Adapted by Liz Delf, Rob Drummond, and Kristy Kelly
The first principle of good communication is knowing your audience. This is where writing papers for class gets kind of weird. As Peter Elbow explains,
When you write for a teacher you are usually swimming against the stream of natural communication. The natural direction of communication is to explain what you understand to someone who doesn’t understand it. But in writing an essay for a teacher your task is usually to explain what you are still engaged in trying to understand to someone who understands it better. (255)
Often when you write for an audience of one, you write a letter or email. But college papers aren’t written like letters; they’re written like articles for a hypothetical group of readers that you don’t actually know much about. There’s a fundamental mismatch between the real-life audience and the form your writing takes. It’s kind of bizarre, really.
It helps to remember the key tenet of the university model: you’re a junior scholar joining the academic community. Academic papers, in which scholars report the results of their research and thinking to one another, are the lifeblood of the scholarly world, carrying useful ideas and information to all parts of the academic corpus. Unless there is a particular audience specified in the assignment, you would do well to imagine yourself writing for a group of peers who have some introductory knowledge of the field but are unfamiliar with the specific topic you’re discussing. Imagine them being interested in your topic but also busy; try to write something that is well worth your readers’ time. Keeping an audience like this in mind will help you distinguish common knowledge in the field from that which must be defined and explained in your paper. Understanding your audience like this also resolves the audience mismatch that Elbow describes. As he notes, “You don’t write to teachers, you write for them” (220).
Another basic tenet of good communication is clarifying the purpose of the communication and letting that purpose shape your decisions. Your professor wants to see you work through complex ideas and deepen your knowledge through the process of producing the paper. Each assignment—be it an argumentative paper, reaction paper, reflective paper, lab report, discussion question, blog post, essay exam, project proposal, or what have you—is ultimately about your learning. To succeed with writing assignments (and benefit from them), you first have to understand their learning-related purposes. As you write for the hypothetical audience of peer junior scholars, you’re demonstrating to your professor how far you’ve gotten in analyzing your topic.
Don’t be scared whenever you are given an assignment. Professors know what it was like to be in college and write all kinds of papers. They aren’t trying to make your lives difficult, but it is their job to make us think and ponder about many things. Take your time and enjoy the paper. Make sure you answer the question being asked rather than rant on about something that is irrelevant to the prompt.
Instructors don’t assign writing lightly. Grading student writing is generally the hardest, most intensive work instructors do. You would do well to approach every assignment by putting yourself in the shoes of your instructor and asking yourself, “Why did they give me this assignment? How does it fit into the learning goals of the course? Why is this question/topic/problem so important to my instructor that they are willing to spend evenings and weekends reading and commenting on several dozen papers on it?”
Most instructors do a lot to make their pedagogical goals and expectations transparent to students: they explain the course learning goals associated with assignments, provide grading rubrics in advance, and describe several strategies for succeeding. Other instructors…not so much. Some students perceive more open-ended assignments as evidence of a lazy, uncaring, or even incompetent instructor. Not so fast! Instructors certainly vary in the quantity and specificity of the guidelines and suggestions they distribute with each writing assignment.
It is understandably frustrating when you feel you don’t know how to direct your efforts to succeed with an assignment. However, except for rare egregious situations, you would do well to assume the best of your instructor and to appreciate the diversity of learning opportunities you have access to in college. Like one first-year student told Keith Hjortshoj, “I think that every course, every assignment, is a different little puzzle I have to solve. What do I need to do here? When do I need to do it, and how long will it take? What does this teacher expect of me?” (4). The transparency that you get from some professors—along with guides like this one—will be a big help to you in situations where you have to be scrappier and more proactive, piecing together the clues you get from your professors, the readings, and other course documents.
Often, the handout or other written text explaining the assignment—what instructors call the assignment prompt—will explain the purpose of the assignment, the required parameters (length, number and type of sources, referencing style, etc.), and the criteria for evaluation. Sometimes, though—especially when you are new to a field—you will encounter the baffling situation in which you comprehend every single sentence in the prompt but still have absolutely no idea how to approach the assignment. No one is doing anything wrong in a situation like that. It just means that further discussion of the assignment is in order. Here are some tips:
- Focus on the verbs
- Look for verbs like “compare,” “explain,” “justify,” “reflect,” or the all-purpose “analyze.” You’re not just producing a paper as an artifact; you’re conveying, in written communication, some intellectual work you have done. So the question is, What kind of thinking are you supposed to do to deepen your learning?
