Effective Essay Prompts

Good writing prompts start with a clear answer to the question: why do we ask students to write? The answer may change depending on the type of class you’re teaching, but certainly one goal for faculty teaching Writing Skills classes is to help students become more sophisticated writers. What other goals do you hope to achieve with each assignment? Understanding your goal in giving the assignment will help shape an effective prompt.

Does your prompt:

  1. Clearly state your goal in giving the assignment?
  2. State, frame, and/or contextualize the question, problem, or task?
  3. Distinguish the main question from any sub-questions that may help the student answer the main question?
  4. Clearly articulate any specific expectations, such as
    • Being allowed (or not) to use the first person?
    • Using (or not) a clearly defined structure that opens with a thesis and ends with a conclusion?
    • The number or type of sources you expect, and the type of citations to include?

5. Propose the opportunity to write and revise in response to initial feedback?

    • When students feel the stakes are lower or that they’ll have the chance to learn from their mistakes in a first draft, they write more freely (and often more eloquently).

6. State, specifically, what you’re asking students to do?

    • Experiment with different verbs, such as explain, analyze, compare, evaluate, interpret, and argue (rising up the Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy pyramid from the exercises in freewriting and writing to remember and understand explained in Writing to Learn).

Image of Bloom's Taxonomy pyramid. Bottom is Remember, then Understand, then Apply, then Analyze, then Evaluate, and finally at the top, Create.

7. Finally, does it include a reminder that students should visit the Writing Workshop to meet with a peer tutor at any stage of the writing process?

  • Writing tutors are available in Sawyer Library from 10am to midnight most days. Consider including a link to our schedule and locations page in your writing prompt.