[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne of the luxuries of this online format that we didn’t have when The Teaching Professor
was a print publication is the ability to pursue topics more thoroughly, to come at them from different directions, and to assemble collections of resources related to them. We decided to take advantage of this newfound freedom by starting off the new year with a collection of materials on assignments. We’ll be sharing installments in your weekly updates across the next four months.
Why assignments? Lots of reasons. They’re an integral part of every course. If not the only way, they’re certainly one of the most important ways students learn the content. It’s pretty tough to complete a writing assignment and not have an up close and personal encounter with at least some of the course content. Assignments also develop essential skills, such summarization, analysis, application, synthesis, and evaluation, in other words, right up Bloom’s taxonomy. Depending on our goals for student learning, assignments can develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, writing skills, interpersonal skills, and a whole host of skills that might be needed to complete a complex project.
And yet, despite their importance, assignments don’t always get the attention they deserve. Busy teachers tend to recycle them, sometimes for too long, lots of times without careful review and updating. Not only are assignments regularly recycled within a course, they’re used with some consistency across courses. There’s not as much creativity and innovation in assignments as there could be.
Finally, assignments aren’t always designed as carefully as they could be. They don’t clearly specify what students should do or why they should be doing it. When that happens, students get sidetracked trying to figure out what the teacher wants. Students learn early on that different teachers want different things, so they confront teachers with their need to know. “I don’t understand what you want in this assignment.”
For students, assignments become these things that teachers make them do. Most students see assignments as grade generators, not learning experiences.
In this series we will explore assignments with a variety of articles, examples, and other resources. We’ll get into assignment transparency and the thorny issue of how much teachers should tell students about what they want. We’ll share some examples of assignments that aren’t particularly clear and illustrate how students respond to them. We’ve devised an assignment template that can be used in the design phase; clarifying assignment goals, identifying the knowledge and skills to be learned by doing the assignment, and highlighting those features of the completed assignment that indicate students have learned what was intended. We’ll share versions of the template that can be distributed to students. We also are working on a collection of creative assignments—new ideas that can be used in a variety of courses and disciplines.
All of this is coming your way as we take a look at assignments and propose ways they can achieve more and better learning for students.
And finally, I’ve had the good fortune of working to develop these materials on assignments with my colleague, Gary Hafer. Gary is a professor of English and the John P. Graham Teaching Professor at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa. You can see the first article to grow out of our collaboration here
. We welcome your feedback throughout the coming months.