Editor's Note: As announced in the previous post, we’re starting off the new year with a collection of materials on assignments. This marks the first installment.
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]e’re interested in assignments. To us, they seem like a vital aspect of instruction that goes largely unexamined. What sparked our interest was the way students so often respond to written assignments: "What do you want?"
or "I don’t understand what you want in this assignment.”
What follows is an exchange that clarified our thinking about assignments, the students and teachers involved in creating and completing them, and the growing concerns being voiced about the need for greater transparency in assignments. We found our conversation evolved from how professors and their students understand assignments differently to how professors actually write
assignment descriptions for their students. We ended up with questions as to what should be included in assignment descriptions, and what's best to leave out. That led us to create a template that Gary has been using in his courses. We think it's broadly applicable and will share it in a subsequent installment of this series.
We'd be the first to admit that we don't have the last word on this subject. Rather, we discovered a process that seemed as insightful as the conclusions we reached. Our dialogue underscored how we need to keep talking to one another about assignments (and the writing of them) because it’s complex and difficult to unfurl alone and it takes some time—and a community—to consider them.
Why are students so focused on trying to figure out what the teacher "wants" in an assignment?
Students focus on what the teacher “wants” because their schooling has engrained that response whenever students confront assignments. I’ve taught writing for more than 30 years, usually to students who (at least, initially) hate writing. Frequently, they equate the good or passing grade with uncovering the secret model teachers have in mind but don’t reveal. It’s easy to understand how students could think this way. They are simply responding to the precise role teachers have set for them in the past: “Check your grammar,” “Write with a clear thesis in mind,” and “Proofread!!!” All that advice, without examples, still doesn’t show how to execute it in an assignment. Students and teachers define these terms differently when it comes to integrating them in their own writing. I suspect the way teachers write their assignments sets the precedent for ignoring their audience—the students!
: I agree. Teachers know what they want in an assignment but don’t reveal that to students. Maybe that's because they think what the assignment asks students to do is obvious, or maybe teachers think there’s merit in students figuring out what they should be doing in the assignment. If the teacher specifies exactly what she wants, doesn’t that make the assignment too easy?
Furthermore, I think teachers tell students what they want (good grammar, a thesis statement, and clean text) in generic terms, assuming students understand. Students may think they understand, too. As you pointed out, they hear these admonitions regularly. But when students don’t deliver on the advice, teachers blame the students, and students chalk it up to another unsuccessful attempt at trying to figure out what the teacher wants. Sounds like a vicious cycle to me.
Yes, it is a cycle. One way to break it involves professors crafting writing assignments that include context to increase the chances for a successful response—specifying a purpose, a length, a problem, an expected form, a task, and a reason for writing. When faculty don't specify the context, students (often incorrectly) supply it. Writing is already hard enough and when students have to guess at the context—what the teacher wants—that adds another layer of difficulty.
By context, do you mean the assignment details? It sounds like you're recommending a teacher specify all of them. That continues to concern me. If a teacher defines all the contextual parameters, that compromises the rigor of the assignment—it just plain makes it too easy. It’s almost the equivalent of giving the student the answer. When do students learn to figure out these things for themselves? I would hope that at some point in an academic career a student would be able to produce a professional-looking paper that appropriately reflects the disciplinary context without needing the teacher to supply all the details.
When I’m talking about context, I mean all the things that affect how writing is read. For the writer, context frames the factors affecting what an audience (even if the professor is the only audience) broadly expects.
Context comprises many elements: What is the purpose or aim for this assignment? What stances or positions are possible for the writer—informational, persuasive, etc.? How long should the writing be? Is there a convention the writer needs to observe for this piece of writing? I think these encompass what students, who are learning to write, need to know to have good practice. For example, companies that solicit personal statements and cover letters from applicants frequently supply context because employers know that the writer-applicants stand outside the organization right now. Likewise, our students lie outside the fields in which we studied.
I think instructors must remember, even while they are writing assignments for their students, they are committed to maintaining a pedagogical relationship with their students. In other words, they continue to teach them how writers think about any given writing prompt or problem. Faculty who give students contextual cues with examples rather than just precepts or advice increase the chances for a successful assignment. By supplying context, teachers show how they will interact with the text.
But Gary, when teachers give students examples, students just try to mimic the examples. It’s another case of students trying to copy something rather than create it; trying to do what they’re supposed to do rather than exercising their own discretion. How do you get students beyond thinking they need to model, as in precisely replicate, the approach taken in the example?
