Assignments with Significance

Students discuss with one another in library

It has been estimated that college students across the globe devote in excess of a billion hours per year to “disposable” assignments (Wiley, 2016). Students view the work as simply a hurdle to be crossed, and once submitted and assessed, worthy of nothing more than being discarded. What a waste! Students want to contribute something to make a difference—if only we gave them the chance. Moving from essential to “renewable” assignments means that the students see the tasks as sufficiently meaningful to be kept and even passed on to others.

Meaningful learning tasks are transformative and deep, and rooted in three key elements: emotional connection, sense, and significance (Barkley, 2010):

  • Emotional connection. When people learn their brains encode, not so much their experiences as their reactions to those experiences, which are then expressed as emotions (Shackleton-Jones, 2019). Strong emotional experiences have a high likelihood of being permanently stored (Willingham, 2009; Barkley, 2010). Consequently, while we forget most life experiences, we can remember the best and (even more) the worst things that have happened to us. The reason for this is the strength of the emotions we felt at the time.
  • Sense. A substantial part of understanding is the ability to connect new material with previous concepts and ideas. People learn new knowledge most easily if it relates in some way to previous learning (Ambrose et al., 2010; Bransford et al., 1999). Does it “fit” into what the learner knows about how the world works? Students are more likely to engage with new learning when it is presented either as an extension of, or even an antithesis, to previous learning. Some level of familiarity engenders a sense of mastery in the face of new challenges that in turn nurtures engagement and retention.
  • Significance. While emotional connection and sense are important, ultimately, students will only make an effort to remember material if they find the material relevant and significant for life, that is, if they believe that it is important enough to do so (Orlando, 2020, Persellin & Daniels, 2014). Unfortunately for most students, the only level of significance they are ever given is, “It’s going to be assessed.” And so they make the effort to engage with the material for as long as it is significant—which is usually until the end of the course. As soon as the material is assessed, it is no longer significant, and what has been learned quickly drops out of memory (Zull, 2002). While faculty members might feel good when students score well in their examinations and essays, there is little long-term fruit. We must seek deep learning in students, and deep learning will only take place if the students themselves consider the material to have significance.

How might emotional connection, sense, and significance be embedded in an assignment such that students see the task as “renewable” and meaningful? From vastly different disciplines, we have each had an experience of giving tasks where students engaged far more than we anticipated, precisely because these elements were evident. In what follows, we describe each of these tasks in detail, highlight points of commonality, and explain the ways in which the tasks promoted emotional connection, sense, and significance.

Teaching the Lucan Parables (Shaw)

For many years, I (Shaw) taught at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) in Beirut, Lebanon. At ABTS, the medium of instruction is Arabic, and students come from the Arabic-speaking world of the Middle East and North Africa. Throughout these regions there is a paucity of original materials suitable for local church use. What exists in Arabic in terms of Sunday school curricula, youth work materials, and home Bible studies is largely translation from English, often poorly translated and culturally inappropriate. In such a context, I wondered whether I could have my students produce something appropriate for distribution and use in the Arabic Christian community.

In May 2018, I experimented with a course entitled Teaching the Lucan Parables. The purpose of the course was twofold: (1) to develop exegetical skills in interpreting parables and (2) to give practical skills in developing curricula that is learner-centered and encourages transformational learning in the Christian community. To that end, I wondered how students might respond if the major task was done jointly as a class—the final collaborative production being a booklet that provided a series of home Bible study materials designed for local church use.  

The 16 students had all previously taken my introductory “Art of Teaching” course, which included elements such as lesson planning and creative instructional methodology. The course comprised of seven three-hour sessions. In the opening session, students were oriented to the work required, as well as given an opportunity to begin the process of lesson development. The students were broken up into pairs and parables were allocated—one longer parable and one shorter parable for each pair of students. I presented a series of basic principles on the interpretation of parables, with a special focus on the original audience of the parable, how this audience would have heard the parable in light of local cultural and linguistic elements, and the significance of the parable. Following this introduction, the student pairs were given time to work on one of their parables, and through a reporting process I was able to assess the extent to which students had grasped the key interpretative elements. We also set a schedule for the remainder of the course, including responsibilities of presenting lessons in the final four sessions. I also discussed appropriate resources with students, what they should do if they were experiencing difficulties, and a process for meeting with me and/or having optional workshop sessions.

The second and third three-hour sessions were conducted in the form of a workshop, with no direct input from me. Students worked in their pairs, and I moved from group to group to ensure that they were on track, they were accessing appropriate resources, and their 45-minute lessons were developing appropriately.

