April 8th, 2015

How Assignment Design Shapes Student Learning


The design of assignments, that is, the actions required to complete them, shapes the learning that results. We know this, but do we make the most of what we know when we design and select assignments?

I’ll try to make the point with writing assignments. We have come a long ways since the days when term papers were the gold standard of writing assignments. Paper options now include authentic assignments that approximate professional writing tasks. The Writing-Across-the-Curriculum movement has introduced us to low-stakes writing activities from students jotting down a few ideas before they speak, to free writing that starts the flow of ideas, to journals that encourage personal connections with course materials. Technology adds still more assignment design options. Students can blog and respond to posts; they can write collaboratively on wikis and Google Docs. The options are many, but the features of each writing assignment directly shape the learning that results.

A recent issue of Teaching Sociology contains a well-designed study that illustrates the power of even small design details. The author compares more than 1,000 journal entries and over 1,000 blog posts written in multiple sections of an introductory sociology course. The blog posts were read by classmates; the journal entries by the instructors. The author wanted “to clarify the effect of peer readership on reflective writing practices by way of a direct comparison of the learning outcomes associated with private journals and public blog posts.” (p. 106)

What he found (with an interesting research design) wasn’t terribly surprising. The assignments accomplished different learning outcomes. “Students appear to be overall more likely to take greater intellectual risks in blogs, which they know will be read and commented on by their peers. Conversely, journals—the more private option—compel students to be vulnerable and take more personal risks in their reflections.” (p. 111) By intellectual risks, he means that in the blogs students were more likely to take positions on issues or propose an explanatory theory. In journals students were more likely to compare multiple readings, link course material to personal experience, and acknowledge their misconceptions. “This research has shown that neither private journals nor public blogs produce definitively higher quality reflections from students. Instead, each is more likely to elicit different forms of productive reflection.” (p. 112)

We can more effectively shape learning outcomes if we start with objectives that force us to get specific about what we want students to know and be able to do. Most of us write objectives for the course approval processes and they appear on many of our syllabi, but are they front and center when we make assignment decisions? If not, we can come at this from the other direction, like the study does. We can look at the products produced by the assignment to make some determinations about what and how students are learning. I can hear some being adamant that the better way to start is with objectives, and that may be right. I’d rather be adamant about all of us understanding the relationship between assignment design and the learning that results.

Writing assignments are the example here, but every kind of assignment influences the shape of learning. So, what would you say about how you’ve constructed exam experiences in your courses? Are they shaping learning in the ways you want? I once observed an instructor who, on the first day of class, asked students, “Are you worried about what’s going to be on the final?” Heads nodded. “Well, no worries in this course. You’ll find the final attached to the syllabus.” It was a page of essay questions. “You’ll be writing responses to some of those questions on the final and we’ll be dealing with content throughout the course that you can be using in your answers.” Would that approach change the way students take notes throughout the semester? Would it enable instructors to ask a different kind of exam question? Would students prepare for the final differently?

What’s the shape of learning that results from your assignments?

Reference: Foster, D. (2015). Private journals versus public blogs: The impact of peer readership on low-stakes reflective writing. Teaching Sociology, 43 (2), 104-114.

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  • Tom Riehart

    Regarding supplying the final to the students at the beginning of the semester, in an undergrad sociology course I had a professor who would pass out a list of seven or eight questions about a week ahead of the final. Three or four of those questions would be on the final, each requiring us to provide a detailed short answer. When I asked him a couple years later why he did that, his response was that he wanted the students to review all the main points in the course, but didn't want to have to grade their knowledge on all of it. Pretty slick, I thought.

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  • Erin Riesland

    I think this article highlights a very important detail that the author perhaps unintentionally diminishes: start with the assignments. In instructional design, that is the first question we ask of every faculty member. If students are not producing work that reflects the outcomes of the course, then design an assignment that will. The objectives will be met (if they are accurate) in order to complete the assignment. Push back on this approach always seems to stem from old lecture/quiz/final approaches to higher ed that is much easier to implement.

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