Guidelines for First Assignments

Why the first paper matters

The first paper you assign in a First-Year Writing Seminar provides a unique opportunity to capture student attention and interest; to set a tone for the class; and to help students experiment with the writing and thinking practices you hope will characterize student work throughout the semester (and beyond). The first paper can provide insights into what your students can and cannot do as writers; these insights may help you adjust your learning goals, lesson plans, and assignments. Finally, the first paper serves the larger diagnostic needs of the FWS program as we work to identify students who may need help securing tutoring or mentoring support or finding a FWS that is a more comfortable fit. The FWS Instructor Referral process described in The Indispensable Reference for Teachers of First-Year Writing Seminars works best when FWS instructors participate actively during the first 10 days of the semester.

Since writing should be the focus of every FWS, this first paper should begin when the semester begins. Preparation for this first paper can begin with in-class activities as early as the first class meeting. An integrated sequence of classwork and homework can move students through a quick cycle of drafting—and possibly revision—within the first few classes. A full-length draft should be complete no later than the end of the second week of classes—even if a further round of revisions is planned.

Logistics of a first paper

First Papers should be…

  • Assigned during the first week of classes;
  • Read and assessed quickly, no later than the fourth class meeting;
  • Low-stakes;
  • Challenging, pushing students to practice analytical thinking and writing;
  • Engaged with texts and/or concepts characteristic of your course;
  • Between one and three pages long;
  • Small in scope;
  • Intellectually engaging and also fun.

Functions of a first paper

A first paper assignment can do the following:

  • Introduce students to the intellectual work of the course.
  • Give students a sense of course expectations.
  • Provide insights into how students will manage the substance of your course.
  • Provide students with opportunities to experiment with writing practices you hope students will use in your course (and beyond). These might include textual analysis, revision, peer review, and scaffolding.
  • Capture student attention in the period before exams and other high-stakes assessments begin to dominate academic life.
  • Help you get to know your students. 
  • Help your students get to know you. 
  • Identify students who might benefit from additional support. If they struggle with the first assignment they might struggle with other aspects of the course.

Examples of Useful First Assignments 

There are many options for what a successful first paper assignment might ask students to write. Below are a few ideas that are both small in scope and challenging. If you come up with an alternative option, please share it with us, so we can highlight it in our training materials. 

  • Pull a particularly interesting longer quote on your course topic, perhaps from a reading you will assign. Ask writers to first explain what the quote means and then apply it to their own experiences with the subject. 
  • Pick two quotes that represent competing views that relate to your course theme. Ask writers to explain each perspective and evaluate the perspectives, being sure to provide evidence from their own experiences in their analysis. 
  • Pick a photograph, a piece of art, or some other artifact that relates to your course theme. Pose a question that encourages students to analyze the image in relation to some of the key questions you hope to explore in the class. Encourage students to use the image as evidence in their answers. 
  • Ask students to complete a short reading that relates to your course theme. Ask them to first explain what they think the reading means. Then you could: 1. Ask a specific question they should use the reading to help answer; 2. Use the reading the analyze their own experiences with the issue; or, 3. Pose questions or evidence that complicates specific points in the reading.

Additional Support for Student Writers: 

The Knight Institute offers support to writers through the Cornell Writing Centers and the KNIGHT WRITERS Mentor Program, and accepts a small number of students each semester into Writing 1370/1380: Elements of Academic Writing—a lower enrollment FWS that includes weekly individual teacher/student conferences. All sections of Writing 1370 and 1380 are taught by Knight Institute writing specialists. 

A first FWS assignment should help instructors identify students who might benefit from additional support: in most cases this will not include having students transfer from their current FWS into Writing 1370/80. (Enrollment capacity in Elements of Academic Writing is limited. Cornell offers more than 220 FWSs during the fall semester. Only ten of these are sections of Writing 1370).

FWS Instructor Referral Guidelines

Frequently Asked Questions about Revised Guidelines for First Assignments

The last time I taught an FWS, we were supposed to assign “diagnostic essays.” Does the paper described in these guidelines replace the “diagnostic”?

The first paper described in these guidelines should take the place of the diagnostic essay in your course plan. While the first paper retains diagnostic functions, these revised guidelines highlight some of the other teaching goals for first assignments in a writing seminar, as well as the fact that the first paper assignment should be considered an essential part of the course’s curriculum, not a task that stands apart.

