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Half the academic battle is understanding the assignment

 Our school gives out five $1,000 scholarships for graduating seniors based on their “continuing search for knowledge.” This morning, I’ve been reading my students’ essays to help them win the award.

Here’s what I’m finding: Even more than writing skills, even more than writing conventions, the biggest difference between the strong essays and the weak essays is the degree to which they answer the writing prompt.

Remember the student yesterday who asked me to explain the year-long theme study assignment two days before the due date? This is related, of course. My students go to school every day and work hard, but many of them don’t understand what they’re doing.

Why is this happening? Is it an issue of reading skills? Is it a problem of following directions? Or is the challenge in critical thinking — about how to get the essence of an assignment in order to create something appropriate to the task?

This year in AP English, I trained my students to attack writing prompts and to organize their essays based only on the prompt. While the strength of their essays differed — especially with evidence and analysis — my students stopped writing off-topic essays. That success gives me confidence for my students in college.

I think it’s a reading thing, plus maybe a lack of awareness about how school works. After all, “good students” know the school game. If my hunch is accurate, then that means that all students can learn how to crack the school code.

For my opponents out there — that training students to follow writing prompts amounts to cultivating passive learners who lack creativity — I say, I disagree! Being able to read an assignment closely is all about precision. Everyone can be “close to” or “around” an answer, but nailing it head on is what demonstrates excellence. 


  1. John at TestSoup

    This is an important skill elsewhere in life.

    How frustrating is it to get an email back from a coworker that provides plenty of information — except on the topic you need?

    And what about newspaper articles that don’t provide facts on the actual issue and instead trace down all sorts of irrelevant “asides?”

    On-topic writing is clutch.

    • Mark Isero

      Exactly, John. As I work with students, I’m realizing it’s a reading thing more than anything else.

      When reading a prompt, students have to understand not only the assignment but also the teacher’s intent and emphasis. It’s easier for a highly skilled reader to determine which parts of an assignment are more important than others.

  2. Geoff

    “My students go to school every day and work hard, but many of them don’t understand what they’re doing.”

    This is not trivial- what constitutes understanding from a pragmatic point of view? How do the power relations within schools (and society at large) relate to the conditions under which a forum for rigorous discourse can take place? Do students need to have access to active participation in the discourse of school (perhaps related to ‘game of school’?) in order to make sense of it?

    Great work, mark, love the blog.

Please share your brilliant insights!