- Put the assignment in context
- Many professors think in terms of assignment sequences. For example, a social science professor may ask you to write about a controversial issue three times: first, arguing for one side of the debate; second, arguing for another; and finally, arguing from a more comprehensive and nuanced perspective, incorporating text produced in the first two assignments. A sequence like that is designed to help you think through a complex issue. Another common one is a scaffolded research paper sequence: you first propose a topic, then prepare an annotated bibliography, then make the first draft, then make the final draft, and finally, perhaps, create a reflective paper. The preparatory assignments help ensure that you’re on the right track, beginning the research process long before the final due date and taking the time to consider recasting your thesis, finding additional sources, or reorganizing your discussion. (Most instructors are perpetually frustrated with the “one-and-done” attitude that most students bring to their work, and some sequences are specifically designed to force you to really rethink your conclusions.)
- If the assignment isn’t part of a sequence, think about where it falls in the semester and how it relates to readings and other assignments. Are there headings on the syllabus that indicate larger units of material? For example, if you see that a paper comes at the end of a three-week unit on the role of the internet in organizational behavior, then your professor likely wants you to synthesize that material in your own way. You should also check your notes and online course resources for any other guidelines about the workflow. Maybe you got a rubric a couple of weeks ago and forgot about it. Maybe your instructor posted a link about “how to make an annotated bibliography” but then forgot to mention it in class.
- Try a freewrite
- When I hand out an assignment, I often ask students to do a five-minute or ten-minute freewrite. A freewrite is when you just write, without stopping, for a set period of time. That doesn’t sound very “free”; it actually sounds kind of coerced. The “free” part is what you write—it can be whatever comes to mind. Professional writers use freewriting to get started on a challenging (or distasteful) writing task or to overcome writer’s block or a powerful urge to procrastinate. The idea is that if you just make yourself write, you can’t help but produce some kind of useful nugget. Thus, even if the first eight sentences of your freewrite are all variations on “I don’t understand this” or “I’d really rather be doing something else,” eventually you’ll write something like “I guess the main point of this is…” and—booyah!—you’re off and running. As an instructor, I’ve found that asking students to do a brief freewrite right after I hand out an assignment generates useful clarification questions. If your instructor doesn’t make time for that in class, a quick freewrite on your own will quickly reveal whether you need clarification about the assignment and, often, what questions to ask.
- Ask for clarification the right way.
- Even the most skillfully crafted assignments may need some verbal clarification, especially because students’ familiarity with the field can vary enormously. Asking for clarification is a good thing. Be aware, though, that instructors get frustrated when they perceive that students want to skip doing their own thinking and instead receive an exact recipe for an A paper. Go ahead and ask for clarification, but try to convey that you want to learn and you’re ready to work. In general, avoid starting a question with “Do we have to…” because I can guarantee that your instructor is thinking, “You don’t have to do anything. You’re an adult. You chose college. You chose this class. You’re free to exercise your right to fail.” Similarly, avoid asking the professor about what he or she “wants.” You’re not performing some service for the instructor when you write a paper. What they “want” is for you to really think about the material.
|Potentially annoying questions||Preferable alternatives|
|“I don’t get it. Can you explain this more?” or “What do you want us to do?”||“I see that we are comparing and contrasting these two cases. What should be our focus? Their causes? Their impacts? Their implications? All of those things?” or “I’m unfamiliar with how art historians analyze a painting. Could you say more about what questions I should have in mind to do this kind of analysis?”|
|“How many sources do we have to cite?”||“Is there a typical range for the number of sources a well-written paper would cite for this assignment?” or “Could you say more about what the sources are for? Is it more that we’re analyzing these texts in this paper, or are we using these texts to analyze some other case?”|
|“What do I have to do to get an A on this paper?”||“Could I meet with you to get feedback on my (preprepared) plans/outline/thesis/draft?” or “I’m not sure how to approach this assignment. Are there any good examples or resources you could point me to?”|
Rubrics as Road Maps
If an instructor provides a grading rubric with an assignment prompt, you can be sure that he or she will use it to grade your paper. He or she may not go over it in class, but it’s the clearest possible statement of what the professor is looking for in the paper. If it’s wordy, it may seem like those online “terms and conditions” that we routinely accept without reading. But you really should read it over carefully before you begin and again as your work progresses. A lot of rubrics do have some useful specifics. Mine, for example, often contain phrases like “makes at least six error-free connections to concepts or ideas from the course” or “gives thorough consideration to at least one plausible counterargument.” Even less specific criteria (such as “incorporates course concepts” and “considers counterarguments”) will tell you how you should be spending your writing time.
