One of the most common complaints we hear from faculty across campus is that they cannot assign formal writing in their classes because students turn in such badly flawed drafts. When we begin asking questions about the assignments, however, we usually discover that instructors have missed three key opportunities to ensure that they get better writing from students.
It's always tempting to walk into class and simply announce: "A 20-page term paper on X course concept is due in two weeks." Most teachers who've given such an open-ended assignment have been unhappy with the results because students don't really have much to go on. Instead, write out in detail why this paper is important for students to learn something in your class. In other words, connect the goals for the writing assignment to the overall course goals. Generally, you'll find that as you make the rationale for the task clearer, the task itself becomes more manageable and more obvious.
Perhaps even more important, if you tell students up front what your key criteria will be as you grade the papers, they'll try harder to make the paper meet all those criteria. We recommend explaining your standards for topics and organization, as well as citation format, proofreading, and page format. Typically, a good assignment sheet will fill one single-spaced page. We include much more detail on what to include on your assignment sheet and why under "What makes a good assignment?"
Many teachers fear that if students see good models, they will use the models as templates to "fill in the blanks" for their own assignments. Admittedly, sometimes students do take the "fill in the blanks" approach, but far less often than they might, particularly when teachers explain that the models represent a range of responses or approaches to the assignment. Much more often, students use the models to understand concretely the key criteria on the assignment sheet. An assignment might, for instance, call for detailed development, but until students see a sample of detailed development, they may not see just how much research they'll need to do to collect relevant support for their ideas.
Several side-effects result from requiring peer review. First, by setting the peer-review deadline at least one week before the assignment due date, teachers assure that students spend more time thinking about and revising their drafts. Not all students will have complete drafts at the peer-review session, but far fewer students will put off any work on the draft until the night before it's due.
Second, requiring peer review guarantees that at least one other person has read through the draft. Granted, students can ignore all the advice peer reviewers give them, but most will ask for yet another opinion if a peer reviewer says that the draft is completely off track or incomprehensible.
Third, but not least important, when students read each other's drafts, they get yet another chance to see a different approach to the assignment and to think through the key criteria for the assignment. Often a question on a peer review worksheet will trigger new thinking about a student's own draft after commenting on that point on the peer's draft.