to learn how to write clear questions, so ask your colleagues or an academic literacy practitioner if you know one to read your questions and give you constructive feedback. Try out different ways of asking the same question. Cast your mind back to when you were a student, and try to remember what you found helpful and unhelpful and use this insight in your task writing. It may be tough to start with, but the rewards for you and your students will be worth it. The writing tutors will thank you too :-).

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