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Improving Clarity with Structured Assignment Brief Templates 

Are you tired of answering endless questions about the assignment you’ve set? Do students ask you where else they can go for support and you’re not sure where to direct them? Do you share assignment types with your colleagues but duplicate effort by working in isolation? Then pre-populated assignment brief templates might hold the answer. 

A summary of the downloadable templates and exemplars 

At the bottom of this page there are five assignment brief templates. The first is developed by staff and students in the Computer Science department and is intended as a universal template for the assignment types used in their department. Accompanying it is an example of a group report assignment brief. The next three were developed by Health and Social Sciences (HSS) and cover literature reviews, annotated bibliographies and essays. The last is a blank template put together by CLT that can be downloaded and adapted for your own assignment briefs. It includes prompts that help you think about what to place in each section. The annotated version here gives further clarification of the reasoning behind the different sections: 

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PART ONE

PART TWO

PART THREE

PART FOUR

PART FOUR CONTINUED

The structure of the templates 

The templates foreground the information students find most salient, such as the deadline, how to submit the assignment, and its overall weighting within the unit. They also anticipate frequently asked questions, such as whether the word count includes references and appendices. As well as leaving space for a description of the task itself, many of the templates provide more explication of the particular assignment type than might ordinarily be the case, both in terms of content, process, and format. This is time-saving for staff who might otherwise be generating this text in isolation and also provides a valuable opportunity to ensure a shared understanding across a course team of the central aspects of a given assessment type. It should also be noted that the requirements of particular assignment types, such as literature reviews or essays, are often very culturally dependent, and so can be a mystery for students who lack this ‘cultural capital’. Making this information more explicit levels provides parity and allows students’ cognitive load to be occupied by the challenges of the task itself, rather than puzzling over the parameters of the brief. This is assisted by the inclusion of exemplar material where appropriate.  

Another key feature of the templates is that many of them map the assessment and attendant feedback with other parts of the unit and wider course. Doing so is intended to motivate students as they see the wider significance of the task. It also prompts them to ‘feed forward’ feedback they receive from one assignment to the next. The templates also detail how the work will be marked, so students can best tailor their submissions to meet these requirements. They also inform students whether and how they are permitted to use generative AI in their assignments, a growing area of concern. Last but not least, the templates include information on where students can find support if they are struggling with the assignment, from contacting the unit convenor, to the Skills Centre, to applying for mitigating circumstances. 

Using the templates 

The templates are not intended to be overly prescriptive: staff are encouraged to edit them to fit their context and make iterative improvements to them over time. A key consideration, for example, is whether to grant the common request made by students for exemplar material and a highly specific marking scheme. In the example assignment brief given by Computer Science (see below) it was decided to redact the marking scheme given to students so they could only see the weightings in bold. This was because they found inclusion of the more detailed criteria inhibited creativity, distracting students from the skills the assessment was intended to develop. In other contexts, however, this additional information may benefit students. For example, the exemplar material included with the Politics department’s annotated bibliographies assignment template (see below) gives welcome scaffolding to first year undergraduates, who are yet to learn the intricacies of academic research. Whatever level your students are studying at, it is best practice to make clear the standard and format you expect, as well as the process they should follow. One way of doing this might be to provide a model answer for a different but related question.

How the templates were developed 

In the Computer Science department enhancement of assignment briefs was a joint project between students and Director of Studies Dr John Benardis. The goal was to develop a template that could be used across the department and improve clarity around expectations. For the students, a key motivation was to improve consistency between tutors and to reduce the number of mundane queries they needed to ask them, such as what filename to give their submissions. Learning and Teaching Quality Committee input further developed the templates, which have now been further honed through use. Their adoption across the whole department is expected as part of the overarching project of Curriculum Transformation. 

More recently academics in the Politics department, Dr David Moon, and Dr Sophia Hatzisavvidou, as part of Curriculum Transformation, have worked with the HSS Education Manager, Ed Mason, to create structured templates. They consulted with the Students’ Union and built on qualitative comments drawn from student surveys. Initially spearheaded by the Politics Department, the templates have now been approved for use by the Education department’s Learning and Teaching Quality Committee, and the Associate Dean of HSS, Gail Forey, hopes soon to roll this approach out across the whole faculty.  

Recommendations:

  • Do explore ways you can collaborate with other members of your department to develop your own partially pre-populated assignment briefs 
  • Use the discussions around the content of the briefs to ensure a shared understanding of the meaning of key terms in your assessment brief, particularly when you are setting similar assignment types 
  • Consider other ways cross-departmental collaboration could ease your workload. For example, creating shared feedback banks that echo the language used in the shared assignment template 
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