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Giving Students Assignments They Hate

It's Worth Discussing

Giving Students Assignments They Hate

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Editor’s note: The following article is part of a series called It’s Worth Discussing, in which we feature a research article that is especially suitable for personal reflection and group discussion with your colleagues.

Why this article is worth discussing: Student engagement continues to be a priority. Faculty are advised to reach out, make connections, and go to students with relevant assignments and activities. Here’s an article that proposes the opposite. The author gives students an assignment they hate, and she contends there are reasons to give students tasks that make them uncomfortable. It’s worth discussing what kind of learning occurs when students confront a task confidently and when they face new learning full of trepidation.

The article

DeWall, N. (2016). Millennials by heart: Memorization as an active learning strategy for the SparkNotes Generation. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 27(4), 77–91.

A synopsis

DeWall gives students an assignment they hate. First, they must scan, paraphrase, and memorize a self-selected passage or poem from one of the assigned texts. Then they recite the memorized material to her in private before teaching the passage to classmates in a short, interactive presentation. Finally, students write a low-stakes reflective essay about the experience.

The article explores the rationale behind the assignment, why it’s appropriate (especially for today’s college students), and what they learn by doing it. Even though the article describes an assignment few faculty will ever use, it addresses a much larger issue: Should teachers push students outside their comfort zones, and what are the consequences of doing so?

Key quotations and discussion questions

1. The rationale for giving students assignments they hate

“The assignment’s ability to make students uncomfortable increases its value” (p. 80).

“Piercing millennial students’ egos allows them to be open to truly transformational learning. Therefore it is neither necessary nor desirable for the classroom to feel like a seamless extension of our millennial student’s native worlds” (p. 80).

“Students sharpen their metacognitive skills when they memorize, teach, and reflect upon their poems; they also leave my classes with constant companions that may just help them make sense out of their lives. For these reasons, I continue to ask my student to commit verse to memory every semester, despite their objections (and, often, my colleagues, bewilderment)” (p. 87).

  • Most faculty work to make classroom environments feel safe and comfortable. Does giving an assignment that makes students uncomfortable compromise that objective?
  • Does an assignment that causes discomfort produce a different kind of learning? If so, how does it differ, and is it a better kind of learning?
  • What happens when a learning task takes you outside your comfort zone?
  • How much discomfort is enough? Too much? How does a teacher make that determination?
  • How many of our assignments cause discomfort? Enough? Not enough?
  • Do you give students an assignment they really don’t like? Why or why not?

2. The place teachers and students should meet

Although DeWall acknowledges that most of us fall somewhere between these extremes, she claims that college instructors have two choices when it comes to today’s students:

“We can ‘meet them where they are’ or ‘stand our ground.’ In starkest . . . terms, the former approach requires us to completely adapt our instructional methods and course content to accommodate millennial students’ consumer mindsets, shorter attention spans, need for constant feedback, and native technological literacy. If, in contrast, we choose to ‘stand our ground,’ we stubbornly refuse to kowtow to the demands of millennial students (and their parents), and we preserve our classrooms as sacred spaces, free of distractions and the anesthetizing effects of technology” (p. 79).

  • Are college teachers doing too much or not enough to accommodate the needs of today’s college students?
  • Does DeWall’s portrayal make these position too dichotomous? Is there a space between where students are and where the teacher would like them to be in their development as learners?
  • Is asking students to come to those places where we are a legitimate request? Are there ethical issues involved? If so, what are they?

3. Supports for students dealing with assignments and activities they find uncomfortable

Here’s the supports DeWall provides. When she introduces the assignments, she recites some poetry from memory and talks about how those poems have influenced her life. After that,

“I choose a new poem to memorize alongside them every semester” (p. 84).

Additionally, DeWall models

“metacognition by describing to students in detail how our own memorization processes have evolved as a result of reflection” (p. 84).

She illustrates with personal examples.

DeWall also encourages students to learn from each other. There is time provided each week for students to discuss their memorization efforts. She invites theatre students to come to class and talk about how they learn scripts. She has students read first-person accounts of the memorization process and its rewards (p. 84).

  • Given the nature of this assignment, is this enough or too much support? What kind of support would you provide for an assignment like this?
  • Can a teacher provide too much support and end up coddling students instead of letting them experience the discomfort and the potential learning that results from the assignment?
  • What methods might a teacher use to determine and appropriate amount of support for an assignment that causes discomfort?

4. Identifying the kinds of assignments and activities that cause discomfort

  • If you give students and assignment they hate, what is it?
  • What kind of assignment could you give that students would hate? Why would they hate it? Because they don’t think they can do it? Because they’ve tried something like it and failed? Because they think it requires an ability they don’t have? Because they think there’s a chance they’ll look foolish in front of others?
  • Were you ever given an assignment you hated? Did you learn from it? 

For further reflection and discussion

Beyond skills and concrete assignments that engender this visceral response is learning that causes a different kind of discomfort and emotional response. I wrote about this in a blog post that opens with one of my favorite quotations:

“Probably the most violent and aggressive act that any person can do to other persons is to invade their minds with ideas and twists of meaning which disturb the comforting security of things known and faith kept. Yet this is what I, as a teacher, am required to do.”
R. W. Packer, “Breaking the Sound Barrier: A Dramatic Presentation,” in Teaching in the Universities: No One Way (McGill-Queens University Press, 1974)

This learning often comes in assignments students don’t think they’ll like or expect to find painful. It may be a reading assignment, class discussion, or paper topic, but it reveals a misunderstanding, something the student should have known or that challenges a long-held, cherished belief. What students discover is unsettling, disconcerting, sometimes even frightening. Learning requires change, sometimes a small adjustment and sometimes a large, transformational alteration.

Disturbing new realities are best confronted in the company of others. Our classrooms should be places where students can discuss not only what they’re learning but also how those discoveries fit within their view of and place in the world.

Sometimes when the learning gets uncomfortable and starts being painful, students try to avoid the confrontation. They hold on to their old ways of thinking, defending them with great fervor, or refuse to look at the facts or challenge those facts’ veracity. Peter Elbow writes about this interaction between new learning and old understandings; he too describes the confrontation as violent:

“Good learning is not a matter of finding a happy medium where both parties [what’s being learned and who’s learning it] are transformed as little as possible. Rather, both parties must be maximally transformed—in a sense deformed. There is violence in learning. We cannot learn something without eating it, yet we cannot really learn it either without being chewed up.”
—Peter Elbow, Embracing Contraries (Oxford University Press, 1986)

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