How Students Interpret Assignments

How Students Interpret Assignments

The College of New Jersey

Mary Goldschmidt, Ph.D.


“In many cases, students focus on the products they are required to produce instead of on the processes they are being asked to engage in. This limited focus can lead students to take shortcuts to produce acceptable papers—shortcuts that may allow them to circumvent the writing and learning processes that assignments are intended to promote” (393).

~Jennie Nelson, “This Was an Easy Assignment: Examining How Students Interpret Academic Writing Tasks” Research in the Teaching of English 24.4 (Dec 1990): 362-96.

Shortcuts? Never!!!

Well, OK, maybe sometimes students do take shortcuts. But I have to admit, it was an eye-opener to read Nelson’s study, in which she interviewed thirteen students and their professors in seven different classes over the course of a semester at Carnegie Mellon University to examine “how and when students’ interpretations of writing assignments converge or diverge from their teachers’ intentions” (363). Students kept writing process logs for all assignments, and Nelson also collected their notes, drafts and final papers for the selected courses. Finally, she interviewed both students and professors to get a more detailed sense of each side’s expectations. In nearly half the cases (6 of 13), a student’s understanding of both the product and the process being assigned was significantly different from professor’s expectations.

Drawing on research that examines the social factors that “shape people’s approaches to a task” (364), and on studies “which have examined how writers represent composition tasks” (366), Nelson paid particular attention to the three ways students come to understand and then carry out assignments (364-65):

1) Students rely on their peers, and often the meaning and requirements of an assignment are negotiated in the “public forum of the classroom.”

2) Students rely on information gathered in previous courses and in the course thus far.

3) Most important, students learn quickly which answers and processes are actually rewarded; often, grades come to designate what the “real” task is (also called accountability).

What does this mean in real terms? Here are a few choice excerpts that I think you’ll find disquieting—but also, hopefully, instructive. In a core general education course entitled “Social Influences,” where students were assigned three interrelated papers requiring fieldwork to examine the socialization process for new students and power relationships among various groups, the professor clearly intended students to learn, for example, how to “collect and organize data for an argument” and “to use the theories and concepts discussed in class to frame these arguments” (372). It was intended to help students “go beyond course content, to learn how to systemize what’s happening to them” (372). One student, Art, however, had come to a very different understanding: “he did not anticipate any ‘major problems’ [for paper #2] . . . However, he did say ‘I’ll be lucky to get six pages—maybe with wide margins.’ Art found the first paper easy to write because he could rely on his classnotes, and ‘since it was about my own experiences, all I had to do was BS a little’” (374). Two nights before the second paper was due he changed his topic from the power of professors and teaching assistants over students (which he’d submitted two weeks earlier as his intended topic), to “the power of sports” because he “’figured it would be easier since I’m involved with sports’” (375).

Nelson goes on to describe Art’s process: “He then reported that he ‘started writing everything from the top of [his] head; said that he had interviewed the coach and interacted with teammates, but really didn’t.’ Essentially, Art fabricated his field report. While writing the paper, Art said he watched a basketball game on television, and took several breaks to rest and talk to friends. When he got stuck in his writing, he looked at the paper guidelines for help. . . . As with the first paper, Art reported that ‘always, throughout the paper, [I] constantly kept track of how many words I had written.’ In follow up interviews, Art explained that he used the seven-step assignment guidelines to compose the paper: ‘I read through each step and tried to answer it.’ Interestingly enough, Art produced a seven paragraph essay” (375-6).

Other student approaches were equally disappointing. In an engineering class, students were asked to complete a “challenging exercise in synthesizing and transforming course material into a concise 200 word argument about the role of ‘non-technical issues’ in the development of lead regulation”(379). One student, John, said that “’I felt like it was BS—basically it called for reiterating what we’d been given’” (380). Judy said the assignment wasn’t “’motivating’” and assumed that her professor’s grading criteria were “based on ‘a list of ideas’” (380). Her writing process reflects this: “she limited her reading and notetaking strategies to fit the limit of the assignment, saying ‘I just skimmed the assigned articles looking for blurbs about the topic’” (380). She also noted that the assignment contradicted what she had learned earlier in her academic career about writing where she was taught to start with the general and then narrow her topic down (380), and so she had had a particularly difficult time keeping her essay to the specified length.

Although limited in its scope, the study produced rich qualitative data that is echoed in longitudinal work being done at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (see

What do studies like Nelson’s tell us about how to avoid such discrepancies between our intentions and our student’s interpretation of assignments? Nelson speculates that tasks which provide too much direction or require too much paraphrasing can have a detrimental effect because they require “students to reproduce the content or form the teacher had provided” (392). This, in turn, can cause lack of motivation and interest.

Nelson calls for much more research in this area to be done, but her study does suggest a few other strategies that we can practice right now.

After we hand out an assignment, we should discuss with our students their assumptions and attitudes; for example, we might ask them what they think this assignment is asking them to do, what the main question is, and what this paper will look like. We need to hear what they’re reading in our assignments, and forestall any misinterpretations before students make them.

Nelson’s focus on accountability also reinforces that we need to evaluate student writing based on what we claim is truly important in the assigned task. The accountability needs to be consistent and should not send confusing messages.

We should be as precise in the assignment as possible, using strong verbs which clearly tell students the kind of activity they’ll be engaged (compare and contrast? show causes or effects? support a stance or a proposed solution?) Often using the verb “argue” isn’t specific enough—as it wasn’t in the engineering assignment featured in Neslon’s study.

Finally, the University of Hawaii at Manoa study provides a few more helpful tips. Sometimes, despite clear language, if an assigned task is new for students, they will interpret it by relating it to types of processes they already know. It is, therefore, often helpful to:

- Explicitly connect the assigned task to the targeted learning task

- Explicitly connect the assigned task to stated course goals

- Provide examples of strong student papers from similar assignments

- Relate the assigned to task to types of writing that students will be doing in their career

- Avoid long lists of provocative questions because however provocative they are, it may result in a long series of “unlinked paragraphs that answer the questions” – which may not be what you had intended.