The final four weeks were devoted to field testing the students’ lessons. The materials the students were developing needed to be self-explanatory such that a home Bible study leader in another country could access and use the materials based solely on what was in the text. Consequently, the pair that developed the material were strictly observers in the field test process and were prohibited from making any verbal comment or direction. For each lesson, a student who was not a member of the developing team led the study, and the materials were designed based on the typical 45-minute home group studies. I drew a line at the 45-minute mark, and the students and I spent the next 30 minutes debriefing and making suggestions for improving the lessons.

Students edited and resubmitted their lessons, and we brought them together into a booklet. This booklet has since been published and has been used in numerous churches in various parts of the Arabic-speaking world.

I have never seen students so motivated! My greatest challenge did not include getting the students to study and engage the material, but to ensure that they also gave time to their other classes. The learning was tangible and extraordinary. Not only did the students grow in the desired skills in Bible interpretation and lesson planning, they also learned about working collaboratively for a joint goal, as well as growing in their ability to lead discussion.

Plant Physiology (Rasmussen)

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced classes online, much of our research collaborations in the sciences was happening via video calls or using platforms for sharing documents (like Google Docs, OneDrive, or Slack). Given the importance of working in teams via these virtual platforms, I (Rasmussen) had begun experimenting with implementing teamwork facilitated by Microsoft Teams for the assessment task in a course called, Plants and the Soil Environment, a third-year undergraduate course at the University of Nottingham (United Kingdom). Of course, having Microsoft Teams already in place in my class as the pandemic swept the world proved a fortuitous and resilient bonus!

Recognizing the particular need for team skills in developing scientists, I decided to set a group documentary video as the main assignment. In our 2020 class there were 24 students from both the School of Biosciences (Faculty of Science) and the School of Life Sciences (Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences). In addition to bridging two faculties, the students come from degree programs based at both our Sutton Bonington and University Park Campuses. All students were attending as in-person (internal) students. This combination of multiple campuses and in-person attendance created a safe—but real—space for practicing virtual collaboration.

Plants and the Soil Environment explores how plants adapt to different soil environments such as drought, flood, salinity, heavy metals, nutrient deficiency, and includes plant-plant interactions. A combination of semi-traditional lectures and discussions with debates and tours of the research facilities sets the foundation on which the assessments can build. The learning outcomes include: (1) understanding the pathways and mechanisms involved in the uptake, transport, and use of water and nutrients; (2) plant adaptive responses to water, nutrient, salt, and heavy metal stresses; (3) crop improvement strategies based on the roots.

In previous years these learning objectives were addressed via two 1,500-word essays within two of the themes (of their choice) with an expectation of deeper exploration of their chosen topics. However, motivated by heavy student writing loads (students are also writing their honors dissertation at this time), I decided to change the assessment to a group work documentary video that would be made public on the University’s Media Space—still exploring a question of their interest within one of the themes to achieve the concept learning objectives of the course. Additional skill objectives were added: develop skills to (a) communicate complex ideas in multimedia formats; and (b) to work in groups.

Students often feel insufficiently trained in team skills and often dislike teamwork reporting problems such as difficulties arranging meetings outside of class, unequal contributions/“social loafing,” and unfair grading (Wilson et al., 2018, Rasmussen et al., 2011). However appropriate scaffolding to support students and ensure accountability can improve the student perspectives of teamwork (Rasmussen et al., 2011). While previously teaching at the University of Queensland (Australia) I had developed a set of team training sessions to explicitly teach students what’s expected of them when working with others. These were based on, and programmed around, the four stages of team function—forming, storming, norming, and performing (Ayoko et al., 2012). Although controversial in some circles, the intention was to provide scaffolding for student learning and experiences, and it was useful for us to use these broad headings for supporting students who had no previous team training. 

Further scaffolding was added in the form of a training session on using Microsoft Teams for collaboration, and sections were created within their Class Notebook (within Microsoft Teams) to guide them through the different tasks required to complete the assessment (including templates for team meetings and spaces with other resources such as GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] rules and risk assessment forms). This multifaceted scaffolding enabled students to access the information when it was most needed—both synchronously (either in class with the lecturer or their teammates) and asynchronously.

What has been amazing is the incredible level of engagement and ingenuity within the class. When we went into the COVID-19 lockdown and in-person interviews with experts were no longer possible, one group interviewed a US scientist via Skype! Interviewing researchers outside the University of Nottingham is now built into the marking criteria, and in the following two years, we have seen students interview 17 internationally recognized experts from diverse contexts across the world. Additionally, students are spending significant time outside the allocated class time researching, filming, and editing their videos—which are all of an impressive quality!

Here are some other indicators that we’re doing something really special. One is having students approach me before the semester telling me how they hate group work, and they wouldn’t have chosen the class except that they’ve heard how great it is and how positive previous cohorts have found this group work task. Another is seeing comments on survey evaluations such as saying they made life-long friends in the class (despite that year being online-only during the pandemic). Although a completely optional module, the class has increased from 24 the first video year to 47 last spring (2022). The class also has continued to receive high marks despite increasing the expectations in the marking criteria! To me, this demonstrates a high level of engagement and ongoing learning.

