With written communication becoming increasingly multimodal—from newspaper websites to your social media feed to your learning management system’s announcements page—researchers and practitioners alike have made the case for the value of multimodal assignments. While much of this work focuses on the theoretical changes, this article offers practical suggestions for faculty members with limited experience designing multimodal assignments who’d like to convert some of their traditional assignments to multimodal ones.
An assignment is multimodal if it invites students to engage in more than one medium of communication, or if it gives students the opportunity to select from several potential media. For example, a video podcast would be multimodal because it uses both oral and visual communication. An assignment as a whole could be multimodal if it offers students several strategies for completion and/or assessment of the work.
Instructors can benefit from altering some assignments by making them multimodal in two ways:
First, the move to multimodal can help prepare students for a world of communication that is increasingly multimodal and help them develop valuable insights on how to write effectively in that world.
Second, the move to multimodal assignments can help students produce better work. As Christine Joy Edwards-Groves has argued, students who have grown up in a multimodal world “thrive on the utility of technology, creativity, social interaction and communication” (2011, 52). By offering them such assignments, we give them the opportunity to thrive.
Tip #1: Start Small
Rather than revamping your favorite end-of-the-semester research paper, consider tweaking some of the smaller assignments. This works particularly well for assignments that are platforms for assessing content knowledge. For example, you might transform a traditional weekly reading quiz or an in-class writing response into a multimodal video response where students provide spoken and visual analysis.
Tip #2: Think a la Mode
Huang and Archer offer a helpful way of thinking about multimodal assignments: break them down in terms of mode (i.e., medium or platform), genre (“social textual” form), and discourse (how they approach the topic) (2017, 65). In terms of assignment design, think about how you might retain the same options for genre and discourse as your existing assignments while shifting the mode. For example, you might transform a short, written first-person narrative into a short, visual first-person narrative, shifting the mode significantly while retaining the genre and discourse. This may also ensure that your new assignment meets the existing student learning outcomes or objectives for your content.
Tip #3: Don’t Sweat the Tech
Faculty are often intimidated by emerging—or even long-standing—technology. You do not need to be a master of iMovie to offer your students the opportunity to create a video response, or even a short film. Chances are your campus has resources students can use; you need only to direct students to those resources, such as a tech-savvy librarian or web-based tutorials on YouTube. In some sense, it’s probably better if you’re not an expert on the technology, as this will make it clear to students that you’re primarily assessing their content and not their ability to execute a panorama shot.
Tip #4: Adjust Your Criteria
One of the (perhaps) unexpected challenges of the multimodal shift is the need to adjust grading criteria. A traditional essay rubric, for example, will refer to paragraphs. There are no paragraphs in a podcast. Waltheitner has suggested the possibility that rubrics for multimodal assignments focus not on the product but on the process (2014, 81). Another option is to emphasize common structural elements rather than mode-specific ones, such as argument rather than thesis and supporting claims rather than paragraphs.
Tip #5: Consider Rigor
Multimodal assignments tend to be as rigorous, if not more so, than their unimodal peers, but students unfamiliar with new modes may see them as “easy.” This is particularly the case if multimodal assignments are used in a token way. This can be avoided by carefully considering how the content of one mode might match another. One option here is to think quantitatively: given a slow, standard speaking voice, a 250-word script becomes an approximately 2-minute video, so a 1,000-word paper might be equivalent to an 8-minute video. Another option is to offer specific criteria that hold across any type of assignment: an introduction with a clear argument, 6-8 pieces of scholarly evidence, analysis of at least 2 data points, etc. Finally, it’s important to make multimodal assignments a significant portion of the overall assessment scheme, not just a small extra credit add-on. (Though, if it’s your first time assigning a multimodal assignment, making it low stakes can reduce stress for you and the students.)
Multimodal assignments and assessments offer faculty and students the opportunity to flex their creative muscles, engage with emerging forms of media, and complete work in areas where they feel confident. While the initial move from unimodal to multimodal can be daunting, these simple strategies can make the transition more manageable.
Bio: Christian Aguiar is Assistant Professor of English at the University of the District of Columbia Community College. His research interests include approaches to supporting first-generation college students, multimodal writing, and Lusophone literature.
Edwards-Groves, Christine Joy. 2011. “The multimodal writing process: changing practices in contemporary classrooms.” Language and Education 25, no. 1: 49-64. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ910840
Huang, Cheng-Wen and Arlene Archer. 2017. “’Academic literacies’ as moving beyond writing: Investigating multimodal approaches to academic argument.” London Review of Education, 15, no. 1: 63-72. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1160035
Wahleithner, Juliet Michelsen. 2014. “The National Writing Project’s Multimodal Assessment Project: Development of a framework for thinking about multimodal composition.” Computers and Composition 31, no. 1: 79-86. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compcom.2013.12.004