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.