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Rethinking Expectations About Assignments

Try approaching your course as though it were a research project, with a set of questions or problems you're committed to answering or solving.

As teachers interested in creating and using meaningful assignments, we need to reconsider what it is we expect our assignments to accomplish. We also need to shift our students' attitudes about the purpose of our assignments.

We propose the following strategies for creating and using assignments that maximize learning.

  • Identify Questions That Motivate Your Course. Try approaching your course as though it were a research project, with a set of questions or problems to answer or solve. Choose readings, organize lectures, and design in-class activities that will help students focus. Putting the emphasis on a search for answers will help you create assignments that ask students to be "actors in the learning process" (Bain, 2004).

In a course on geography and gender, Tamar Rothenberg, a colleague, asked her students to investigate how some places and activities are coded as male or female. How do gender roles and gendered spaces vary from place to place and over time? To engage her students as actors in the learning process, she sent them into the field.

One assignment required them to choose places to observe and to record same-gender and cross-gender interactions. They then presented a report analyzing how the spaces were gendered in terms of population, interaction, and atmosphere. As Rothenberg put it, the assignment gave students "a new consciousness of how gender is lived in varying ways even in their own small world" and enlivened their future reading and essay writing. Consider how your assignments can ask students to make disciplinary or professional discoveries.

  • Identify Questions That Motivate Your Students. As Rothenberg's assignment demonstrates, we can use students' curiosity about themselves or the world as a springboard for stimulating interest and learning in our courses. One way to start is to highlight the professional implications of what your students are doing. More specifically, consider what assignments will engage students in scholarly or real-life debates involving the questions you've posed, such as position papers, argumentative essays, letters to the editor, or policy briefs. Effective classes are often organized "around some sort of controversy" (Light, 2001).

Advancing a point of view different from one's own or answering possible objections to an argument deepens students' understanding of how knowledge is constructed. Assignments that encourage students to play "devil's advocate" provide opportunities for them to practice both analysis (Where are the weaknesses in my argument? Why wouldn't the opposite of what I say here be true?) and synthesis (How can I advance a more convincing argument by taking both of these points of view into account?). This kind of work helps counter the tendency to simply affirm or refute.

  • Plan a Sequence of Assignments. Students benefit from sequencing: completing assignments that build on one another and culminate in a substantial project. An example of sequencing would be to assign a proposal and rough draft for an independent research paper or project. Another would be to require students to develop, in order of increasing difficulty, the elements of a grant application. In both cases, the instructor would give feedback at every stage. Before they get going, it's important to give students the opportunity to engage in what Peter Elbow calls "first-order thinking," intuitive, creative, and uncensored work upon which students can build (Elbow, 1986). In other words, encourage brainstorming.

In a social history class, Peter Felten, a colleague, designed an assignment intended to, in his words, "divide and conquer" a significant research task. In order to prepare students to conduct primary source research in the Vanderbilt University Special Collections, Felten had each of them briefly annotate a portion of the archives so that classmates later could use the archives more efficiently. Felten reports that because no such annotation existed previously, his students saw this assignment as very meaningful. Moreover, the students created such useful and thorough annotations that the librarians asked to keep the annotations so that future researchers might benefit from them as well.

This example shows how much students are able to achieve if professors create meaningful assignments—with appropriate scaffolding, like feedback—that allow students to do original work.

Sequencing provides frequent opportunities to discover what students have learned and where there's room for growth. Because sequenced assignments provide a sense of what students have learned, they allow us to make adjustments to the content and method of our teaching, matching both to students' needs. They also help project with more certainty how far we can encourage our students to go.

  • Give Formative Feedback. Giving formative feedback as part of a sequenced assignment enhances students' intellectual discovery. As teachers in the humanities, we give feedback on rough drafts that pushes students to ask sharper questions, make more nuanced claims, read more closely, and pursue the implications of a single line of thinking. Like the assignment itself, formative feedback emphasizes what your discipline or profession values; it gives specific, constructive suggestions for how students can make their arguments more persuasive or their solutions more effective.

It's also a lot of work. With guidance, students can assume some of the responsibility for giving formative feedback by exchanging and reviewing one another's work in pairs or in teams. To make such "peer review" work, you'll need to model the process of giving formative feedback. Asking students to exchange work has another benefit besides making the feedback process more efficient: students begin to feel they are part of a scholarly community.

  • Encourage Metacognition. Students also benefit from deliberate discussion about how assignments in a particular class are helping them develop disciplinary or professional expertise. For example, they should understand that homework problems for an algebra or calculus class are the means by which one develops a mathematician's problem-solving skills. Similarly, an ethnographic study of the habits of roommates does not just generate insights about messiness; it is the tool most cultural anthropologists use to carry out their research.

Focusing attention on this sort of disciplinary awareness helps students develop metacognition skills—the ability to reflect on and analyze their own ways of thinking and learning.

This development allows students to "get past the idea of learning as something that happens to them (or not), [and] to see their education as something they can create and control" (Hutchings, 2005).

We can encourage this development by creating non-graded assignments for which students comment on their own work, describe the process they used to solve a problem, explain why they chose one method or technique over another, annotate their plan for a research project, or create a concept map for what they've learned so far in a course. Such assignments work to effect a change we all want for our students: for them to become producers, rather than mere consumers, of knowledge.

References & Resources

Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bean, J.C. (1996). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (Expanded ed.). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Elbow, Peter. (1986). Embracing contraries: explorations in learning and teaching. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fink, L.D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hutchings, P. (2005, January). Building pedagogical intelligence. Carnegie Perspectives. Retrieved July 11, 2005, from

Light, R.J. (2001). Making the most of college: Students speak their minds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Walvoord, B.E. & Anderson, V.J. (1998). Effective grading; A tool for learning and assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2001). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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