[dropcap]I [/dropcap]am thankful for Jennifer Trainor’s insightful “Assignment Details: What if You Provide Too Many?
” She raises what should be a real concern for teaching professors: Am I doing too much for my students? In other words, are teachers compromising student learning when we compose templates, extensive instructions, rubrics, and guidelines to help student navigate our assignments? And are all of these things, what Edward Schuster labels “mythrules”? Trainor fears that when professors remove the ambiguity that occurs naturally in complex problems, we rob students of the opportunity for intellectual growth. She says the “challenge is to find the balance” in helping our students—to define the teaching space that exists between students blindly following teachers’ directions and being confused and directionless.
Like most pedagogical literature that makes me pause, I spent much of my time nodding in agreement while muttering to myself, “Yes, that’s true.” Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about the proliferation of rubrics for every conceivable assignment, especially the extreme ones that do details unto death. So, I think Trainor addresses something important for higher education. We don’t make lifelong learners by reducing rich assignments into recipes and how-to’s.
At the same time, I find Trainor’s analysis incomplete; I see so many exceptions that challenge her generalizations that my muttering has turned into “Yes, but…” For example, since her 2014 posting, researchers have discovered a lot about “background knowledge” and the role it places on determining success in school. Consider the Morris, Gruenberg, Sykes, and Merrick (2016) study, which found subjects who possessed a stronger understanding of a topic beforehand had a much better ability to memorize new statistics regarding that topic. This finding has enormous ramifications for researchers who test for general reading comprehension. By extension, I think this study is relevant to this conversation in that it identifies an additional dimension of assistance that teachers may have to supply when they teach to all students.
Do some students succeed in school because they can “do school” better than others? Sure they do. Years ago, Mike Rose wrote in Lives on the Boundary
how many of his students failed the social dimension of school because as immigrants they didn’t understand the American school bell system or had working lives that strained their school lives. Likewise, an assignment sheet that outlines the assignment’s purpose, skills, knowledge, tasks, and assessment levels that playing field. It makes clear to both the students and
the instructor what the assignment entails. If such a template makes the assignment “accident-proof,” let’s have more “safe driving” assignments that keep everyone focused on the assignment. We don’t want students driving around aimlessly wondering about the rules of the road and where they're supposed to be going.
Also, let’s not forget how accreditation agencies have made us all assessment conscious (if not obsessed). They want clear college mission statements and a host of goals—academic and administrative department, program, and course goals—so it makes sense to transfer transparency to assignment goals.
Other problems arise, too. I question the assumption that every assignment has to furnish the same level of specificity. For instance, later in a semester, professors could give students more choice in their assignments, like picking an audience, selecting a topic, or determining the length of their essay, within a given range. Maybe the final two assignments in any course could offer students more significant options: author the assignment check sheet, generate criteria, or even create an assignment.
These signpost signals are similar to the ones we professors follow when writing for journals and book publishers: How long should it be? What style manual is standard and what edition? How detailed should the abstract be? The list goes on. Professors read a “call for papers” or “guidelines for submission” looking for clear answers; they rightly resent when the answers are framed as puzzles to put together. Do program chairs and editors compose those calls and guidelines to reduce the chances for “accidents”? I sure hope so! Then let’s give that same assistance to students.
As students acquire background knowledge in a subject, teachers can offer greater choices and fewer directives. Essentially, teachers should supplement those choices with clearly written assignments, scaffolded by their progress in the course. Such layering gives students a better chance for success and, correspondingly, reduces the energy needed for “doing school.” A transparent assignment sheet improves both teaching and learning.
Until students have that background knowledge, they should not be penalized by ambiguous instructions that require too much guesswork for our novice learners.