In past years, the videos have been stand-alone—this year for the first time I’ll be framing the videos as “episodes” in a series which will be put up online in the order the class decides on. The intention is to further create an atmosphere of creativity and collaboration rather than groups feeling they are in competition with other groups! Watch this space for how that goes!

Emotional connection, sense, and significance

Our two learning tasks are notably different, with different purposes in different fields of study. And yet both generated a high level of intrinsic motivation within the students and led to substantial deep learning. Both were “renewable” rather than “disposable” assignments. While different in substance, there are many points of commonality in ethos which are suggestive for other fields of study. We believe the following shared principles for developing “renewable” assignments might be adapted to a wide variety of other teaching contexts:

  • Community impact. One of the key features of each of these tasks is that students are not only thinking about their own learning but developing resources for impact beyond themselves. In both cases the students saw the assignment not simply as a one-time presentation for themselves or the class, but as something that can be useful for others. Students are motivated by authentic learning which helps them link abstract theory with real-world application (Bozalek et al., 2013, Herrington and Oliver, 2000), and both tasks nurtured this sort of authenticity. We can easily underestimate students’ own desire to make a difference—tasks that go beyond the class itself to the world around them carrying significance and holding great motivational potential.
  • Collaboration. Emotional connection, sense, and significance are all supported best through collaborative approaches to learning, and both of these assignments drew on high levels of teamwork. Critical thinking, engagement, cohesion, respect for diversity, mental health, and interpersonal skills have all been shown to improve via team learning experiences (Gillespie, 2012, Mercer-Mapstone and Kuchel, 2015, Wilson et al., 2018, García et al., 2016, Gleadow et al., 2015, Chu et al., 2019). However, the great benefits that can emerge from collaborative learning generally need guidance and direction, and in each case, this was evident in that the instructor substantially played the role of “guide by the side” rather than “sage on the stage” in training and scaffolding (Rasmussen et al., 2011, Allan, 2016). Collaborative learning is further strengthened when the students see themselves as cooperating towards a common goal rather than competing with each other.
  • Diverse engagement. While the “learning styles” theories of the 1980s and 1990s have been found lacking in evidential support, the more recent work of neuropsychologists (Battro 2010, Fuller & Fuller 2020, Ritchhart et al. 2011, Zull 2002) points to a wide variety of ways in which students engage with learning. Both of our learning tasks involved a multiplicity of elements, including writing, editing, constructive thinking, teaching, and presentation. This diversity of engagement respects the diversity of learners and holds potential for all students to feel included and respected. Learning tasks that involve multiple elements of preparation and presentation are more likely to promote high commitment and deep learning.  
  • Matching challenging tasks to competence. In both tasks, the students were challenged to do something new in the context of appropriate prior learning and guidance in the class itself, along with the instructor’s confidence that students would succeed. Csikszentmihalyi (1997) has observed that when there is a harmony between what we feel (our emotions), what we desire (our goals or intentions), what we think (our cognitive mental operations), and there are challenges that match our skills, there is potential for “flow.” When people experience “flow,” they become totally absorbed in what they are doing: all their personal and psychic energy is in tune and flows in one direction. In short, passion and commitment to learning emerge through a balance between teacher expectations and student concerns and ability. This balance was clearly evident in both our assignments.
  • Formative learning. Most courses focus on summative assessment in which students simply present work as a final piece without opportunity for feedback and editing. In both of these assignments there was the opportunity for draft work to be prepared for review and editing. Increasingly in educational literature, the significance of formative learning is being affirmed and quality learning tasks find pathways to embed formative processes along the journey.
  • Implicit curriculum. Some of the key elements of learning in both our classes emerged not so much through the “explicit curriculum” of the content, but more through the “implicit curriculum” of the culture and ethos of the collaborative and creative environment (Shaw 2022, 91-94). In the tasks given in both courses, students learned significant life skills such as collaboration and hearer-oriented communication. Effective “renewable” assignments consider not simply the learning of content but the broader educational value of the methodologies employed in the task.

Despite the notable discipline divergence between our two courses, our passion for relevance and meaning in our teaching brought us together. Both concerned about the wasted educational energy devoted to discarded assessment, we discovered resonance in the possibility of renewable tasks, in particular the development of valuable resources for the wider community. We hope our journey can help you find similar pathways.

Perry Shaw, EdD, is a researcher in residence at Morling College (Sydney), adjunct professor of education at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (Lebanon), and author of Transforming Theological Education: A Practical Handbook for Integrative Learning.

Dr. Amanda Rasmussen is an assistant professor in the School of Biosciences at the University of Nottingham, UK and fellow of AdvanceHE. Aside from educational practice her other research investigates plant responses to the environment.


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