December 5th, 2012

Designing Assignments that Accomplish Course Goals


I’m betting that many of you are in the midst of grading a large stack of papers, projects or other final assignments. Too often these end-of-course pieces of work don’t live up to our expectations or students’ potential. It’s easy for us (especially the elders among us) to bemoan the fact that students aren’t what they used to be. It’s better to use our discontent to consider whether our course assignments are effectively accomplishing our course goals.

As usual, my reading is what got me thinking about this topic. In this case it’s a new book by Paul Hanstedt on general education. He recommends that assignments for general education courses should achieve at least three things: 1) contain evidence that students are learning what we want them to be learning, 2) engage students in deep, long lasting learning, and 3) generate student work that doesn’t make us cry when we grade them. (p. 78)

It’s the example of his general education writing course focused on the social functions of art that made me see how clear the connection between assignments and course goals needs to be. He has four goals for his course. Students should be able to: 1) write an effective essay using appropriate rhetorical methods given the audience and purpose, 2) interpret individual responses to art, 3) apply abstract concepts about art to particular works, and 4) analyze the role art plays in contemporary life (p. 83). To accomplish those goals he used to have students write three papers; one that analyzed a representational piece of art, pre-1850, a second that analyzed an abstract piece of art, post-1850; and a third that explored the role art should play in society. Okay assignments, but they didn’t produce work that showed students achieving the course goals all that well.

After making some changes, students are still writing three papers, but the assignments are very different. Now in the first paper, students analyze a piece of art that they like using the formal elements to explain their emotional response to it. They write this paper to a classmate as a way of introducing themselves. In the second paper, they use a quotation from the readings to justify the necessity of abstract art in contemporary society. They write this paper to a skeptical parent. For the third paper, students construct an argument justifying the use of university funds for the purchase of art, explaining the role they think art should play in academia. This final paper is addressed to the university president.

Here’s why these assignments better accomplish the course goals. Designating an audience for each paper forces students to assume authority for their knowledge and take on the task of explaining relevant concept and ideas to others. They aren’t writing so directly to and for the professor as when the audience wasn’t designated. The fact that the audience changes with every paper mirrors what happens in professional life. Professionals must deal with multiple audiences, customizing their message accordingly. Students also need to do research to write these kinds of papers, particularly the third one. And these papers do a much better job of showing the degree to which students understand and can apply course concepts. Finally, they give students the opportunity to make choices that are more personally relevant.

Does that mean students enjoy writing these papers? That’s probably a stretch, but there is a greater chance students might get engaged in the topics. And Hanstedt says these papers are definitely more interesting to read.

Right now you probably need to finish up that stack of whatever you’re grading, but as you do you might think a bit about your course goals. Is this particular assignment helping students accomplish them? Are there ways you could change the design that might align it more tightly to course goals? There’s great opportunity for creativity and innovation in the design of assignments and more faculty are taking advantage of that. I’d love to see a collection of interesting assignments and the goals they’re being used to accomplish in the comment section. Please share a brief description or a link where we can read about what you’re having students do.

Reference: Hanstedt, P. General Education Essentials: A Guide for College Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012.

  • My students are pursuing a post-graduate management course, and are between 25-28 years of age. To understand theories and concepts better, my students are asked to find examples of current practices of such theories and / or concepts in media.

    Assignments are based on content from
    a. print (not online) newspapers, enabling them to underscore keywords, and to search and read more than when it is on the monitor
    b. specific print media such as the dailies, ignoring the magazines which carry analyses and digests
    c. media of a recent period specified, depending on the availability of such material (i.e. as a week or month before)

    Their reports will be
    d. handwritten: the student spends more time on his work, engaging him deeper with the topic. Plagiarisation is more difficult; dependence on word processors is avoided; and learning is far better.
    e. in the form of summaries (25-50 words) of each media report, and recommendations (say 3-5) for action within the ambit of the theories and concepts studied.

    The search effort may be 1-2 hours, during which the student reads other issues, too.
    The actual report is not large: not exceeding 500-600 words per week; not more 3-4 hours of writing time.

    Would appreciate feedback from other readers.

    • syed sohail ahmed

      Same practice i do in my undergraduate and post graduate students

  • Katie Berryhill

    In my history of astronomy course, students complete writing assignments about different astronomical discoveries/breakthroughs throughout the course. Each explains the discovery in a different format, written for a different audience, and as if written at the time of the discovery. For example:

    —A newspaper article for a public audience
    —A blog post for an interested, scientifically literate audience
    —A web page for children
    —A series of Twitter posts (as if by the scientist him/herself)
    —A presentation for classmates
    —A magazine article for astronomy enthusiasts (like Astronomy or Sky & Telescope magazine readers)
    —A review article for a scientific journal (for scientists who aren't necessarily astronomers).

    • Maggie C.

      I love this! You've put together a great variety of audiences for the student; forcing them to think about things from different perspectives. The Twitter posts as if they were the scientists must be great fun!

      • Katie Berryhill

        The Twitter posts can be a lot of fun. I provide examples of some Twitter feeds by current scientists. Some students say they've never used Twitter, so they're a little unsure of the assignment going into it. It definitely challenges them to be creative!

  • Marjoryt

    My English Comp. 1 students mesh composition, research, and citations at the same time; we are specifically trying to get them ready for the academic experience. Our reader is all nonfiction, based on philosophy and science. Since one of the selections is based on Dr. Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence Theory, I make them first examine their own GED and ACT scores, take a Meyers-Briggs Personality survey, and then complete a multiple intelligence assessment. With an understanding of the numbers, we guesstimate the intelligence of various cartoon characters (there are websites with this same information). Finally, the students create analytical essays with quotes from at 3 tests, Gardner's essay, and at least interview (such as a parent or friend). My community college students become EXTREMELY upset to learn assumptions higher education makes about them, based on only an ACT score. I like adding fuel to their fires!

  • Dr.jksirur

    Thanks, Vinod.
    I am folowing a similar approach.

  • Prof. Kate Susman

    I would add to the list of goals for assignments that students ought to new something new, either about the course material or about themselves, as a result of engaging in the assignment. I've got some examples of how assignments might accomplish these goals on my little blog about teaching science:

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  • judyarzt

    The assignment changes are productive, but are students actually writing these papers for the intended audience or just pretending that these are their audiences? If they actually give the writings to these audiences, how is this done? Do students do it online or email it to that audience? Do they get a reply? If the audience concept is used as a rhetorical device and not as a reality, is the assignment as effective as it could be? In the "real" world, we do write for a real audience that receives the text. I have seen assignments like the ones described, but the writing is not delivered to that "real" audience. In those cases, part of the value of the assignment is lost, which is writing to inform or persuade others. Let's move beyond the artificiality of the classroom setting.

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