[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or our next installment in this series on assignments, we’d like to share an assignment template that we think can be helpful to teachers and students. Let’s start with how it can help teachers.
It’s no surprise that we think many teachers could do a better job designing assignments and communicating the various assignment details to students. Our template aspires to offer help on both those fronts, and we provide two examples for download later in the article.
We format our assignment template by creating five main sections: purpose, skills, knowledge, tasks, and assessment. Providing context for each of the template’s sections helps ensure alignment between assignment details and course goals. What are the goals the assignment is accomplishing? Are they the course goals that need advancing? Thinking about the role individual assignments play in the course as a whole makes it easier to see how one assignment relates to the others, how assignments can build on each other, and how they can form an integrated set of learning experiences for students. This kind of analysis results in a deeper understanding of assignments, individually and collectively.
Using the template to guide assignment construction helps teachers develop some important instructional skills, like instructional design and revision. Assignments are key learning experiences in a course, and the way they are put together shapes not only what students learn in the course, it shapes how they learn it. Assignments can be structured in different ways, comprised of different tasks, and sequenced in different orders. The template lists those tasks. If you start with the pieces, you can put together assignment details that make sense and you can see where that assignment fits in the larger course picture. Understanding how the design elements of an assignment work together makes communication about the assignment easier. You know what you want, and you’ve thought through the rationale that justifies what you want. You can decide how much of that gets communicated to students. If they’re confused you can communicate more.
The template also includes identification of the assessment criteria. Providing students with this information upfront preempts the “what do you want” question. You may decide to format the assessment criteria as a simple list, a checklist, or as a rubric.
So, the template works for teachers as an assignment design tool. You can also share the completed template with students
and that would be to their benefit, in our view. You can give them the whole template or a condensed version of it. Earlier articles in this series have raised questions about how many assignment details students need and teachers should provide. The far ends of that continuum are easy. An assignment with too many details and requirements overwhelms students and reinforces the idea that assignments are only about doing exactly what the teacher wants. However, assignments without details or directions means students are spending lots of time and energy devoted to trying to figure out what the teacher wants rather than doing the assignment work. Good assignments find that sweet spot somewhere between, and the precise location of that spot won’t always be the same. It depends on the nature of the assignment, the goals it’s being used to accomplish, the course level, and the intellectual maturity of the students.
The template’s description of the assignment in terms of the skills and knowledge it develops highlights its learning potential, which is something we think students often miss. Assignments are more than grade generating mechanisms. Sharing the skills and knowledge advanced by the assignment also helps students see the connection between assignments and course goals. There are reasons why they’re being asked to do certain things in an assignment. Beginning students will likely benefit the most from having a concrete list of tasks that will identify how they will know if they’ve done what the assignment asks.
The best way for you to decide on the merits of the template is to see one. What follows is a template that describes an assignment related to the course syllabus. It’s an assignment Gary developed and uses. We’ve described it on the template generically so it could be used in a wide variety of courses. That first template is followed by a second that shows the same assignment as Gary uses it in his rhetoric course. It illustrates how the template can be adapted—changed so that it fits the course, its instructor, and students.
Download generic template »
Download sample template for rhetoric class »
A word about the Personal Statement Response to the Syllabus
assignment. . .
What’s the rationale behind an assignment like this? It’s pretty simple: students don’t read the syllabus. This necessitates spending most (all?) the first day “going over” the details of the course. Teachers use this approach to help make sure students know what’s going to be happening in the course. How well the approach works depends on how well students listen. It’s also an approach that garners an unintended result. The lengthy delineation of course details sends the message that students really don’t have to read the syllabus. If they need to know something about the course, they can ask the teacher.
This assignment offers an alternative approach—one that encourages (more like requires since it’s an assignment) students to read the syllabus. It holds them responsible for finding out what’s happening in the course and establishes the norm that course information can be found in the syllabus. Beyond that, the assignment asks students to respond to the course, and react to its activities and the work they’ll be required to do. It gives students the opportunity to ask questions and voice concerns. Finally, it prompts them to see the course in a larger context—how it fits in with what else they’re studying and what it might contribute to their professional goals.
The success of the assignment depends, in part, on the willingness of the professor not to discuss the syllabus—answer questions, yes, but no extended delineation of course details. The assignment design ensures that most students will discover on their own what they need to know about the course. And that leaves the professor free to do something more worthwhile on the first day.
[perfectpullquote align="full" size="20"] Other articles in our series on assignments:
Assignments: A Theme for the Coming Semester
“I Don’t Understand What You Want in This Assignment."
What Happens When an Assignment Is Unclear?
Assignment Details: What if You Provide Too Many?
Assignment Details: What if You Provide Too Few?