How Not to Overwhelm Students with Homework Assignments

Over the weekend I received e-mail from a student who requested help with a writing assignment. Well, that wouldn’t be anything remarkable if the student were registered in a course I was teaching. The problem is that the student was referring to a task assigned by another teacher…in a school that’s located an ocean away.

This isn’t the first time a student has approached me asking for help with a course assignment. I’ve heard from high school students, college students, and teacher trainees. The tone is generally the same from message to message: confused, frustrated, and deeply worried about not being able to complete the assignment. My replies to such messages vary slightly, but in each response I include the advice to speak to the instructor. As a teacher, I would want to know if my assignments were causing panic among my students. I’d feel disappointed to learn about this secondhand.

Writing assignments (closely followed by oral presentations) tend to prompt learners to turn to me as an online resource. They feel overwhelmed and unable to produce an acceptable composition. What can we do to support students in the face of such tasks? Here are a few recommendations:

  • Break a large assignment into more manageable tasks. If it’s an essay, require the topic and an outline first. Then require the thesis statement, followed by the introduction. Guide learners through revisions before moving on to the body. More revisions should follow. Provide guiding questions to help them formulate a conclusion. Supply students with a checklist to evaluate their own work. At different stages, peer editing and support can facilitate the process. For instance, have them work in pairs to develop thesis statements or to see if the entire essay follows the original outline.
  • Provide prompts. If it’s a short story, consider suggesting several plot ideas which students can choose from. You can also supply a list of questions to prompt the development of the story. For example:
  1. Where does this story take place?
  2. Who is this story about?
  3. What does the main character want or need to do?
  4. What makes it difficult for the main character to do this?
  5. Etc.
  • Be available.  Do you have office hours or an e-mail address students can reach you at? How can they contact you with questions and concerns?
  • Make other resources available. Are peer tutors an option? Would you allow students to share a first draft on a blog and receive community feedback? This last option is possible on a site like, where members’ blogs are interactive. In addition to leaving comments, readers are able to make suggestions regarding grammar and vocabulary.

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