October 15th, 2014

Could We Be Doing Better with Our Assignments?


Assignments are a terribly important part of the teaching and learning equation. They aren’t just random activities that faculty ask students to complete for points and grades; they are the vehicles through which students learn course content. By studying for exams and engaging with content as they write their papers, students deepen their understanding of key concepts and build learning connections. In short, assignments represent learning experiences for students and, as Dee Fink reminds us, we want those learning experiences to be “significant.” Is that how you’d describe your most often-used assignments? Are they the only ways students could encounter and explore course content? Are they still the best ways?

Most faculty, regardless of discipline, use a similar mix of assignments. We have our students write papers. In recent years, we have seen some movement away from the traditional, research-based, term paper. Today’s papers are shorter and more frequent, but they are still papers. We give multiple-choice or short-answer exams, which students take individually, usually within a designated time period and without access to resources or expertise. We use quizzes, assign homework problems, and maybe some sort of group project in an upper division or capstone course, but that’s about it. And we recycle assignments, using pretty much the same ones every time we teach the course and in every course we teach.

Of course, not everyone uses these common assignments. Some faculty have created or developed unusual and innovative assignments. Maybe you have, or you’ve heard about such an assignment. However, I’m guessing that most of us couldn’t list more than a couple and that’s because there are few mechanisms for sharing assignments. Despite the time and intellectual muscle it takes to develop good ones and the assessment needed to work out the bugs and continue to increase their effectiveness, assignment creation is not considered scholarly work. Again, there are a few exceptions, but most pedagogical journals don’t publish assignment descriptions. Some professional associations with teaching resource collections include assignments, but there aren’t many featured and they aren’t widely accessed.

Are assignments discipline-specific? The fact that we all use so many of the same ones would seem to indicate that they are not. But what about those innovative, unique assignments? The content covered in those assignments is discipline-specific, but the frameworks usually aren’t. What a teacher in one course is having students do can often be adapted to work in all kinds of courses. With slight modifications, the assignment can become something used with different content, in a course with different learning goals, and for students with different background knowledge and skill levels.

What most of us need is exposure to new and interesting assignments. They are the water that primes our intellectual pumps. They get us thinking in new directions and pretty soon we’re onto a different but equally creative alternative. But when we’re busy teaching, grading, advising, getting to meetings, and making it home in time to start dinner, finding the energy to think creatively about assignments isn’t easy.

Could we try to do an assignment exchange here on the blog? If you’ve used a different kind of assignment, have a different way of testing knowledge, have students write things other than papers, have groups doing unusual activities, or do something other than the usual with homework assignments, please do a copy-and-paste from your syllabus and drop it in the comments section below. Remember, our goal is a collection of assignments—things students do for credit that, and if done as they are designed, end up being those rich learning experiences.

I’m feeling the need to note that many teachers I encounter don’t give themselves credit for having developed creative assignment alternatives. Some of us are self-deprecating, but more often I think we teach in such isolation that we have no frame of reference. Since we don’t know what others are doing, we really don’t believe we have come up with something special that might be of benefit to other teachers and their students. Don’t devalue your assignment designs.

The beautiful thing about pedagogical knowledge is that it’s shared freely among teachers. We don’t think of good teaching ideas as intellectual property belonging to the developer. Most faculty I know are only too happy to give and receive instructional materials. Please don’t prove me wrong here.

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