Assignments: Making the Most of Students’ Time
Almost all of us give students assignments of some kind in our courses—from large, multi-stage projects that take a whole semester to complete, down to small, low-stakes assignments that students can do as homework or during class. Sometimes we inherit assignments from a colleague who taught the course in the past. Other times, we select assignments based on what has traditionally been done in the discipline, or based on our own experiences as a student. When we reflect, we may determine that some of these assignments engage students in the kind(s) of learning we intend, and with others, it’s hard to tell what students might be learning, or whether they’re learning much at all.
However we arrive at the decision to revise an assignment, or design a new one, doing so is an opportunity to better align what students spend time doing in the course with what we actually think is most important for them to practice and to learn. For example, let’s say what you really want students to be able to do is explain why (making connections to course concepts) they chose to solve a math problem in a particular way. An assignment that asks them only to solve a problem wouldn’t actually be aligned with that goal, but an assignment that asks them to take a problem they’ve already solved and explain their problem-solving process step-by-step, in writing or out loud, would be aligned with that goal. It would give students practice that helps them make progress in doing what you think is important, and it would give you useful information about what kind of feedback is needed to help them improve.
Or for a different kind of example, let’s say you really want students to learn how to analyze primary sources. An assignment that asks them to find and summarize primary sources wouldn’t actually provide practice doing the kind analysis you want to see, and so it wouldn’t be aligned with that particular goal. An assignment that asks students to take sources they’ve already found (or that you provided) and break down the important aspects of the source (e.g., who created it, for what purpose, who their intended audience was, what was going on at the time, etc.), and consider how those aspects fit together, would be providing an opportunity to get practice aligned with the goal. And, again, it would give you useful information about students’ progress so that you can provide feedback, clarification, and so on.
After you’ve taught a course several times, it can be helpful to sit down and do an audit of whether students are spending enough time doing the things you really want them to do. If not, revising assignments or designing new ones is a powerful way to change how students spend their time, effort, and attention. Larger projects are usually opportunities for students to make progress toward more than one goal, so it’s helpful to think about each task students will do as part of the larger project and whether it’s aligned with your priorities. Sometimes even small tweaks to the design of an assignment can cause significant changes in students’ learning experiences and the work they produce.
When we’ve determined what we think is most important for students to be able to do, we also need to consider whether corresponding tasks will be level-appropriate. Is it reasonable to expect students in this course to be able to do this kind of work? And is that answer (about level-appropriateness) the same for all of the components of a larger project? (If you’re not sure, you may need to check in on students’ prior knowledge and skills.) If we’re asking students to do something they haven’t learned yet, we’ll need to provide support, examples, resources, and/or build in opportunities to develop component skills. Returning to the second example above, depending on their experience level, students may need to practice reading and annotating primary sources before they can move on to analyzing them.
Just as we need to ensure that the tasks we’re asking students to do are aligned with the learning we want to prioritize, we also need to evaluate and provide feedback on their work in alignment with our priorities. When we write evaluation criteria, or assign weights to criteria on a rubric, or write comments on students’ work, these are some good questions to keep returning to: Why did I assign this in the first place? What is most important for students to learn? How can I emphasize that?
If you’d like support in designing or revising assignments, please reach out for a consultation by emailing email@example.com, or join us (and colleagues from across disciplines) for an assignment design workshop advertised below. We look forward to working with you!
Effective Video Strategies for Teaching Gen Z
Friday, Feb 5th | 1:00 – 2:30 p.m. on Zoom | Sign up to attend
Join us for a workshop on making effective videos and using them in your teaching. We will discuss data on how this generation of students (Gen Z) learns through videos, and practical strategies for using videos to “go where the students are.” Participants will see several cases of effective video usage in courses, approaches that will be useful even after our remoteness is over. Incorporating the amazing feedback we got from faculty who attended the Fall 2020 videos workshop, this iteration will focus more on direct implementation rather than philosophy, and is intended for faculty from any discipline. Participants will leave with strategies and resources to design their own videos and video-based assignments and activities. (Will you be asked to download TikTok? Come and find out!)
Assignment Design Workshop
Friday, Feb. 12th | 1:00 – 3:00 p.m. on Zoom | Sign up to attend
For support in crafting assignments—projects, papers, exercises, experiences, etc.—that engage students in the kinds of thinking you’d like for them to do, and that help them to produce the kinds of work you’d like to see, please sign up for this hands-on workshop. We can help you revise existing assignments or devise new ones, and we will share resources for describing assignments in ways that are transparent for your students.