Rethinking Expectations About Assignments
Katherine Stanton, Princeton University
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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Hutchings, P. (2005, January). Building pedagogical intelligence. Carnegie Perspectives. Retrieved July 11, 2005, from www.carnegiefoundation.org/perspectives.
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