David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

Pedagogy Unbound: How to Make Your Assignments Better

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I’ve written before about the potential benefits of using old student papers as a teaching tool to give your current students a better sense of what's expected of them. I still think it’s a sound idea — it offers students a concrete idea of what a good essay looks like. But a reader who questioned the approach raised a valid point: “One of my colleagues … had students read and discuss graded work. … Guess what: Many still submitted poor quality work.” She added: “At some point, we need to recognize that no matter how much we do, learning still requires students to do their own work."

I certainly agree with that truism, but I think we need to carefully balance realism (about student effort) with determination (to do everything possible to help them learn). While it is true that none of us can make a student learn on our own, we can create the circumstances within which our students are most likely to learn best.

I've been thinking about these issues lately because — like you — I've been spending most of my "free" time grading papers. Grading student assignments can be a strangely nerve-racking experience. Aside from the sheer amount of labor required — which I'm sure I don't need to tell you about — there's the added anxiety incurred when opening a student's work. What will be inside the box? Will the student surprise me with excellent writing and a creative approach? Or will this be one of the essays that misses the point entirely?

There are always at least a few duds. But why? An informal survey of my colleagues reveals that bafflingly poor student work — the kind that seems to show no evidence of the student even reading the instructions — is a persistent and vexing fact of teaching. And maybe that commenter on my earlier column was right: There's no way to stamp it out completely, so we shouldn't drive ourselves crazy incriminating ourselves.

But I still wanted to find out if there was anything more I could do to keep those unfortunate failures to a minimum. Are there ways to make sure our students fully understand our assignments? I did some reading on the subject, and came up with some suggestions.

  • Offer both a big-picture and a close-up view of the assignment at the outset. Research done by the Transparency in Learning and Teaching Project has shown that offering students a clearer and more transparent picture of their assignments before they start can lead to better results, particularly among student populations that typically perform poorly. That means explaining the overall goals you have for the assignment (what knowledge you want students to gain, what skills you want them to practice), the particular steps you expect them to follow in completing the work, and the specific criteria you will use to evaluate them. Putting in extra work at the outset to make sure that students fully understand what's being asked of them can save you work when it comes time to grade.
  • Show examples, and keep them online. As I've written before, I'm not crazy about rubrics, because they tend to use abstract concepts to try to explain grading criteria. Instead, I use past graded work to show students a range of possible responses to the assignment prompt. I usually have students read and grade previous students’ work(with their names removed) before I explain the grade I gave, and why. It's a good idea to keep such samples online, so students can refer to them as they work on their own assignments.
  • Teach students how to complete the assignment. Allyson Hadwin has suggested making "task analysis" a graded part of assignments. That is: Ask students to answer, in writing, questions about the goals of the assignment, the tasks necessary for completion, the teacher's expectations, etc. Remember that being able to complete a college-level assignment is itself a skill, and some students — particularly first-years — may need to be taught how to do that. In any case, it's a good idea to check in frequently with students to make sure they're not straying too far off course as they do their work. Taking a few minutes in class to remind students what they should be doing for their assignments can pay dividends down the line.
  • "Dogfood" your own assignments. This last suggestion is perhaps the most extreme, but it makes so much sense it's a wonder teachers don't do it more often. Jennifer Gonzalez, who writes about teaching on her Cult of Pedagogy site, wrote last year about "dogfooding" — the tech-world practice of trying out a product like a consumer before bringing it to the market. Completing your own assignment before giving it to students, Gonzalez writes, has many clear benefits: You'll be able to notice, in advance, potential problems. You'll be able to write clearer instructions. And you may very well discover that the assignment doesn't match up completely with your course goals, and that you need to make changes. Of course, I understand why most of us aren't in the regular habit of dogfooding our assignments: Who has the time? But the more I think about it, the more I think it's worth the effort. Shouldn't we be willing to do what we're asking our students to do?

There's no way to ever completely eliminate sloppy student work. But it's worth questioning our usual practices and making sure we're doing all we can to help students do their best. Because a poorly done assignment isn't just a bad grade for the student; it's a missed opportunity for the teacher.

Want more teaching tips? Browse the Pedagogy Unbound archives or start a thread in our teaching group.

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