May 23rd, 2012

Shining a Light on Your Assignments


Not so long ago I challenged us to consider how our collections of active learning activities fit together. That got me thinking about the collection of assignments we have students complete in a course. How do they fit together? Why have we chosen that particular group?

I must admit that when I was teaching, I was not the careful instructional designer I should have been. When I put a course together, I decided on assignments based on what I’d used previously and what everybody else had students do. My thinking about assignments and learning was generic. I gave no thought at all to the relationships between assignments or their cumulative effects on learning.

If we do think about the goals accomplished by certain assignments, we tend to think content acquisition. And that’s fine. Students take tests because preparing for them promotes learning content, provided students study and take the course seriously. But that thinking is incomplete. Students also can develop learning skills and an awareness of themselves as learners through the assignments they complete in a course.

Many of us believe (or our actions would indicate we believe) that learning skills develop more or less automatically as a consequence of our assignments. Students learn to think as they write papers, work with others in groups and read the works of good critical thinkers. Research, like that summarized by Pascarella and Terenzini in their integrative reviews of How College Affects Students, indicates that students do develop critical thinking skills (and other learning skills) this way, but they develop learning skills faster and to a higher level when those skills are explicitly taught and students have ample opportunities to practice.

If I were teaching now, I would deal with assignment selection and sequencing differently. I’d start by identifying one or two learning skills I’d like to work on developing throughout the course (along with content acquisition objectives, of course). Many beginning students lack lots of important learning skills and committed teachers tend to want to remediate too many different skills. It’s better to look at course content, which learning skills are essential for success with this content and then target two or three.

I’d look at the collection of assignments selected and start with these two questions: 1) Does this collection represent the best possible way to develop content knowledge; and 2) What kind of explicit instruction could I provide and what sort of assignment alterations could I use to develop the learning skills I’ve targeted? Then I’d consider whether it makes sense to have students do the same learning activity repeatedly—say an ongoing set of quizzes on the reading. Repeated assignments do give students the opportunity to practice and practice does improve performance, but are students doing better on the quizzes because they are learning more from the reading or because they’re learning how to answer the kinds of questions we ask? The two questions aren’t mutually exclusive, but repeating the same assignment isn’t the only option. It’s also possible to have students do the same assignment but alter it so that it becomes more challenging and progressively develops the targeted learning skills.

I would also consider how I’ve been sequencing those assignments. The order and timing of learning experiences does make a difference. Most of us who teach beginning students schedule an exam early on so that unrealistic expectations for unearned success can be corrected. But we need to dig deeper and revisit the reasons why we’ve opted for the order and timing of all our assignments.

Finally, I think that most of the time students experience assignments as isolated events. They don’t see connections and relationships between them. Maybe the assignments aren’t related, but they could be and if they are, then the targeted learning skills are developed in more than one way. If the learning experiences in a course are integrated, that enhances both content acquisition and learning skill development.

References: Pascarella, E. T., and Terenzini, P. T. How College Affects Students: Twenty Years of Research, Volume 1. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

Pascarella E. T., and Terenzini, P. T. How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research, Volume 2. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.

  • D. Black

    "If I were teaching now, I would deal with assignment selection and sequencing differently…" I respectfully doubt that you would. Theorizing about proper teaching is an entirely different matter than teaching (perhaps with the exception of teaching the theory of teaching.) Every morning I get a half dozen emails like this blog post with a great new approach to teaching that usually can be summarized as "spend more time thinking about what you're doing." Therein lies the problem. The typical teaching load coupled with the ordinary system of rewards and punishments militates against faculty investing serious skull-time on the the nuts and bolts of running their classes. As long as those structures are in place, exhortations such as this will do nothing but increase the vague sense of guilt that many faculty have that their undergraduates are not really getting what they're paying for.

  • Karl Schnapp

    Although my teaching practice resides at the corner of Regret Street and Guilt Avenue, it's not only faculty who are beginning to believe that "undergraduates are not really getting what they're paying for."

    • D. Black

      Agreed. I'm convinced however that the problem is that there are only 168 hours in a week and that institutional structures are actively discouraging people from spending anywhere near enough of them on teaching. I possess knowledge and good ideas. What I don't possess is a "time freeze" button that can give me adequate time to implement and assess them while still performing scholarly and administrative duties that, when poorly executed, actually will cost me my job. The stakes for poor teaching just aren't as high.

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  • George Joeckel

    As an Instructional Designer working in higher education, I think Dr. Weimer is spot on in emphasizing the importance of sequencing learning activities and exploring the connections and relationships between assignments.

    I also understand D. Black's frustration in trying to balance increased instructional demands with static (or decreasing) development resources–especially time.

    At Utah State University we have developed a tool to address the practical need to create a detailed and accessible schedule of activities for online students. The tool is free under a Creative Commons license. Here's a video that shows how the tool works:

    The tool also allows instructors to create a "design blueprint" for a course which they are building for the first time, or in the process of revising. By exploring various sequences for modules, activities and dates/times, an instructor can create a course structure that works for her or him, before building the course in a learning management system (LMS), or other types of support technology (websites, wikis, etc.).

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  • professorh

    It sounds like you're missing the important "transfer of learning" component that students need to help them make initial connections to real situations. Jane Vella has written about the importance of measuring behavior that takes place after a course. If students don't put what they learn into practice, how impactful was the experience and what was the point of the journey?