Does this paper count as one of my course’s five “formal” papers?

Your first assignment can count as one of your five “formal” papers. You can also treat it as a draft that will lead to a more formal assignment. Or you can treat it is an informal assignment. Consider what will work best with plans for subsequent classes and assignments as well as your learning goals.

Are personal narratives acceptable?

If you wish to build a first assignment around a personal narrative, be sure to include some elements that push students to do the kind of thinking and writing that will be characteristic of the course. For example, you could ask students to engage with a concept articulated in an early reading assignment.

Personal narratives can help students bring an individual point of view to the subject matter. Personal narratives can also help students identify their own stake in some aspect of the course material. However, an assignment that asks students to work exclusively from personal history or personal experience will not necessarily test students’ ability to read, analyze, or interpret texts, concepts, data, or images. Thinking and writing skills like close reading, analysis, and interpretation are likely to be central to the writing you ask students to do. Your first assignment should introduce students to some aspect of the writing skills and practices you will be teaching. If you can integrate aspects of these skills and practices into a personal narrative there is no reason not to design such an assignment at this point in the semester (or later on).

Should this paper be graded?

Try to keep the stakes low for this first assignment: this may mean not assigning a letter grade. How you keep the stakes low should depend, in part, on your larger grading strategies for the course. 

You are most likely to get the course off to a good start if conversations with students about their first assignment focus on content and style rather than a grade. Students also grow as writers when they feel comfortable experimenting and taking risks. Taking risks can be hard when the grade stress gets in the way. 

Even if the paper is not graded, it should still count. You want students to take the assignment seriously. One of the challenges inherent in teaching writing is figuring out how to help students discover their own investments in the subject matter, even as teachers evaluate their work and assign letter grades for their semester’s work. A particular challenge of the first assignment is finding a way to lower the stakes enough so students feel comfortable experimenting, while still keeping the stakes high enough so students take it seriously.

Should my assignment include revision?

Teaching revision is central to the FWS curriculum. Writers get better at revising if they have multiple opportunities to practice. Some of the most productive conversations instructors and students have about writing emerge from assignments built around guided revision. If it makes sense to incorporate revision, even on a small scale, into the first paper assignment, do so. If you would rather wait until a later assignment, that is also acceptable.

Should my assignment include footnotes or other citations?

Using sources responsibly should be integrated into the learning goals for FWS teachers. If it makes sense to begin working on responsible use of sources as part of your first assignment, do so. If it makes sense to introduce it later, that is also acceptable. (The repetition creeping into the last few responses indicates that we’ve entered the realm of instructor choice).

Should we do peer review as part of this assignment?

If it makes sense to help students work in peer groups—or read one another’s work—as part of your first assignment, do so. If it makes sense to introduce these practices later, that is also acceptable.

Should I schedule a conference after this paper?

Some instructors like to schedule a round of conferences within the first two weeks to get to know their students. Others like to wait until students have produced a larger body of work to discuss. Either approach is acceptable.

The last time I taught an FWS, I had students adding and dropping during the first few classes. How can I assign a paper starting in the first class or the first week when I have students switching in and out?

We always recommend thinking of a paper assignment as a sequence of several activities. Even for a short paper, a sequence could include: in-class work; informal writing completed in or out of class; a group activity; and the “formal” final draft of a paper. (These are possibilities, not requirements).

If you design a sequence with several elements that structures the first few classes of the semester, think about entry points for students who might add the class before the second meeting, or the third, or the fourth. As students add, you can communicate which things they can do to complete the assignment alongside their classmates. For instance, if the sequence begins with an in-class, informal writing assignment, a student who joins after the first class meeting could complete this informal assignment at home. If students watch a short video during the first class and respond to a discussion question, make the video and the questions available to students who add later so they can watch it on their own and respond to questions as an informal writing assignment. (For more information on dealing with unstable enrollments in the opening weeks, see KNIGHTLYnews post: “Expecting, and Accepting, Fluctuating FWS Enrollment.” 

For more on the topic of first writing assignments, follow this link to Elliot Shapiro's KNIGHTLYnews post titled Updated Guidelines for First FWS Assignment.