I do think your point about students responding to writing as readers is a good one. I’ve had good luck giving students three sample essays answers: one good, one bad, and one average. They don’t have trouble picking out the good and the bad, but they struggle to explain in concrete terms what makes one decidedly better than the other.
I like your strategy of students completing a comparative exercise first rather than dictating criteria and having students blindly apply them.
At the same time, we learn to write better by example. In your illustration, students are comparing and contrasting examples to find what is better by degree. And so we learn to write inductively, taking models, differentiating them, and improving the best one (we hope) through rewriting.
Conversely, the deductive method is the most common and the most ineffective: “Write well,” “Proofread,” and the like just don’t work. It’s akin to giving blanket advice; it sounds helpful until writers try to convert the precept to their own practice.
When I want to write an article for a particular journal, I see how other, successful writers “have done it” in that same journal—their use of a particular grammatical person, kinds of illustrations and data, average sentence length and complexity, documentation style, etc. Isn’t that following an example, i.e. “copying” another? In fact, the oldest writing instruction is imitation, established first by copying and later, by imitating the same grammatical structures with the writers’ own content. Using imitation, writers learn how to pour their content into those structures.
Of course, specifying context does not rule out giving a “range” of options. For instance, faculty can specify that “the number and quality of references in the paper should resemble the models we studied in class” or they can ask students to base their argument "on five to seven references that use the college database resources we practiced in class.”
And how many students do you think will submit a paper with four or 10 references? I’d put money on virtually all the papers having 5 to 7 references. That’s my point. Students aren’t considering the topic or looking at their content and deciding on an appropriate number of references. They think the teacher wants 5 to 7 references and they find the specified number whether they need them or not.
I wonder if we examined the number of references in our favorite journals if the same situation presents itself: the same number of references and citations whether they are “needed” or not. I once had a conference abstract
rejected because I hadn’t located the references in the right place, the abstract. I had included them in the description. In my estimation, I didn’t need them in the abstract, but I hadn’t really weighed what made a good abstract for the audience reading conference proposals.
Students still need to make decisions but, as in most writing situations, major decisions have already been made. It’s the same for the faculty member. No journal contributor is reinventing a documentation style for the article she hopes to place. Editors expect her to follow not only a format but the way faculty in that discipline argue points, make evidence, and draw conclusions.
The faculty member writing an article for the first time for Scientific American
or the student writing an anthropology research paper for a new professor face the same questions about contexts—who’s the audience, what's the purpose of my article or paper, etc. Only the answers differ. As one student concluded today in class, “I never had that professor before and so I didn’t know what to expect.”
Successful writing assignments are as difficult for the teacher to write as they are for students to execute. By specifying context, professors can make their intentions clear and therefore help their students succeed.
Interesting. So, are you saying that most decisions about contextual details like tone, style, and format have already been made and so they can’t be made by the student writing a research paper or a faculty member writing an article for publication? The issue for students is that they have to learn identify what’s been decided and what they can decide. Your point then is that specifying the context helps students learn how to work on a paper within a set of parameters.
So, in a nutshell, your answer to the question of why students get focused on what the teacher wants is this: Students quickly learn that different teachers want different things and, although most teachers try to clarify what they want, they do so with terms and phrases they think students understand or should understand. Meanwhile, students try to deliver what the teacher wants but fail because they don’t define those terms in the same way as their teachers. The solutions are providing more contextual cues in assignment descriptions and by sharing examples that illustrate what the teacher wants.
Right. I would urge professors to supply the context explicitly: How teachers define the purpose of the assignment, the knowledge and skills students should gain, the tasks students should perform, and so forth. These all work together to define context.
As Peter Elbow showed 40 years ago, faculty don’t write in just one “academic discourse”; there are many “academic discourses
” in higher education. Each discipline defines the way it speaks and writes by the way it weighs opinion, hard evidence, literature reviews, authorship, credibility of sources, lines of argument, and so on. The typical way we name how these elements interact is context.
As professors who care deeply about teaching, we need to explain context to our students. But first we must ask the important questions about any assignment:
- What is the purpose of this assignment?
- What skills will I gain?
- What knowledge should I expect to attain?
- What should I be able to say after I complete the assignment?
- How will I be assessed?
When we answer those questions, we reshape our assignments into learning experiences.