February 23rd, 2018

Using Assignment Choice to Promote Course Relevancy


Using Assignment Choice to Promote Course Relevancy

As a teacher of a subject that I adore and cherish, I often find myself scrambling for enough time to cover everything that needs to be covered and still find a clever way to introduce yet another “cool story” that will further convince my students that my field (microbiology) is relevant to everyday life.

No doubt I am not alone in this challenge of finding ways to demonstrate relevancy of what we teach, but not at the complete expense of the time and effort we desperately need to guide our students through challenging, key concepts and ideas.

I wondered if creating relevancy for students would be better achieved if it didn’t start with me, but rather with them. Allowing our students to have more say about assignments is a learner-centered strategy that can be used to promote student ownership and investment in a course and it supports students’ efforts to develop responsibility for their own learning (Lang, 2016 and Weimer, 2014).

I recently started introducing assignment choice in my introductory microbiology course for nursing and biology majors, the great majority of whom have had little-to-no exposure to microbiological topics. While there are many non-negotiable assessments, e.g. the comprehensive final examination and laboratory reports, I also propose a list of potential assignments and students must decide, collectively, which of these assignments they will be responsible for during the semester. The final decision to adopt an assignment is determined by a majority vote; often following a vigorous class discussion. I especially like the discussion aspect of this assignment choice process, as I believe it serves as a way for my students to get to know one another and let their voices be heard. To be fair and genuine, I let them know that if they decide to not do any of the potential assignments (or to do all the potential assignments), I will honor their final vote. So far, I have not had a class decide to opt-out of these assignments. Typically, the opposite is true, they choose to complete all the proposed assignments.

I use the following criteria when developing the list of potential assignments:

  1. The assignments must have a definable learning purpose that directly relates to the course-level learning goals.
  2. The assignments are low-stakes in nature.
  3. They promote student buy-in into the course and field.
  4. They help demonstrate the real-life relevance of microbiology.

For each assignment added to my list, the first two criteria must be met; while at least one of the third or fourth should also be met.
Two examples of assignments that I have used in my microbiology course are titled “find and summarize a microbiology news story paragraph,” and “my favorite microbe paragraph.” For each of these assignments, individual students are allowed the freedom to choose their own news story or microorganism to write about. I do choose the point value and due date for both assignments (low-stakes, so a nominal amount), and outline a few critical questions students need to address in each composed paragraph. For instance, when summarizing the news article, students must cite the source (it should be fewer than two years old), summarize the story in their own words, explain why they think the story is news-worthy, tell me why they found the article interesting, and share something they learned about microbiology that they did not know before reading the article.

For the “my favorite microbe paragraph” assignment, students are asked to identify a few key characteristics of their chosen organism (e.g. virus, bacteria, protist, pathogen or not, where it is found, lifestyle), describe the potential relevance of the microbe, explain why they find the microbe of special interest to them, and cite their sources.

Both assignments serve as ways to help my students make progress on two course-level learning goals: “read and summarize microbiology-related literature from a variety of sources” and “develop an appreciation for the omnipresence of the microbe.” As an added benefit, I often learn something new about the field.

To date, informal feedback from my students on this twist on assignment choice has been positive. Several students have indicated that they appreciate getting “a say” in how the course is run; which I interpret as an increased investment in the course. In addition, a number of students appear to better understand the relevance of microbiology to issues of societal importance (such as antibiotic resistance or vaccine development) after having the opportunity to identify and develop their own “cool stories” to share.

Lang, J. (2016, April 3). Small Changes in Teaching: Giving Them a Say. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/Small-Changes-in-Teaching-/235918

Weimer, M. (2014, February 20). Adding Choice to Assignment Options: A Few Course Design Considerations. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/instructional-design/adding-choices-assignment-options-course-design-considerations/

Michael J. LaGier is an assistant professor of biology at Grand View University.