Even the best rubrics aren’t completely transparent. They simply can’t be. Take, for example, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) rubric. It has been drafted and repeatedly revised by a multidisciplinary expert panel and tested multiple times on sample student work to ensure reliability. But it still seems kind of vague. What is the real difference between “demonstrating a thorough understanding of context, audience, and purpose” and “demonstrating adequate consideration” of the same? It depends on the specific context. So how can you know whether you’ve done that? A big part of what you’re learning, through feedback from your professors, is to judge the quality of your writing for yourself. Your future bosses are counting on that. At this point, it is better to think of rubrics as road maps displaying your destination rather than GPS systems directing every move you make.
Behind any rubric is the essential goal of higher education: helping you take charge of your own learning, which means writing like an independently motivated scholar. Are you tasked with proposing a research paper topic? Don’t just tell the professor what you want to do; convince him or her of the salience of your topic as if you were a scholar seeking grant money. Is it a reflection paper? Then outline both the insights you’ve gained and the intriguing questions that remain, as a scholar would. Are you writing a thesis-driven analytical paper? Then apply the concepts you’ve learned to a new problem or situation. Write as if your scholarly peers around the country are eagerly awaiting your unique insights. Descriptors like “thoroughness” or “mastery” or “detailed attention” convey the vision of student writers making the time and rigorous mental effort to offer something new to the ongoing, multistranded academic conversation. What your professor wants, in short, is critical thinking.
What’s Critical about Critical Thinking?
Critical thinking is one of those terms that has been used so often and in so many different ways that it often seems meaningless. It also makes one wonder, is there such a thing as uncritical thinking? If you aren’t thinking critically, then are you even thinking?
Despite the prevalent ambiguities, critical thinking actually does mean something. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) usefully defines it as “a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion” (“Value Rubrics”).
That definition aligns with the best description of critical thinking I ever heard; it came from my junior high art teacher, Joe Bolger. He once asked us, “What color is the ceiling?” In that withering tween tone, we reluctantly replied, “White.” He then asked, “What color is it really?” We deigned to aim our preadolescent eyes upward and eventually began to offer more accurate answers: “Ivory?” “Yellowish tan.” “It’s gray in that corner.” After finally getting a few thoughtful responses, Mr. Bolger said something like, “Making good art is about drawing what you see, not what you think you’re supposed to see.” The AAC&U definition above essentially amounts to the same thing: taking a good look and deciding what you really think rather than relying on the first idea or assumption that comes to mind.
The critical thinking rubric produced by the AAC&U describes the relevant activities of critical thinking in more detail. To think critically, you need to establish the question or problem, evaluate your sources, interrogate the assumptions informing the ideas you encounter, and develop a nuanced position that accounts for multiple perspectives (“Value Rubrics”).
While you are probably used to providing some evidence for your claims, you can see that college-level expectations go quite a bit further. When professors assign an analytical paper, they don’t just want you to formulate a plausible-sounding argument. They want you to dig into the evidence, think hard about unspoken assumptions and the influence of context, and then explain what you really think and why.
Interestingly, the AAC&U defines critical thinking as a “habit of mind” rather than a discrete achievement. And there are at least two reasons to see critical thinking as a craft or art to pursue rather than a task to check off. First, the more you think critically, the better you get at it. As you get more and more practice in closely examining claims, their underlying logic, and alternative perspectives on the issue, it’ll begin to feel automatic. You’ll no longer make or accept claims that begin with “Everyone knows that…” or end with “That’s just human nature.” Second, just as artists and craftspersons hone their skills over a lifetime, learners continually expand their critical-thinking capacities through both the feedback they get from others and their own reflections. Artists of all kinds find satisfaction in continually seeking greater challenges. Continual reflection and improvement are part of the craft.
