The basic premise of this article is that certain limits placed on a given assignment will produce results closer to the anticipated finished product than will an assignment with loose directions.
Students like limits on their assignments; the limits tell them what is expected and what is not. It saves them from having to shoot in the dark. Most of you can remember the dreaded writing assignment in English class soon after you returned to school in the fall. The teacher would ask you to write a paper on what you did last summer. Where to begin? What to say? I generally had done lots of things, and some of them were not to be written about or were so mundane as to be of no interest whatsoever. The point is, I was pretty much lost on this assignment. I needed guidelines and some starters to get me thinking along certain lines.
Let me give you some ideas about how this assignment could yield better results with a little fine tuning. First, the paper length needs to be defined. Perhaps it should be a five paragraph essay with a beginning and a concluding paragraph. This will test to see if the student knows about the five paragraph essay structure and how to create good opening and closing paragraphs.
Second it would be good to give some ideas for the topics of the three body paragraphs. Asking the student to describe their typical day, their worst day, and their best day of the summer would make life a lot easier for them. You would be able to see how they develop and organize their ideas as well as see if they are sharp enough to use a similar format for each type of day.
A third option would be to require them to use a certain number of sentences in each body paragraph, say five or six. This would show you how well they follow directions and limits the amount of reading you will have to do.
With the above restrictions on the assignment, the students have a much better idea of how to proceed. The essays produced will be more alike in structure and format, but they will still differ radically in content. Because the students have direction, they will be more likely to produce something nearer to your expectations.
What you as the teacher have to decide is what you are really looking for in the writing. Are you trying to diagnose for deficiencies? Are you trying to teach something or have them practice it? Are you testing for mastery of a skill or format or some content specific area? All of these questions should be addressed before you construct the assignment.
How about another example. Let's say I wanted the students to master the use of the prepositional phrase in various positions within a sentence. Most books would have the student learn to recognize such phrases and diagram them and otherwise pick them out of existing sentences. The point is I want my students to use them, not just know about them and pick them out of somebody else's sentences.
My assignment parameters for this kind of limited situation were generally as follows. Write a five sentence paragraph that describes a scene or an action in which each sentence follows the formulas given. At that point I would give some formulas. For example, sentence one might be Pp S V O Pp. Here I am looking for two prepositional phrases (Pp's), one before the subject and one after the object.
If I didn't want to be specific with formulas, I would ask them to have one sentence with three Pp's at the beginning, two sentences with three Pp's scattered where they like, and two sentences with two Pp's wherever they would put them. It would make it easier to grade if the specific sentences were identified. That could easily be done with directions such as those that follow. Sentence one will have three Pp's at the front. Sentences two and four will have two Pp's where you choose to put them, and sentences three and five will have three Pp's placed singly wherever you like.
When students write this type of paragraph, they have to come up with their own content, but the content is somewhat incidental to the structure, which is what I want them to concentrate on. When reading it, I will immediately know whether they can handle the Pp in their writing or not.
You can easily adapt the above to any kind of sentence structures: relative clauses, subordinate clauses, verbals of all types, various other modifiers, and so forth. All this is done for you, of course, in my Jensen's Grammar series.
Now let's say you are more concerned with content instead of structure. Obvious situations in an English class would be writing based on literature the students have read or perhaps lectures you have given regarding literary movements and such.
Pure content can be assessed by giving single right answer tests, but let's assume you want them to write a paper. Again, give them some specific parameters. The book report is famous for being way too loose in its directions. I remember being told to read a fiction book and to write an essay on it. It was another of those assignments where I really wondered what the teacher wanted and rarely knew.
Here is a good spot for a five paragraph essay again. With the opening and closing paragraph pretty well standard, suggest some topics for the three body paragraphs. I often asked for a paragraph on the plot, a paragraph on the characters, and a paragraph on the theme or message of the work. An alternative to the theme paragraph could be their likes and dislikes along with a recommendation to fellow classmates about reading or not reading the book. This puts the student in the position of a critic, but they all make judgments anyway on what they read.
For a short story you might ask for three body paragraphs about three characters. One should be on the hero, one on the villain, and one on any other character that takes their fancy. Then suggest some things they might note about each character: physical qualities, spiritual/moral attributes or lack thereof, relationships with others in the story, social standing including their employ, their realism/believability, and whether the student would pick them for a friend. You might even ask them to make a judgment as to whether the character is a believer or not; get them to justify that one.
Grading such a piece is simple. You need to weigh in the mechanics somehow, so it is best to have an analytical key handy. In the above case, along with a scale for mechanics and a fudge factor for me, I would have a three column check list, one for each character along with the various items I wanted comment on. The student either mentions the characteristic or doesn't; check it if it is covered; leave it blank if it isn't. Such a check list is very simple and easy to quantify.
Most teachers have never heard of an analytical key. See Jensen's Format Writing for some examples. I also have some examples in the special report entitled "Scripture: Memorization and Writing."