As both a college lecturer and a tutor, I participate in the two sides of the academic exchange. With the first role, I am the person assigning projects and essays; with the other role, I handle the multitude of students confused by the directions for their projects and essays.
Too often, I come across students who don't understand the assignment, and for good reason. I've seen assignment prompts that are literally five pages long for a three page essay. For others, there is no prompt and the students have merely scratched down a question in their notebooks.
These are two extremes, yes, but the reality is that a convoluted prompt precludes successful essays.
1. Be brief. Long prompts, regardless of clarity, cause students to feel overwhelmed, which only increases the chances of them passing in an underwhelming essay. I find that my students often perceive the difficulty of the question based on the sheer volume of text on the prompt sheet. Include pertinent information, but don't use the prompt sheet to add in other information about the course.
For example, we educators (myself included) like to explain why we are assigning X assignment at Y point in the course; sometimes we like to provide the rationale for why a certain unit comes after another. These are good course practices, and students should have the opportunity to make sense of the education they are receiving, but they don't belong on a prompt; the long paragraphs tend to convolute the assignment. Consider placing course rationale and unit transitions in the syllabus or a separate email instead. As long as all information the students need is included, the shorter the prompt, the better.
2. Consider your audience. If you are teaching the five paragraph essay to an honors English course and believe that the students can handle a prompt containing three questions, give it a try. Similarly, if college students are completing a semester-long project, perhaps a two-page list of requirements and process outlines are merited. However, if you have composition students that are struggling to grasp best practices in writing on the paragraph level, consider giving them only one question to answer. Tailoring the prompt to the ability level helps to set students up to succeed, not fail.
3. Utilize bullet points. Within the prompt, list the "brass tacks" of the assignment in a bulleted list. It is easier for students to access "Due date: March 5th" and "Length: 5-7 pages," than to read (and subsequently have to decipher) a sentence that states: "For the two questions above, compose a 5-7 page response." There are many ways to misinterpret this sentence from a student's point of view: is the entire assignment supposed to be 5-7 pages? Is each question supposed to be 5-7 pages? A bulleted list reduces confusion and allows students to quickly reference the requirements of the project.
4. Proofread the prompt with one question in mind. Fellow educators, this step is an opportunity to practice what we preach. If you're anything like me, you are constantly after your students to proofread. However, we have to make sure that we proofread our own writing, too. After ensuring, of course, that all grammar and mechanics are strong, read the prompt one more time asking yourself: "Could this sentence be misinterpreted?" after each line that you've written. When using this question I always find myself changing the wording at least once!