Critical thinking is hard work. Even those who actively choose to do it experience it as tedious, difficult, and sometimes surprisingly emotional. Nobel Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains that our brains aren’t designed to think; rather, they’re designed to save us from having to think (44). Our brains are great at developing routines and repertoires that enable us to accomplish fairly complex tasks like driving cars, choosing groceries, and having conversations without thinking consciously and thoroughly about every move we make. Kahneman calls this “fast thinking.” “Slow thinking,” which is deliberate and painstaking, is something our brains seek to avoid. That built-in tendency can lead us astray. Kahneman and his colleagues often used problems like this one in experiments to gauge how people used fast and slow thinking in different contexts (44):
A bat and ball cost $1.10.
The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?
Most people automatically say the ball costs $0.10. However, if the bat costs $1 more, then the bat would cost $1.10, leading to the incorrect total of $1.20. The ball costs $0.05. Kahneman notes, “Many thousands of university students have answered the bat-and-ball puzzle, and the results are shocking. More than 50% of students at Harvard, MIT, and Princeton gave the intuitive—incorrect—answer.” These and other results confirm that “many people are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions” (45). Thinking critically—thoroughly questioning your immediate intuitive responses—is difficult work, but every organization and business in the world needs people who can do that effectively. Some students assume that an unpleasant critical-thinking experience means either that they’re doing something wrong or that it’s an inherently uninteresting (and oppressive) activity. While we all relish those times when we’re pleasantly absorbed in a complex activity, the more tedious experiences can also bring satisfaction, sort of like a good workout.
Critical thinking can also be emotionally challenging, researchers have found. Facing a new realm of uncertainty and contradiction without relying on familiar assumptions is inherently anxiety provoking because when you’re doing it, you are, by definition, incompetent. The kind of critical thinking your professors are looking for—that is, pursuing a comprehensive, multifaceted exploration in order to arrive at a debatable, nuanced argument—is inevitably a struggle, and it may be an emotional one. Your best bet is to find ways to make those processes as efficient, pleasant, and effective as you can.
The thing no one tells you when you get to college is that critical thinking papers are professors’ favorites. College is all about learning how to think individual thoughts, so you’ll have to do quite a few of them. Have no fear though; they do get easier with time. The first step? Think about what you want to focus on in the paper (a.k.a. your thesis) and go with it.
The demands students face are not at all unique to their academic pursuits. Professional working roles demand critical thinking, and it’s pretty easy to imagine how critical thinking helps one make much better decisions in all aspects of life. Embrace it. And just as athletes, artists, and writers sustain their energy and inspiration for hard work by interacting with others who share these passions, look to others in the scholarly community—your professors and fellow students—to keep yourself engaged in these ongoing intellectual challenges. While writing time is often solitary, it’s meant to plug you into a vibrant academic community. What your instructors want, overall, is for you to join them in asking and pursuing important questions.
The original chapter, What Does the Professor Want? Understanding the Assignment by Amy Guptill, is from Writing in College: From Competence to Excellence
- Think about all of the things you have written this week—both in school and outside of it. Who was the audience for each? How did that impact your writing?
- What does “analyze” mean? It’s a common verb on assignment sheets—but what are you being asked to do when you analyze something?
- “Critical thinking” is a crucial outcome in many classes—and arguably, one of the main goals of a college education. How does this skill transfer to other parts of your life? Where else is it important to think critically? What does it look like in those contexts?
- Freewrite on an assignment prompt. If you have one, do that one. If not, here’s one to practice with: “Please write a five-page paper analyzing the controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the food supply.” What clarification questions would you like to ask your professor? What additional background knowledge do you need to deeply understand the topic? What are some starter ideas that could lead to a good thesis and intriguing argument?
- Find a couple of sample student papers from online paper mills (Google “free college papers”) and use the AAC&U rubric on critical thinking to evaluate them. Which descriptor in each row most closely fits the paper?
- In small groups or as a whole class, work together to develop a rubric for an upcoming assignment. Create three to four categories for evaluation, develop criteria, and assign points for each. For example, if you have a category titled “Argument,” what does that mean? What would excellent work look like in that category?
- The Online Writing Laboratory (OWL) at Purdue University is a wonderful set of resources for every aspect of college writing. Especially germane to this chapter is this summary of the most common types of writing assignments.
- The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a helpful page with tips for understanding assignments.
Elbow, Peter. Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. Oxford UP, 1981.
Hjortshoj, Keith. The Transition to College Writing. 2nd ed., Norton, 2009.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
“Value Rubrics—Critical Thinking.” AAC&U, American Association Colleges and Universities, 13 June 2022, www.aacu.org/initiatives/value-initiative/value-rubrics/value-rubrics-critical-thinking.