Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Three keys to writing great free-response prompts

by Derek Spencer

Writing great free-response prompts is tough. If they aren't worded just so, you might get some strange, short, or incomplete answers from students — so creating clear, concise, and complete writing prompts is an essential skill. Here are three tips to help you get the most out of your writing prompts.

1. Direct students to perform one primary task.

Your prompt should be designed with one clear learning objective in mind. Do you want students to show that they fully understand how a metaphor affects a text? Direct them to write about a specific metaphor in a specific text. If you ask multiple questions in your writing prompts, students will likely give you disjointed, underdeveloped responses.

Tasks should begin with a verb, such as "explain" or "analyze." So, you might have a task that looks like this:

Analyze the metaphor in line 13 and explain its effect on the meaning of the poem as a whole.

This is an example of a "part-to-whole" type of prompt, in which students are asked to examine a part of a text and explain its relation to the whole work. This sort of prompt is often seen on AP exams. The primary task here is to "explain [the metaphor's] effect on the poem as a whole — analyzing the metaphor supports this primary task.

2. Be concise.

Give students as much information as they need to satisfy the prompt's requirements, and no more. Extra information is at best a distraction.  At worst, it gives students hints toward what a "correct" answer would look like — reducing your prompt's viability as an assessment tool. If you need to give your students lots of hints or ask lots of questions, the primary task in your prompt may not be clear enough.

3. Tell students the format in which they should write.

This one seems obvious, I know — one would think that students would know that they need to answer free-response prompts with essays. However, unless you specify that they need to write an essay in your prompt, they may come back with something that isn't as detailed as you would like.

Do you have any other tips for writing good prompts? If so, share them with us in the comments! Thanks for reading!

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

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